An army of social media activists is being employed by the Saudi Arabian government to troll dissenters and shape a positive online image of the kingdom, according to an explosive New York Times story.
The investigative piece raises new doubts about the kingdom’s influence and investments in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and throughout the US. The kingdom is already under fire for its role in the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul by kingdom security and was reportedly a major target of the online trolls employed by the kingdom.
The online campaigns are part of what was described as “a broad effort” by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his close advisers to silence critics both inside Saudi Arabia and abroad. The Prince, known as MBS, most recently visited the country and had high-profile meetings with many of Hollywood’s major players and Silicon Valley tech moguls, as well as President Trump.
Endeavor is considering withdrawing from a $400 million Saudi investment in the company, following the disappearance of Khashoggi.
The holding company that includes one of the world’s pre-eminent talent agencies, William Morris Endeavor, has been working to determine how it might sever ties with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, sources say.
The sovereign-wealth fund acquired a less than 5% stake in Endeavor earlier this year, sources say.
Hollywood has been under mounting criticism of its embrace of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon, who in April was the guest of honor at private dinner parties at Rupert Murdoch’s vineyard in Bel Air, and whose guests included Disney CEO Bob Iger, Warner Bros. studio chief Kevin Tsujihara and actors Morgan Freeman and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and at the Santa Monica home of producer Brian Grazer.
The disappearance of the Saudi dissident has cast a different light on bin Salmon, whom press reports last spring dubbed “Prince Charming.”
The New York Times reports “hundreds” of workers at a “troll farm” in Riyadh look to attack anyone criticizing the Kingdom. The Times also reported that the Saudis may have recruited a Twitter engineer with access to personal information on dissenters. The engineer was investigated by Twitter and subsequently fired.
Twitter is very popular in Saudi Arabia, gaining strength in the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010. While citizens hoped the online service would help democratize their authoritarian country, it instead appears to be used as a tool to suppress dissent.
The Saudi government did not respond to the New York Times requests for comments.
Dawn Chmielewski contributed to this report.