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Twitter suspends account of former aide to Saudi crown prince in latest purge

By Jamie Harris, PA Science Technology Reporter

A former senior aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, accused of playing a role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has had his Twitter account permanently suspended.

In the social network’s latest purge on manipulation, Saud al-Qahtani’s account was taken down for allegedly violating its platform manipulation policies but it did not disclose specific details about his behaviour.

Qahtani’s account was one of thousands permanently suspended in Twitter’s sweep of user activity it classes as platform manipulation, amid concern about misinformation and election meddling in recent years.

Twitter targeted a number of operations that it believes are state-backed political spam, ranging from the Yemeni civil war to the protest movement in Hong Kong.

Some 4,258 accounts tweeting out of the United Arab Emirates mainly directed at Qatar and Yemen were suspended, which Twitter said often used fake names and posted about regional issues.

The company claims it found evidence of another 267 accounts created and managed by a private technology firm called DotDev, which operates in the UAE and Egypt, targeting Qatar and Iran, as well as posting “amplified messaging supportive of the Saudi government”.

Saud al-Qahtani is among a list of 16 people publicly designated by the US State Department for their alleged roles in the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi (pictured) (Johnny Green/PA)

A smaller group of six accounts linked to Saudi Arabia that passed themselves off as independent journalistic outlets tweeting things favourable to the Saudi government were also detected.

Elsewhere, 259 accounts Twitter identified as “falsely boosting public sentiment” online in Spain by its Partido Popular political party were removed.

And more than a thousand accounts from Ecuador, largely believed to be fake, were taken down for spreading content about President Lenin Moreno’s administration, about issues such as Ecuadorian laws on freedom of speech, government censorship, and technology, posted by governing party PAIS Alliance.

The social network said it plans to “enhance and refine” its approach to disclosing state-affiliated information operations on its service.

“Transparency and openness are deep-seated values at the heart of Twitter which define and guide our methodology around these disclosures,” the company explained.

“We intend to more routinely disclose data relating to state-backed information operations on the service using our @TwitterSafety handle and in future iterations of the Twitter Transparency Report.”

Following up on the exposure of a network of more than 200,000 fake accounts attempting to sow discord about the protest movement in Hong Kong last month, Twitter also published additional datasets relating to 4,302 accounts.