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Hacked Twitter accounts used to promote Saudi Arabia, leadership

12 Feb, 2019 17:57:00

Several verified Twitter accounts have been taken over by pro-Saudi operatives and some have been used to promote Saudi Arabia or its leadership, according to an academic who researches digital propaganda and Twitter bots.

At least four verified Twitter accounts, including one that belonged to a US meteorologist who died over two years ago, appear to have been hacked and sold to pro-Saudi entities, Marc Owen Jones wrote in a blog post on Saturday.

A verified Twitter account usually signals that the person maintaining it is who they claim to be.

One of the verified hacked accounts originally belonged to Weather Channel meteorologist David Schwartz who died in 2016.

That account, @TWCDaveSchwartz, has now been followed by dozens of pro-Saudi and Saudi-based accounts.

The account itself appears to have posted a single tweet, which praises the al-Qassim region of Saudi Arabia, and its governor, Prince Faisal bin Mishal. But a screenshot of the same account taken in 2018 shows it was used to promote tourism in Saudi Arabia at the time.

Jones, an assistant professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, said that verified accounts were more desirable as users are more likely to accept them as a legitimate source of information.

"[A verified account] would gain credibility and followers more rapidly than a non-verified account," Jones told.

"In practice, it is limited by the fact you cannot change the handle, meaning anything obviously incongruous would stand out in the local context," he added.

Jones identified several other profiles that were taken over, including one belonging to Sheyna Steiner, a personal finance writer who previously appeared as an analyst on Fox News. 

Steiner's account has posted and re-tweeted dozens of pro-Saudi posts in recent days. On Sunday, the account lost the blue "verified" tick mark it had a day earlier, but it continued to tweet messages promoting Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS).

One of the messages included a picture of King Salman and Prince Mohammed, saying "we are all Salman, we are all Mohammed".

Another tweet from the account said: "I tell those idiots who have been reporting my account since yesterday, do so... Your actions will not stop me from defending my country," and then claimed that "if my account is shut down there are a thousand others".

The tweet also included several hashtags calling Saudi Arabia and the Saudi leadership a "red line", a reference to Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir's comments that calls for a change in leadership in Saudi Arabia are a "red line".

Another verified account, seemingly hacked, is that of Australian Nicole Jade Parks, a former Winter Olympian.

Although the profile has no recent tweets, it is followed by numerous pro-Saudi and Saudi-based accounts, similar to the accounts that follow the Schwartz and Steiner accounts.

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