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Twitter suspends Saudi accounts that stoked rumours of coup in Qatar

Accounts purported to belong to members of Qatar's royal family and fabricated statements from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch
It remains unclear why Twitter took so long to identify the network and delete the accounts linked to Saudi Arabia (AFP)

Twitter says it has deleted more than 30 accounts that stoked rumours of a coup in Qatar and which are linked to Saudi Arabia. 

Dubbed "Royal Sockpuppets", some of the fake Twitter accounts assumed the identity of real members of the Qatari royal family, with one of them pretending to be the account of Fahad bin Abdullah al-Thani, who lives in Saudi Arabia. Prior to its suspension, the fake al-Thani account had one million followers. 

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The network of accounts also pretended to represent a Qatari government in exile, with several of them changing their usernames and wiping their earlier tweets in a bid to gain legitimacy, according to the Stanford Internet Observatory.

The observatory also identified fabricated Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch statements, alleging that al-Thani had been tortured in a Qatari prison. 

It also showed how the network of accounts had pushed out content related to narratives critical of Turkey's role in Libya and mocked Qatar with long hashtags. 

Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, who specialises in disinformation on social media, identified the network of Twitter accounts pushing claims of a coup in Qatar. 

Back in May, he had explained on Twitter how the network of accounts was spreading rumours of a coup plot inside Qatar. 

"It's not clear why Twitter took so long to suspend these accounts," Jones told Middle East Eye. 

"Twitter either gets a tip-off or does an investigation internally to see if there are links to these different accounts. They also rely on tip-offs from intelligence agencies. We can easily guess that it's Saudi Arabia."

Ex-Twitter employee charged with spying for Saudi Arabia

In September this year, a former Twitter employee charged with helping Saudi Arabia spy on its critics pleaded not guilty to almost two dozen criminal counts filed against him. 

Ahmad Abouammo had pleaded not guilty to 23 criminal charges, including acting as an unregistered foreign agent and obstructing an investigation.

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Abouammo had been arrested in November 2019 in Seattle and charged with spying, as well as with destroying, altering or falsifying records in a federal investigation, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. He had also pleaded not guilty at the time. 

According to a complaint filed in a California federal court, Abouammo, a dual citizen of the US and Lebanon, accessed the data of two Twitter accounts whose users had been critical of the Saudi royal family and then provided those details to a Saudi official close to the royal family.

Abouammo had been working as a media partnerships manager for Twitter's Middle East and North Africa region at the time, from November 2013 to May 2015.

In April 2020, Twitter announced a second takedown of accounts linked to Smaat, a Saudi digital marketing firm co-founded by an individual with links to the Saudi royal family. 

This network included accounts that claimed to belong to ordinary citizens in various Middle Eastern and North African countries. Their tweets expressed support for Saudi Arabia’s allies in their supposed home countries. 

In December 2019, Twitter suspended 88,000 accounts linked to Smaat that had been critical of the kingdom's regional rivals Qatar, Iran and Turkey.