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'Disgraceful': How Saudi loyalists have responded to the Khashoggi disappearance

Khashoggi's fiancee has been targeted on social media following his disappearance, and users have pointed the finger at Qatar and Turkey
Missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi with Hatice Cengiz (Screengrab)

The disappearance and suspected murder of veteran Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week has set off a storm of reaction on social media.

Mostly, users have been sharing shock at the news, but amongst the posts of mourning, as well as hopes that the news might prove untrue, Saudi loyalists have been flooding social media with theories of their own.

Turkish officials told Middle East Eye that they know what happened to Khashoggi after he entered the consulate building, claiming that they are sure that he was assassinated inside.

They have not yet provided evidence or spoken on the record regarding the details of their investigation.

But Riyadh has insisted that Khashoggi left the consulate alive, and that they are unaware of his whereabouts. However, they have provided no evidence for him leaving the premises.

The Saudi consul-general, Mohammad al-Otaibi, said on Saturday that Khashoggi was not in the consulate or in Saudi Arabia after the consulate was opened to Reuters journalists.

“We are worried about this case,” he added.

However not everyone was so concerned about the fate of Khashoggi.

'Pro-Saudi Twitter bots' 

While Turkish sources maintain their certainty of Khashoggi’s assassination, with CCTV footage shows Khashoggi entering, but not leaving - social media has been filled with posts smearing Khashoggi and his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, and blaming Turkey and Qatar for his disappearance.

And some posts use the exact same wording

Another account, known as "the Saudi alliance" on Twitter, even theorised that Cengiz is actually a man posing as Khashoggi's fiance.

Users have accused Saudi-run outlets of spreading propaganda, as well as claiming that much of the unusual theorising online is being spread by bots.

One user went back through Cengiz’ tweets and wrote a thread on Twitter poking fun at her, and questioning her relationship with Khashoggi.

The user also labelled Cengiz as part of the “Qatar blockade gang", quoting tweets she had posted in support of the Gulf country after Saudi Arabia and allies severed diplomatic ties last year.

In an attempt to deflect blame, one user also brought up the case of a US pastor who has been held in Turkey, and at the heart of a diplomatic row between the two countries:

"This isn't a case of differing opinion on the facts, it's abuse of social media by state actors using bot accounts on a large scale to confuse narratives, spread false information and harass opponent," said Ahmed Gatnash, co-founder of the Kawaakibi Foundation, a think-tank which works to promote liberal values in the Muslim world, speaking to MEE.

"Twitter have repeatedly been informed of this and urged to act."

Common use of 'bot' accounts 

This is not the first time "bots" have been used to amplify Saudi narratives of events. Assistant professor of history at the Exeter Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Marc Owen Jones, has researched the use of "pro-Saudi Twitter bots" to amplify online speech which is in favour of the kingdom. 

Following a diplomatic row between Riyadh and Canada after Ottawa called on the kingdom to release political prisoners, a similar flooding of social media in support of Saudi Arabia took place. Many accounts were again using the same phrases and wording in their posts criticising Canada. 

The Saudis on Tuesday rescinded an offer they made originally to allow Turkish forensic experts onto the premises.

Their offer was withdrawn after Turkish media outlets published a list of 15 Saudis who arrived in Istanbul on the same day Khashoggi disappeared.