Twitter Minimized Saudi Spy Infiltration, New Emails Show
Exclusive "Twitter Files" show Twitter executives downplayed the significance of a Saudi spy network operating within the company.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the effective ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has ruthlessly pursued critics of his government, especially those spreading dissent on social media.
The effort has included the alleged hacking of dissident phones, the scheduled execution of a retired Saudi teacher for airing criticism on YouTube and Whatsapp, and the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, whose online critiques of the KSA led to his dismemberment.
Twitter, now known as "X,” was a central target of the Saudi government's efforts.
The government, through a social media public relations firm called Smaat Co., recruited a team of spies and a vast bot network to manipulate Twitter. Former Twitter employees were allegedly bribed to gain illicit access to the personal information of anonymous Twitter accounts critical of Salman.
One of these former employees, Ahmad Abouammo, received over $300,000 in cash payments from Saudi agents and a luxury Hublot watch valued at over $40,000 in exchange for accessing over 6,000 accounts on behalf of Saudi Arabia, with a focus on the most vocal critics of Salman.
The Twitter spying campaign is alleged to have led to the kidnapping and torture of Saudi residents, such as Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, who operated an anonymous Twitter account critical of the government.
Inside Twitter's corporate offices, there was an internal debate about how much to disclose regarding Saudi Arabia's infiltration of the company and its potential impact on business relationships and millions of dollars of advertising revenue. The chatter intensified shortly after the FBI arrested Abouammo on November 5, 2019.
Sean Edgett, then serving as a Twitter attorney, wrote, "Team -- As you're now aware, the recent indictments of two former Twitter employees who are charged with spying on behalf of the Saudi government has implicated one of our advertisers; Smaat."
Smaat, noted Edgett, “is a significant advertising partner for Twitter in the region, responsible for ~$4M in spend thus far in 2019.”
While the company terminated the Smaat account and many associated bot accounts, Twitter executives sought to mitigate damage to its ad partnerships and relations with the Saudi government. Benjamin Ampen, a Twitter executive at the time, expressed concerns about the perception that Twitter was taking sides against Saudi Arabia as a whole.
“I want to make sure we minimize as much as we can a situation where advertisers and partners would have to ‘take a side,’” noted Ampen.
Sarah Personette, then serving as a vice president of global client solutions at Twitter, suggested editing the company’s statement to “originating in Saudi Arabia” instead of “connected with the Saudi government.” The final public statement included this change.
Yoel Roth, the former head of the Trust & Safety team at Twitter, suggested removing any mention of Smaat, but this suggestion was not fully adopted. The final public statement briefly mentioned Smaat but did not disclose many details known internally.
The public statement made no mention of the spy network, and focused only on a newly identified and “significant state-backed information operation on Twitter originating in Saudi Arabia.” The network, Twitter claimed, promoted spammy accounts and "amplification of discussion around sanctions in Iran and appearances by Saudi government officials in Western media."
In reality, Twitter executives were well aware that Smaat was in fact a high-level intelligence operation closely tied to Salman and its own employees, who had been compromised with bribes and other inducements.