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Marc Owen Jones

Saudi trolls hijacking dead people's Twitter accounts to amplify Riyadh propaganda

Saudis checking out a Dubai tech show. Riyadh is infamous for its 'troll army' [AFP]

Date of publication: 25 February, 2019

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When an American TV weatherman started tweeting support for the Saudi regime, people started asking questions. Not least because the meteorologist had been dead for two years...

While not many of us outside the United States will know David Schwartz, the Weather Channel meteorologist was well-known enough for The New York Times to report on his tragic death from cancer in July 2016.

Despite his passing, many of his fans have been upset to discover that his Twitter account has been posting pro-Saudi propaganda from beyond the grave.

Like many TV personalities, Schwartz had a Twitter account that he used to interact with his many followers. However in 2018, two years after his death, some people noticed that his Twitter account was again active. The name on the account had changed, but the Twitter handle (the unique username for every account) remained the same; @twcdaveschwartz

What's more, it was retweeting information specifically about Saudi Arabia. Whoever ran the account had changed the name to Al Qassim Events فعاليت القصيم. Some of the tweets were about events being held in the Saudi governorate of Al Qassim.

Angered when they discovered this, meteorology student and Twitter user @spectrumaots wrote to whomever had taken over the account, asking them to "give up ownership of the account because it's disrespectful to dishonor someone who died of cancer".

Shattering the sanctity of blue-tick verification

Despite a number of people complaining to Twitter about the phenomenon, Schwartz's account remains verified - though all tweets have been deleted - raising questions about Twitter's security and verification process.

The blue tick verification badge was originally designed to let people know the account was authentic and of public interest. The blue badge has come to be associated with a mark of credibility and legitimacy. In an age of fake news and fake accounts, it lets people know that your account is real.

There are no longer any tweets on Shwartz's account; the last to be deleted was a lone retweet from March 2018 originally posted by the Saudi poet Ziyad bin Nahit. Bin Nahit was briefly imprisoned for taking a video of himself criticising the Saudi media's onslaught against Qatar during the outbreak of Gulf crisis.

Upon his release, he issued an anti-Qatar poem. It was rumoured that his release was contingent upon him criticising Qatar, and toeing the Saudi government line.

It is not clear why that retweet would remain on the account after all others had been deleted - although it would appear that whomever was in control of the dead man's account had been tweeting "at" the Al Qassim account to praise the region of Al Qassim, and its governor, Prince Faisal bin Mishal Al Saud.

This has led to some speculation that the account may have, at some point, belonged to the Saudi prince himself.

Fox Business News analyst Sheyna Steiner's account
lost its 'blue-tick' verification after it started
tweeting Saudi propaganda [Click to enlarge]

Not just the one account

David Schwartz is not the only person to have his verified Twitter account hacked by pro-Saudi entities.

Sheyna Steiner, an American financial analyst who has appeared on Fox Business News (among other things), had her account hijacked by a pro-Mohammed bin Salman troll.

The new account, going by the name Abd al Aziz al Harthi, was incredibly active until last week, mainly tweeting pro-Saudi regime hashtags and praise for MBS.

Motivational speaker Jeff Emmerson also had his account hijacked by Saudi advocates attacking anyone critical of Riyadh's treatment of political prisoners.

Emmerson's account was screenshotted retweeting Saudi-user @Fayez_101, saying "We demand that the French authorities release immediately 1500 French citizens and give them an amnesty, as its Christmas".

Fayez_101 was responding to the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs' official Arabic Twitter account, which had just called on the Saudi authorities to pardon human rights activist Raif Badawi on the occasion of Ramadan.

As if that wasn't enough, Nicole Jade Parks, a former Olympic skier who competed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics also had her account hacked. While there are no tweets on her timeline (at the time of writing), many of her followers appear to be pro-Saudi bots or trolls, with patriotic banner profile and display pictures.

Other accounts tweeting Saudi regime propaganda

Although it is alarming that verified Twitter accounts are being hijacked to promote the agenda of Saudi-based entities, this only appears to be the tip of a much wider problem. I recently identified a number of people who had their accounts hijacked by people who have subsequently tweeted on topics reflecting the Saudi regime's views on domestic and foreign policy.

Tanner Chidester, an American fitness guru, had his account hijacked by someone contributing to a viral hashtag criticising Qatar. One of these hashtags was "Hey donkeys it's a boycott not a blockade". Another user had their account hijacked by someone tweeting in Arabic on a hashtag protesting against women in Saudi being given the right to drive.

Soon after I wrote about this strange phenomenon last week, Sheyna Steiner and another account I identified, @N20, lost their verified status. Nicole Jade Parks and David Schwartz remain verified. Other than this, it is not exactly clear what Twitter are doing about the problem.

The fact that a number of the compromised accounts remain verified suggests they either don't know (unlikely), don't care, or more worryingly, are unable to verify the apparent hacking.

The hijacking of accounts, combined with the increasing weight of evidence pointing to gross Saudi-sponsored manipulation of Twitter, should worry those concerned about fake news, propaganda, and digital security.

Propaganda and fake news on Twitter has become so endemic that people in the region use the term "electronic flies" to describe the scourge of Twitter bots promoting (mostly) pro-Saudi propaganda. The report of a Saudi mole within Twitter's San Francisco HQ has also increased concerns that somehow the regime has been able to manipulate the social media platform on multiple levels.

While Twitter clearly have much to do in terms of combating propaganda and disinformation, the least they should do is respect the memory of David Schwartz, a man beloved by many - and certainly someone who does not deserve to have legacy tainted by self-promoters and propagandists.

Marc Owen Jones is an assistant professor in Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamid bin Khalifa University in Doha, and an honorary research fellow at Exeter University.

Follow him on Twitter: @marcowenjones 

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