The “Army of Flies” and the Spread of Disinformation
Millions of citizens in Saudi Arabia interact on Twitter daily, and pro-democracy advocates originally argued that social media could increase transparency in this authoritarian monarchy. Instead, the Mohammed bin Salman regime has used social media to spread disinformation and government propaganda. In an effort to manipulate public opinion, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s closest aide, Saud al-Qahtani, developed a massive network of inauthentic government-sponsored Twitter accounts called the “army of flies.”
The “army of flies” uses a combination of hundreds of real and fake Twitter accounts to drown out opposition, particularly after the Crown Prince receives international criticism. The Twitter bots used by the Mohammed bin Salman regime often feature links to the government-sponsored news outlet Saudi 24. These fake Twitter accounts attempt to alter public opinion by spreading disinformation on a variety of issues. Hate speech, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy theories are common.
In 2018, a diplomatic disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Canada occurred. Amid international criticism, a pro-Mohammed bin Salman Twitter account posted a threatening photo of the Toronto skyline. This photo featured a caption that stated: “He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him.” While this bot account later deleted the tweet, threatening messages such as this are common in bin Salman’s “army of flies.”
Drowning out the Opposition
Upon the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist and political dissident, there was widespread speculation that the bin Salman regime was responsible. In an effort to limit the scope of this conversation, the Saudi government flooded Twitter with the Arabic hashtag “We all trust in Mohammed bin Salman.” Within three days of Khashoggi’s tragic murder, this hashtag appeared more than 1.1 million times.
While the bin Salman regime benefits from people believing the disinformation it propagates, that is not the primary purpose of the “army of flies.” Instead, this authoritarian regime’s main goal is to drown out the opposition. International outcry and domestic political dissent could change the political landscape of Saudi Arabia if this speech was unregulated. As a result, Mohammed bin Salman uses thousands of fake pro-government tweets to mitigate the damage of the real anti-bin Salman ones.
Attacking Political Dissidents Through Twitter
In addition to spreading propaganda and limiting the voices of the opposition, the bin Salman regime also uses Twitter to spy on and attack political dissidents. In 2019, the Saudi government recruited two high-ranking Twitter employees to access the private data of two political dissidents, a news anchor and a staunch critic of the regime. This attack on the media and a popular domestic political dissident signifies vast autocratic consolidation from the bin Salman regime.
In the public sphere of Twitter, close bin Salman aid al-Qahtani urged Saudi Twitter users to expose Qatar sympathizers after the two states severed diplomatic ties. Al-Qahtani asked Saudis to add these names to #TheBlacklist so that they could be investigated. This intimidation effort was another largely successful method of attacking dissidents through social media.
Autocratic Consolidation in Saudi Arabia
When Mohammed bin Salman was named Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia, many Western leaders and Saudi citizens were optimistic that the new leader was a reformer. At the beginning of bin Salman’s reign, he advocated for both economic reform and women’s ability to drive. Despite these reform efforts, bin Salman has proven to be an aggressive attacker of his critics. The use of social media to uncover the identities of these dissidents and to silence them has been both creative and effective.
In the famous political scientist Dahl’s (1972, 3) Polyarchy, he identifies three broad requirements for a state to be considered a democracy. First, citizens must be able to formulate their preferences. Citizens must also be able to signify these preferences to both their fellow citizens and to the government. Finally, these preferences must be weighted equally. No one would argue that Saudi Arabia is a democracy. However, for steps towards democratization to be possible, allowing citizens to formulate their preferences is essential.
Mohammed bin Salman’s manipulation of social media attacks Saudis’ ability to formulate their preferences in two primary ways. Dahl (1972, 14-15) emphasizes that citizens must have access to alternative sources of information for democratization to be possible. Until bin Salman developed his “army of flies,” Twitter provided an outlet to other sources of information in Saudi Arabia, even though it was regulated. Today, pro-government bots drown out any sources of information that could be perceived as anti-bin Salman. By further limiting Saudis’ access to alternative sources of information, bin Salman is participating in autocratic consolidation.
In addition to limiting alternative sources of information, bin Salman’s social media manipulation also limits Saudis’ ability to formulate their preferences by limiting freedom of expression. While freedom of expression has never been an established right in Saudi Arabia, journalists such as Jamal Khashoggi, who was originally sympathetic to bin Salman and considered himself a patriot, felt comfortable criticizing the government on Twitter. Intimidation tactics enforced through the “army of flies” and #TheBlacklist have limited the opportunity for expression even further. Despite prior enthusiasm towards bin Salman’s future as a “reformer,” his use of disinformation and attacks on dissidents through Twitter display clear signs of autocratic consolidation in Saudi Arabia.