At the end of August, Twitter, Facebook, and Google had announced that they had taken down a large number of accounts promoting ‘Iranian propaganda’ with anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes. Iran currently bans its citizens from accessing Google, Facebook and Twitter and severely throttles the speed of it citizen’s internet access to frustrate attempts to access any western media.
According to cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc, which first spotted the suspicious activity, the alleged propaganda campaign made use of fraudulent social media personas spread across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google Plus, and YouTube. According to the companies the campaign was Iranian-linked and pushed narratives in line with the country’s interests with content aimed at users in the United States, Britain, Latin America and the Middle East.
Iran also uses a monitoring system installed by Nokia Siemens Networks which intercepts the communications of all of its citizens. The system, known as ‘Deep Packet Inspection’ was provided to Irantelecom and intercepts web-based communications and archives them for Iranian law enforcement officials.
There do exist a multitude of ways to encrypt one’s data traffic and become invisible to Iranian censors and law enforcement, and thus gain access to blocked websites. So it is entirely possible for legitimate users to be caught up in this ban wave. Unfortunately, due to the deletions of the accounts and materials KCW Today cannot independently confirm if all accounts banned from the platforms were indeed illegitimate users.
The Prince of Twitter
It is worth keeping in mind that Twitter’s second largest shareholder is Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, who in 2011 invested $300 million into the company and now owns 5.2% of it. If you don’t know who he is, or why this is particularly noteworthy (besides the optics of a Saudi Prince owning a huge stake in a company that’s now cracking down on anti-Saudi propaganda among other things) you should know that in 2017, the prince was one of many wealthy individuals arrested and detained in the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. CNN and other outlets reported that he was released after allegedly coming to a financial settlement with the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman.
One might naturally arrive at the conclusion that one thing leads another and that His Royal Highness Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud is influencing people at Twitter behind the scenes on the marching orders of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to stamp out the influence of anyone speaking out against them anywhere they have the power to do so.
Stamping Out Dissent
They have in fact been stepping up efforts to quash dissent at home. The Saudi Public Prosecution announced through Twitter that publishing, sending or copying statements of mockery, satire and incitement, or anything else that would harm the public order through the social media or any other technical means, would be considered a crime of information. Anyone producing or distributing such material could face up to five years in prison and an $800,000 (£623,000) fine.
Prosecutors have in the past used the Gulf kingdom’s anti-cybercrime law to prosecute critics of the government. But the latest announcement emphasises that satire can now also get social media users in serious trouble.