New disclosures to our archive of state-backed information operations

By @TwitterSafety
Friday, 20 December 2019

Transparency is at the heart of everything we do at Twitter. That’s why we routinely disclose datasets of information operations we can reliably link to state actors. 

These datasets live in our public archive of state-backed information operations – the largest of its kind in the industry. First launched in October 2018, the archive has been accessed by thousands of researchers from around the world, who in turn have conducted independent, third-party investigations of their own.

State-backed information operations originating in Saudi Arabia

Today, we are sharing comprehensive data about 5,929 accounts which we have removed for violating our platform manipulation policies. Rigorous investigations by our Site Integrity team have allowed us to attribute these accounts to a significant state-backed information operation on Twitter originating in Saudi Arabia. 

These accounts represent the core portion of a larger network of more than 88,000 accounts engaged in spammy behaviour across a wide range of topics. We have permanently suspended all of these accounts from the service. In order to protect the privacy of potentially compromised accounts repurposed to engage in platform manipulation, and in response to researcher feedback requesting that we pre-filter unrelated spam, we have not disclosed data for all 88,000 accounts. In the interest of offering meaningful transparency, the dataset we are disclosing includes a representative, random sample of the fake and spammy accounts associated with this broader network. 

We have also shared information about this activity with our peer companies to enable investigations of related activity on their services, and the relevant law enforcement entities. 

Here are some additional distinct features of the accounts we’re disclosing today:

  • Our internal analysis shows the network was involved in various forms of platform manipulation, targeting discussions related to Saudi Arabia and advancing their geopolitical interests on the world stage. Primarily, accounts were amplifying messages favourable to Saudi authorities, mainly through inauthentic engagement tactics such as aggressive liking, Retweeting and replying. While the majority of the content from this network was in Arabic, a portion of it related to events relevant to Western audiences, including amplification of discussion around sanctions in Iran and appearances by Saudi government officials in Western media.  
  • Our investigations have traced the source of the coordinated activity to Smaat, a social media marketing and management company based in Saudi Arabia. Our in-house technical indicators show that Smaat appears to have created, purchased, and/or managed these accounts on behalf of — but not necessarily with the knowledge of — their clients. We have permanently suspended Smaat’s access to our service as a result, as well as the Twitter accounts of Smaat’s senior executives. Smaat managed a range of Twitter accounts for high-profile individuals, as well as many government departments in Saudi Arabia. 
  • Many of the accounts involved in the overall network employed third-party automated tools in order to amplify non-political content at high volumes. As a general matter, the use of automation to Tweet helpful content — like crisis response info or weather updates — is not a violation of our rules. However, this behaviour was, in part, strategically employed in an attempt to mask the overall platform manipulation originating from these accounts. These tactics made it more difficult for observers to identify political Tweets in the timelines of accounts, which mostly shared automated, non-political content. 

What’s next

We exist to serve the public conversation around the world. To this end, we’ll continue to take strong enforcement action against any state-backed information campaigns which undermine our company’s mission, principles, and policies. 

For more information on the processes and principles behind this work, see here

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