Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and Saudi regime critic, was murdered on October 2nd, 2018 by the Saudi Arabian government inside a Turkish Consulate. Fumbling for a secure alibi that did not exist, the Saudi government instead publicized false claims that Khashoggi was still alive. When this lie became apparent to the world, heads turned to Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), for answers. MBS denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s assassination plans, further altering the narrative of his murder. On February 26th, 2021, the United States released an intelligence report countering the crown prince’s statement. The U.S. report, promising medium to high confidence, determined that it was the crown prince himself who approved the operation.
Khashoggi’s death has no doubt served as a pivotal example of media freedom destruction; and still, the Saudi government’s attempts to prevent further damage to the crown prince’s public image have even further escalated its silent war on disinformation. Saudi Arabia’s scarce democratic institutions continue to struggle under this added pressure, creeping towards further autocratic consolidation. This dangerous relationship with disinformation, coined as digital authoritarianism, is not an uncommon phenomenon among autocracies around the globe.
This form of digital authoritarianism stems from anxiety within the Saudi government, exacerbated by their attempt to recover from national and global criticism regarding Khashoggi’s death. Prior to the release of their intelligence report, it was long anticipated that the U.S. would confirm the claims against the Saudi Prince. On the line of defense, the Saudi government came well prepared to counter the United States’ account of Khashoggi’s death. By utilizing disinformation to flood global media networks with support for the crown prince, the Saudi government attempted to drown out the accusations at home and abroad.
Expecting the U.S. response, Twitter users surged to the surface of the conflict in support of Mohammad bin Salman, just prior to the report’s release. The tweets fired at U.S. news agencies including The Washington Post, CNN, and NCB News, in an attempt to dispel allegations against the Prince. Marc Owen Jones, a disinformation researcher based in Qatar, identified over 600 Twitter accounts tweeting the hashtag #thepeopleofthekingdomsupportthecrownprince. Alarmingly, he also found that many of these posts were not made legitimately; in fact, they were made by bots operating under inauthentic accounts.
This phenomenon is not unique to Saudi Arabia. In Cuba, a social media analyst created a website to crack down on government monitored accounts. In one instance they identified nearly 200 fake accounts with 200,000 followers. Similarly, in the Philippines, false accounts were identified to have reached an audience of 3 million. Using the power of media to manipulate a population is becoming a widely used tactic across the globe. From the Persian Gulf to the Caribbean Sea, this strategy threatens to erode democratic institutions by deepening autocratic holds on the unfree.
While these propaganda mechanisms gain popularity in the world of information deprivation, the Saudi regime, in particular, has proactively clung to this defensive strategy. In 2015, Twitter charged two former employees for spying on behalf of the government. In 2019, Twitter suspended over 88,000 accounts tied to Saudi disinformation campaigns. The young Saudi prince is alarmingly aware of social media’s capacity to influence perceptions, particularly those of his critics.
The cascade of falsified sources does not stop with mainstream social media. An investigative documentary on Khashoggi’s death called “The Dissident,” received alarming rates of low scores on Rotten Tomatoes, a film-rating site. This trend continued on various websites as well. These scores, though not a proven link to the Saudi political establishment, can be entertained as an attempt to discourage potential viewers from watching the film and forming negative views of the government.
Although some could claim these falsified social media accounts and ratings share a perspective felt by a portion of the Saudi population, the imaginary user behind each post only serves to bolster support for MBS and to encourage his abuse of power. As a leader who took quick measures to consolidate power upon being named the crown prince, his silencing of journalists and amplification of artificial intelligence “voices” serves as evidence for his inability to manage regime critics.
Citizens of a non-democratic society deserve access to truthful information to create motivation behind political movements and measures of vertical accountability. When falsified information circulates throughout the internet with a dangerous potential to influence entire populations, this accountability is lost. Supplemented by the fear of imprisonment or even death for daring to vocally oppose the government, this absence of digital resistance transforms the country’s infrastructure into one built on falsehoods, rather than common truths.
The lack of access to factual information in Saudi Arabia pushes back progress the nation has made towards strengthening its democratic institutions in recent years. Social and economic reform, including efforts to liberate women, are extinguished by the kingdom’s manipulation of the media. As misinformation campaigns attempt to alter public opinion, it only reflects that Saudi’s delicate liberal institutions are descending steeply towards autocratic consolidation.
As the Khashoggi report spread across the globe, nation leaders grappled with how to manage this misinformation conflict. President Biden’s steps to reprimand the government included passive sanctions on the Saudi hit team while choosing to spare the crown prince. With the Saudis playing an essential role in the oil market, the opportunity cost of weakening a relationship with an essential ally outweighed that of accountability.
The evidence from the United States’ own analysis could not persuade President Biden to punish MBS. With a global balance struggling to combat the development of disinformation, the rare emergence of a common truth is a strong offensive mechanism. If the U.S. intelligence report is not used strategically, it may allow for oppression to remain unpunished, further increasing the risk of future misinformation attacks.
Jamal Khashoggi risked his life fighting to uncover the truth, while MBS risked his reputation to conceal it. Unless social media companies revolutionize new counterattacks against disinformation, or a stronger power holds governments like Saudi Arabia accountable, the war on disinformation will continue to escalate. Without this accountability, misinformation will only deepen the threat of digital authoritarianism, and liberal institutions will remain at risk.
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