Hundreds of accounts had been tweeting and retweeting pro-Saudi government tweets at the same time, with some using an Arabic hashtag that became the top worldwide trend on Sunday, according to NBC. The hashtag roughly translated to “We All Trust Mohammad Bin Salman,” the Saudi crown prince accused by Turkish officials of involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance and suspected killing.
NBC reported it presented Twitter with a list of the suspicious accounts last week. The company said it was already aware of the activity and had suspended an even larger number of accounts for violating spam rules, according to the network, citing an unnamed Twitter source.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist from Saudi Arabia living in exile in the U.S., vanished this month after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish authorities say they have evidence he tortured, killed and dismembered at the consulate on orders of the Saudi government. The Saudi government has denied involvement.
The bot operation reported by NBC urged people to express doubt about news stories reporting that Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate under orders of the Saudi government. One widely replicated tweet raged against coverage by Al Jazeera, owned by the government of Qatar, which has been at odds with Saudi Arabia.
President Donald Trump, who has reaped millions from Saudi royal family members staying at his hotels and resorts, has been reluctant to condemn Saudi leaders for Khashoggi’s disappearance, saying they must be presumed innocent. Trump on Thursday acknowledged Khashoggi likely is dead.
Trump has assailed the media as “the enemy of the people” and “fake news,” and has retweeted video of angry fans at his rallies jeering “CNN sucks” at reporters. United Nations experts have warned the president’s vitriol may “increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.”
Despite the grim circumstances surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump resumed his anti-press crusade at a campaign rally in Montana Thursday night, praising GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte for body-slamming a reporter for asking a question about health care. Gianforte was convicted of assault in the 2017 attack, fined and sentenced to community service and anger management classes.
“Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of guy,” Trump said.
Hamilton 68, which tracks Russian social media activity for the nonpartisan Alliance for Securing Democracy, also noted Thursday that “Khashoggi” was the fourth-top Twitter hashtag being pitched by bots with known links to the Kremlin.