Geoff Golberg watched his own face flicker across the screen in disbelief. A short video clip posted to YouTube and Twitter this March characterized him as a mortal enemy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The narrator, Hussain al-Ghawi, alleged Golberg’s “entire work aims at smearing Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE” — the United Arab Emirates — “by publishing fake analytics banning patriotic accounts and foreign sympathizers.”
Posted in Arabic with English subtitles, the eight-minute video, overlaid with fiery graphics and sound effects, was part of a regular series posted by al-Ghawi, a self-proclaimed Saudi journalist. A clip showed a photo of Golberg’s face, incorrectly describing him as a CNN journalist. Al-Ghawi said that Golberg’s work mapping state-directed social media manipulation had put Golberg in league with the kingdom’s top adversaries — namely the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. It was an accusation that Golberg found shocking, as well as frightening.
“It made me feel like it’s not safe for me to be doing the type of work that I do, even in the United States.”
“Seeing that video, with those types of accusations against me, it made me feel like my life might be in danger,” said Golberg, an expert on tracking social media manipulation and the founder of Social Forensics, an online analytics firm. “At the very least it made me feel like it’s not safe for me to be doing the type of work that I do, even in the United States.”
In the hands of an authoritarian state, social media can indeed be deadly. No more harrowing example of this was seen in the campaign of Saudi state-directed online attacks that preceded the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. In the months before he was killed inside Istanbul’s Saudi consulate, Khashoggi was the subject of an intense campaign of online harassment orchestrated by a Saudi government-backed network of political influencers and bots.
Referred to inside the kingdom as “the flies,” the network swarmed Khashoggi with threats and defamation, an effort that was documented in the 2020 documentary “The Dissident.” They painted him on social media as a treasonous enemy of the Saudi state — no small matter in a country where public discourse is tightly controlled and Twitter is the primary outlet for political conversation. Al-Ghawi himself has been accused of helping instigate the online campaign that marked Khashoggi as an enemy of the state.
The avalanche of attacks online culminated with Khashoggi’s murder at the consulate by an assassination squad believed to have been dispatched directly by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Golberg was well aware of the history. So when he showed up in al-Ghawi’s video, he was deeply alarmed: The threatening manner of the message felt not so different from the way Khashoggi was discussed before his death. Coming from a state where all media is tightly controlled, Golberg thought al-Ghawi’s video seemed calculated to send a message on behalf of the Saudi government to its perceived enemies in the United States.
Golberg said, “Characterizing my work as defending Hezbollah or Qatar — these are the types of baseless accusations from a government that has killed people for less, that make me want to look over my shoulder when I’m walking.”
Golberg wasn’t the only one to come in for al-Ghawi’s ire. The same clip characterized several Saudi activists with ties to the West as traitors and denounced a number of American activists and think-tank experts. Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, also known as DAWN, a Washington think tank focused on democratic norms in the Middle East, made an appearance, as did Ariane Tabatabai, a State Department official and American academic of Iranian descent who had worked for the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit that does frequent research work for the U.S. government.
Online harassment and disinformation have become political issues in the U.S., but in authoritarian countries the threat can be more immediately grave. Under the control of ruling regimes, the public sphere, including social media, can be completely weaponized. Saudi Arabia, ruled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has in particular demonstrated a willingness to go the distance and back up its online threats and intimidation by actually abducting and killing its perceived critics, even those living abroad.
“An important thing to keep in mind is that free expression in Saudi Arabia has been totally crushed under MBS,” DAWN’s Whitson said, referring to the crown prince by his initials. “These online messages are not coming from independent actors inside Saudi Arabia. There are no independent voices left coming out of that country today.” (Neither al-Ghawi nor the Saudi embassy in Washington responded to requests for comment.)
“These online messages are not coming from independent actors inside Saudi Arabia. There are no independent voices left coming out of that country today.”
For Whitson, the burden is particularly heavy: DAWN was Khashoggi’s brainchild and created in the wake of his assassination to carry the deceased dissident’s banner.
“There had been on a campaign to harass me for a long time even before the murder of Jamal, but it is has only escalated since then,” said Whitson. “There have been very coordinated attacks against our organization and against individual staff members.”
In many cases, such attacks start with al-Ghawi, one of a number of major pro-government Saudi influencers whose messages are amplified and shared by a network of pro-Saudi nationalists, bots, and other inauthentic accounts online.
Al-Ghawi’s video denouncing the likes of Golberg, Whitson, and others is part of a regular series posted on Twitter and YouTube called “Jamra,” or “the hot coal.” The short-form show, narrated as a monologue, is focused entirely on naming lists of enemies of the Saudi regime around the world.
There is little information online about al-Ghawi himself, whose bio on Twitter identifies him simply as a “Saudi Journalist.” The Jamra program, broadcast in Arabic with English subtitles, is published on al-Ghawi’s YouTube channel. Boasting over 120,000 subscribers, Jamra describes itself as “a political program that connects you with hidden information.” Al-Ghawi promotes the videos from the series on his verified Twitter account, where he has over a quarter of a million followers.
For Golberg, who says he does not have any interest in Middle Eastern politics, his appearance in a Jamra video indicated that he had provoked the anger of powerful people in Saudi Arabia. These actors, he suspected, were upset about his work tracking social media activity in support of the kingdom. Golberg had found analytic data showing widespread manipulation by bots and other inauthentic accounts on Twitter promoting pro-Saudi government messages.
Saudi Arabia was just one interest among many — Golberg previously published analytics studies of social media manipulation by supporters of XRP, a popular cryptocurrency, as well as supporters of President Donald Trump — but the kingdom’s pushback proved different. Nothing has triggered as much backlash or fear as his work on the Saudis, Golberg said. Worse still, when faced with these threats, which included a previous tweet from al-Ghawi in September 2020 accusing him and others of working for the government of Qatar and Hezbollah, the platforms themselves did nothing to help him.
“I wish that I were a celebrity or someone with a large, verified account, so that if I were to start sharing information about attacks against me on Twitter and YouTube, the platforms would feel compelled to remove it,” Golberg said. “People with big platforms have the power to get things like doxxing and death threats removed. But for the average person, when this happens, there is not much they can do.”
Golberg, for now, plans to keep documenting the phenomenon of online harassment networks. Yet the threats and attacks against him have had a deep psychological and emotional impact and left him conflicted about whether to continue. “I feel it’s important to keep shining light on the underbelly of platform manipulation,” Golberg said, “but the work I have been doing the past few years has really started taking a toll on me. It can be harrowing.”
In the summer of 2020, a report published in the New Yorker highlighted another target of al-Ghawi: former FBI agent Ali Soufan. After Soufan was alerted to credible threats against his life by the CIA that May, he also found himself being targeted by a virulent campaign of online threats and defamation. Soufan hired a cybersecurity firm that determined at least part of the online campaign involved officials of the Saudi government and that “the effort was started by Hussain al-Ghawi, a self-proclaimed Saudi journalist.”
According to the New Yorker, the analysis found that al-Ghawi had also played a key role in leading the online campaign against Khashoggi in the months before his death.
Soufan, who declined to comment for this story, is a decorated former FBI agent with close ties to current and former U.S. government officials. His stature and relationships might make Soufan a costly target for the Saudis. Other Americans who have come onto the radar of their defamatory social media campaigns, however, are more vulnerable, as are their families.
Mohamed Soltan is an Egyptian American who spent nearly two years in an Egyptian prison in the aftermath of a 2013 military coup, coming to the brink of death behind bars during a hunger strike that lasted over a year. Following an international outcry, he was finally released and returned to the United States in May 2015. Despite being a U.S. citizen living at home, his freedom from prison has not meant freedom from further harassment and threats, he said, whether by Egyptian officials or their Saudi allies — including Hussain al-Ghawi.
This March, al-Ghawi released a video on Twitter and YouTube as part of the Jamra series that described Soltan as an extremist who had plotted to carry out attacks against the Egyptian government. Al-Ghawi also painted Soltan as an enemy of the Saudi kingdom who was defaming its rulers through his support of U.S.-based human rights organizations. As evidence, al-Ghawi displayed an old photo of Soltan with Qatar-based cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a cleric often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which Saudi sees as a threat.
Soltan, who had been personal friends with Khashoggi in Washington and has familiarity with the modus operandi of dictatorial Arab governments, viewed the character attacks against him by al-Ghawi and others as a straightforward attempt to retroactively justify any future harm that he may suffer.
“These attacks are pretexts that they create so that later it plants seeds of doubt in the mind of the public,” Soltan said. “They pick a target and then character assassinate them to such a degree that if anything happens later, people will refrain from speaking about it. This is what they did to Jamal. They paint as much of a negative picture as they can in order to make people later say, ‘It’s complicated’ — if and when something does happen.”
Twitter’s ties to Saudi Arabia have come under scrutiny in the past. In 2020, two employees at the company were the subjects of an FBI complaint: They were accused of spying inside the firm’s office on behalf of the Saudi government, including passing along the phone numbers and IP addresses of dissidents.
Twitter periodically launches removal campaigns of pro-Saudi accounts found to be abusing the platform. In December 2019, several thousand pro-Saudi accounts were removed for violating Twitter’s “platform manipulation policies” shortly after public allegations about the two spies came to light. Last year, another 20,000 accounts said to be linked to the Saudi, Egyptian, and Serbian governments were also purged from the site.
Both Twitter and YouTube, however, seem content to allow ongoing campaigns of pro-government platform manipulation in English. The lack of moderation is even more pronounced in Arabic and other non-English languages. Golberg, the social media analyst featured in one of al-Ghawi’s videos, estimates that the ongoing pro-Saudi information campaigns on Twitter involve “tens of thousands of inauthentic accounts.”
“I’ve identified entire Saudi-based marketing firms that are helping run inauthentic accounts for the Saudi government,” he said. “Judging from the messages they’re amplifying, they are working with the government to not just push certain narratives but also to continue character assassinating journalists and members of civil society that the government dislikes. With those prior suspensions of pro-Saudi accounts, Twitter wanted to give the appearance that they cleaned up their platform a little bit. And they did, but there is still an incredible amount of the same activity taking place today.”
Al-Ghawi has continued to regularly broadcast his Jamra program, posting it on Twitter and YouTube. In early July, he released another video targeting the Quincy Institute, a noninterventionist think tank based in Washington, D.C. Like many of the other Jamra videos, the one on Quincy obsessively listed off individuals working for the organization who al-Ghawi said were of “Iranian-origin.” He also maintained his characteristic looseness with facts, falsely accusing at least one Quincy Institute employee, Eli Clifton, of having previously worked in the Iranian capital.
“It’s concerning to see a prominent Saudi Twitter troll, who played a central role in the social-media campaign against Jamal Khashoggi, targeting staffers at a U.S.-think tank with outright lies and fabrications,” Clifton, who has contributed to The Intercept, said in response to his inclusion in the latest episode of Jamra. “But it’s downright shocking that American tech companies — Twitter and Google — are knowingly hosting and assisting in the dissemination of this content.”
“Protecting the safety of people who use Twitter is of paramount importance to us,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “We have clear policies in place on abusive behavior, hateful conduct and violent threats on the service. Where we identify clear violations, we will take enforcement action.” According to Twitter, al-Ghawi’s tweets did not violate any policies. (YouTube did not respond to a request for comment.)
In the video on Whitson, al-Ghawi accused the DAWN executive director of taking “$100,000 to criticize Saudi Arabia and Egypt” — an accusation that she described as ludicrous. Whitson said that the online campaign directed by al-Ghawi and others has been a clear attempt to silence outside criticism of the kingdom over its foreign policy and human rights abuses, including the murder of Khashoggi.
The Biden administration has made public some of its own intelligence pointing to the Saudi crown prince’s role in the Khashoggi murder, but earlier this year stopped short of directly imposing sanctions on Crown Prince Mohammed and other high-level officials believed responsible for the killing. The failure to impose serious accountability, alongside the continued threats leveled by the Saudi regime against Americans and Saudi dissidents abroad, appear to be signs that the crown prince is unchastened and potentially willing to strike out at his critics with violence again. Pro-government influencers, prominent among them Hussain al-Ghawi, seem to be favored tools.
In one Jamra video, responding to allegations that he was marking out enemies of the kingdom for future harm, al-Ghawi characterized himself as merely a journalist performing a public service. “A journalist does not threaten, nor assassinate, nor kill,” al-Ghawi said. “A journalist’s ammunition is information, and their weapon is words.”
The language of al-Ghawi’s reassurance did little to comfort the Americans and others who are on the receiving end of his online campaigns, broadcast from an authoritarian country with a track record of killing its critics, wherever they may be.
“The Biden administration should ask itself what it is going to do to protect Americans from these attacks,” said Whitson. “As long as the Saudis feel that they have this uncritical U.S. backing, they’re going to continue to believe that they have a license to attack their critics in whichever way that they like. These coordinated attacks against people they dislike that begin online have already proven that they can be deadly in the real world.”