Fake news network vs bots: the online war around Khashoggi killing

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LONDON/DUBAI

On Oct. 20, Arabic-language website alawatanews.com published a report that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been forced out of power.

Citing the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA), it said King Salman had signed a decree removing the prince “against the backdrop of growing pressure that accompanies the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

The report was false. The SPA has never published such an article, the wording and picture were lifted from a year-old royal court announcement about the removal of a former crown prince and MbS, as he is widely known, remains in his position.

The story and the website that published it are part of a fierce information war being waged online over the killing of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi government last seen entering Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

Automated accounts known as bots have flooded social media in recent weeks, many of them promoting messages which support Saudi Arabia and are intended to cast doubt on allegations that the kingdom was involved in Khashoggi’s death.

But another effort has also sought to muddy the waters more broadly, using fake news websites and associated bots to sow confusion about developments inside the Saudi government.

Alawatanews.com is part of a network of at least 53 websites which, posing as authentic Arabic-language news outlets, have spread false information about the Saudi government and Khashoggi’s murder, a Reuters analysis shows.

Investigators at Israeli cybersecurity firm ClearSky said a review of host-server addresses and registration details showed the websites were operating as part of the same network. Many of them also have near-identical design layouts and web addresses, or have published the same or similar fake news reports.

The alawatanews.com report, which said MbS had been replaced by his brother because of the fallout from Khashoggi’s death, was typical of those articles. Another, published by a website called awwtarnews.com on Oct. 22, said an MbS aide had also been replaced for the same reason, which was not true.

After being published online, the false news articles were shared on Twitter by automated bot accounts — many of which repeatedly posted links to multiple sites from the network.

Reuters