Pro-Saudi Spam Bots on Twitter try to Drown Out News of $1.5 Billion Loan to Egypt

Over the past few weeks, we have revealed that pro-Saudi bots, or spammers, on Twitter, pollute various hashtags with pro-Saudi, or anti-Iranian propaganda. Today they were very active on the Arabic hashtag #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار . Translated, this means Saudi supports Egypt to the tune of one billion dollars. The first Tweet on the hashtag, from @htksa, refers to a $1.5 dollar loan to Egypt from Saudi Arabia. The injection is designed to end a dollar shortage that is stifling economic growth in Egypt.The news and hashtag was first Tweeted by  Saudi Twitter (@htksa) channel, who provide updates not afraid to criticize Saudi policy.

Saudi’s generosity will presumably be something that Saudi authorities do not wish to laud. With a fiscal crisis looming and a war in Yemen, many Saudis will perhaps object to the fact $1.5 billion is going abroad, even if it is a loan. As you can see from these few tweets, initial responses before the hashtag was drowned out by bots were fairly critical, with people asking why, what with unemployment and a lack of services, money was being sent abroad.


Summary and overview of Data

The original Tweet from @htksa occurred around 8.46pm on 25th July. The sample I extracted began about 6.36 pm on 26th July, and finished at about 8.36 pm UK time. In this two hour window, which obviously began long after the original Tweet was posted, the API pulled 11, 847 Tweets. Of these Tweets, 10673 were almost certainly from bot spam accounts. That works out as about 90.1 % (1dp) of them. In terms of statistics, using the unique function in Google Sheets we can see that the 10673 Tweets came from approximately 1711 bot/spammer accounts. You can view the data here, or download it here.

The Accounts

As with previous exercises, the method here relies on discerning patterns in the data that indicate unusual activity. In terms of the accounts themselves, the following patterns exist.

  • The accounts are created across a small range of dates, very unusual considering the large volume of accounts (one would expect if the accounts were human or ‘genuine’, that they would  be created on random days, giving little in the way of a pattern). In 2014, accounts were created on consecutive days in April, May and June. In 2015, accounts were created only in February and March 2015. In 2016, the accounts sampled were only created in January and February. To put this into perspective, around 994 individual spam accounts in this sample were setup between between the 2nd and 19th February 2016. That’s around 58 accounts per day on average.
  • They are all launched from Tweet Deck.
  • As with previous examples, only accounts that were created in 2016 have full bios and banner photos. Ones created before that have no bio, and just a profile picture. The bios are generic, as are the profile pictures, which contain images harvested (presumably) from social media (See Brian Whitaker’s post). Banner images range from the random, to the bizarre, such as a  picture of freshly cut oranges, or some guy on a bike. My new favourite is the account below, of a guy who clearly just wants love. (He actually looks a lot like a Sudanese friend of mine)


  • Of the over 1700 accounts in the sample, all follow between 25 and 79 people, with the exception of about 5, which follow 1 or zero people (this may be a glitch if they are programmed). Older accounts actually follow less people.
  • All of the accounts follow the same group of core people, which include, the satellite channel Saudi 24; and also certain local Saudi Twitter sites. I emphasize the term ‘local’ as these Twitter sites seem to spam local hashtags (such as Dammam and Qatif), presumably to drown out local news in these areas. (I will write more on these in a new post)
  • There is a correlation between what day the account was created, and how many Tweets it has produced. Accounts created on 19th February, for example, have about 900 Tweets, accounts on the 6th February (picked at random) have about 1,700 tweets, accounts created on 14th June 2014 (again, picked at random) have around 4000 – 4,500 Tweets etc. The older accounts tend to have a larger discrepancy in Tweet volume, presumably due to some automation variables that have accumulated over a longer time?

The Tweets

Other patterns occur in the contents of the Tweets. In the below table, if you look at the left hand column, you will see that each of the accounts tweets numerous times, often about seven or eight times per sample. As with before, during this time of high intensity Tweeting, the tweets often occur in four or five second intervals, with intermittent gaps. Take @3abdoElfasely for example (the first in the list); the first three tweets are spread four/5 seconds apart. The fourth tweet occurs about 21 minutes and 39 seconds later. Following another 21 minutes and 21 seconds later, @3abdoElfasely tweets again (22:59:01). He then tweets two more tweets at intervals of 4 seconds.

This pattern is more or less followed by @3abodelsabhin. With the exception of the first Tweet recorded, the other six tweets are fired out in two, three tweet pairs. Within each set of three, the tweets are four seconds apart. If you look at the time stamps of the other tweets in the below table, you will see similar patterns.

7/26/2016 22:15:51 @3abdoElfasely عبدالغني الفصيلي سوالف رياضية : نقاش الذايدي و جستنيه حول ( سامي الجابر و ماجد عبدالله ) #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:15:55 @3abdoElfasely عبدالغني الفصيلي سوالف رياضية مع احمد العجلان ( سعود الصرامي وابراهيم بن ناهض ومحمد الذايدي ) #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:16:00 @3abdoElfasely عبدالغني الفصيلي سعود الصرامي : الاستئناف حق مشروع لنادي المجزل .. وعليهم القتال الي اخر ثانيه #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:37:39 @3abdoElfasely عبدالغني الفصيلي جستنيه: هدف “ماجد عبدالله” في الصين يساوي جميع اهداف “سامي الجابر” و كل من لعب كرة #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:59:01 @3abdoElfasely عبدالغني الفصيلي محمد الذايدي: هدف هدف “سامي الجابر” في تونس بتاريخ “ماجد عبدالله” كله #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:59:06 @3abdoElfasely عبدالغني الفصيلي سعود الصرامي: قضية المجزل قانونياً الى الان لم تنتهي #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:59:10 @3abdoElfasely عبدالغني الفصيلي بن ناهض:لو ان لجنة القيم والاخلاق من ضمن اللجان بالاتحاد السعودي ما كان حدث كل هذا #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:10:06 @3abodelsabhin عبود السبيهين سعود الصرامي: قضية المجزل قانونياً الى الان لم تنتهي #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:34:46 @3abodelsabhin عبود السبيهين سوالف رياضية : مداخلة هاتفية مع “حمد العثمان” امين عام نادي المجزل سابقاً #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:34:50 @3abodelsabhin عبود السبيهين محمد الذايدي:الان يجب ان نفعل دور لجنة الاخلاق و القيم #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:34:54 @3abodelsabhin عبود السبيهين سعود الصرامي: المجزل لم يكسب الاستئناف #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:59:28 @3abodelsabhin عبود السبيهين محمد الذايدي :هناك تسعيرة للاعبين 30 الف للبلنتي و 50 الف لطرد #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:59:32 @3abodelsabhin عبود السبيهين دباس الدوسري يجب ان لا تتدخل لجنة الاحتراف في تعاقدات الاندية الجديدة #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:59:36 @3abodelsabhin عبود السبيهين دباس الدوسري الهلال لديه مشكلة في عقد سلمان الفرج #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:10:22 @3adelelmreshed عادل المريشد محمد الذايدي :هناك تسعيرة للاعبين 30 الف للبلنتي و 50 الف لطرد #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:10:26 @3adelelmreshed عادل المريشد دباس الدوسري يجب ان لا تتدخل لجنة الاحتراف في تعاقدات الاندية الجديدة #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:10:30 @3adelelmreshed عادل المريشد دباس الدوسري الهلال لديه مشكلة في عقد سلمان الفرج #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:35:02 @3adelelmreshed عادل المريشد جاسم الحربي انا اؤيد فكرة حضور العنصر النسائي لمباريات كرة القدم #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:35:06 @3adelelmreshed عادل المريشد معجب: تكريم حكم داخل مقر نادي ما يعتبر مصيبة #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:35:11 @3adelelmreshed عادل المريشد مداخلة هاتفية مع “ماجد الفهمي” مدير المركز الاعلامي و المتحدث الرسمي بالنادي الأهلي🌴 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:59:44 @3adelelmreshed عادل المريشد الحصاد الرياضي مع محمد الشهراني🌴 ( فؤاد انور و نايف الروقي ) … #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:59:48 @3adelelmreshed عادل المريشد مداخلة هاتفية مع “عبدالرحمن الجروان” حكم دولي سابق و مقيم حكام مباراة المجزل و الجيل🌴 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:59:52 @3adelelmreshed عادل المريشد سوالف رياضية مع احمد العجلان🌴 ( سعود الصرامي وابراهيم بن ناهض وعدنان جستنيه ) #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:38:55 @3alawyalhaday21 3alawyalhaday22 سعود الصرامي : الاستئناف حق مشروع لنادي المجزل .. وعليهم القتال الي اخر ثانيه #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:38:59 @3alawyalhaday21 3alawyalhaday22 جستنيه: انصح الاستاذ “خالد البابطين” البعد عن المحاماة في المجال الرياضي #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:39:02 @3alawyalhaday21 3alawyalhaday22 جستنيه: هدف “ماجد عبدالله” في الصين يساوي جميع اهداف “سامي الجابر” و كل من لعب كرة #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:39:10 @3alawyalhaday21 3alawyalhaday22 محمد الذايدي: هدف هدف “سامي الجابر” في تونس بتاريخ “ماجد عبدالله” كله #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:39:16 @3alawyalshalho1 3alawyalshalhob سعود الصرامي: قضية المجزل قانونياً الى الان لم تنتهي #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:39:22 @3alawyalshalho1 3alawyalshalhob سوالف رياضية : مداخلة هاتفية مع “حمد العثمان” امين عام نادي المجزل سابقاً #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:39:29 @3alawyalshalho1 3alawyalshalhob محمد الذايدي:الان يجب ان نفعل دور لجنة الاخلاق و القيم #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:39:36 @3alianalmhall1 3alianalmhall محمد الذايدي:الان يجب ان نفعل دور لجنة الاخلاق و القيم #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
7/26/2016 22:39:40 @3alianalmhall1 3alianalmhall سعود الصرامي: المجزل لم يكسب الاستئناف #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار

Of the 10673 Tweets, there are only 30 original/unique Tweets. The accounts repeat the same tweets, over and over and over. All the tweets contain video links to the Saudi satellite sports channel Saudi 24. This was the same as previous studies, where many of the accounts posted links to content on the news wing of Saudi 24. None of the Tweets actual concern the Egypt deal, suggesting they are trying to drown out the issue, rather than engage on it. Below is the break down of the 30 different tweets.

Volume Content
168 احمد الشمراني بعض الإعلاميين يظهر في التلفاز وهو لم يكتب عاموداً صحفياً إطلاقاً #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
315 الحصاد الرياضي مع محمد الشهراني ( فؤاد انور و نايف الروقي ) … #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
565 بن ناهض:لو ان لجنة القيم والاخلاق من ضمن اللجان بالاتحاد السعودي ما كان حدث كل هذا #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
386 جاسم الحربي انا اؤيد فكرة حضور العنصر النسائي لمباريات كرة القدم???? #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
491 جستنيه: انصح الاستاذ “خالد البابطين” البعد عن المحاماة في المجال الرياضي🌴 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
275 جستنيه: هدف “ماجد عبدالله” في الصين يساوي جميع اهداف “سامي الجابر” و كل من لعب كرة #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
301 دباس الدوسري الهلال لديه مشكلة في عقد سلمان الفرج #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
298 دباس الدوسري يجب ان لا تتدخل لجنة الاحتراف في تعاقدات الاندية الجديدة #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
286 سعود الصرامي : الاستئناف حق مشروع لنادي المجزل .. وعليهم القتال الي اخر ثانيه🌴 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
568 سعود الصرامي: المجزل لم يكسب الاستئناف🇸🇦 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
583 سعود الصرامي: قضية المجزل قانونياً الى الان لم تنتهي🇸🇦 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
551 سوالف رياضية : مداخلة هاتفية مع “حمد العثمان” امين عام نادي المجزل سابقاً🇸🇦 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
498 سوالف رياضية : نقاش الذايدي و جستنيه حول🌴 ( سامي الجابر و ماجد عبدالله ) #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
490 سوالف رياضية مع احمد العجلان🌴 ( سعود الصرامي وابراهيم بن ناهض وعدنان جستنيه ) #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
165 عبدالكريم الجاسرلقناة 24: مبدأ عمر المهنا أصرخ تفلح وبعض الأندية تأخذ هل من مزيد #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
426 عدنان جستنيه: بيان الاتحاد السعودي بقضية نادي المجزل يحتاج ليكون أكثر شفافية🇸🇦 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
156 فوازالشريف لقناة 24 الرياضبة :الإعلام الرياضي مهنة لمن لامهنة له #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
169 فيديو قناة 24 سعودي : ملتقى التخصصات الرابع #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
174 فيصل الجفن لقناة 24 الرياضية: الذي حصل ل فهد المطوع بصمة عار في جبين الرائد #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
492 قناة 24 سعودي :34 دوته وتأثيرها الاقتصادي على العالم #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
166 قناة 24 سعودي … ردود الأفعال على رؤية السعودية 2030 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
171 قناة 24 سعودي… الحديث في عمق الدورات التدريبية #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
799 محمد الذايدي: كان من الممكن اسقاط الاتحاد السعودي من قبل الهيئة الرياضية🇸🇦 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
462 محمد الذايدي: لا يوجد لاعب في قارة آسيا مثل الكابتن “سامي الجابر”🌴 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
460 محمد الذايدي: هدف هدف “سامي الجابر” في تونس بتاريخ “ماجد عبدالله” كله🇸🇦 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
308 محمد الذايدي:الان يجب ان نفعل دور لجنة الاخلاق و القيم #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
290 محمد الذايدي:الان يجب ان نفعل دور لجنة الاخلاق وان تكون الهيئة هيئة رقابية🇸🇦 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
189 مداخلة هاتفية مع “عبدالرحمن الجروان” حكم دولي سابق و مقيم حكام مباراة المجزل و الجيل🌴 #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
309 مداخلة هاتفية مع “ماجد الفهمي” مدير المركز الاعلامي و المتحدث الرسمي بالنادي الاهلي #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار
251 معجب: تكريم حكم داخل مقر نادي ما يعتبر مصيبة #السعوديه_تدعم_مصر_مليار_دولار


The above post isn’t as detailed as usual, but if you look at my previous posts you will gain a more thorough understand of how these bots operate. These are the same bots as have been examined in previous posts. I.e. they appear to have been set up by the same group of people, as their fingerprints match. If you scroll down one of these accounts far enough you will see that the same accounts Tweeting about the Egyptian deal, were tweeting about the removal of Isa Qassim’s citizenship, or Yemen (See this guy for example).

Obviously some human agency must be required to re-orientate accounts to pollute new hashtags, yet their dominant setting seems to reflect Saudi government policy. When they are not tweeting against Iran, or justifying the draconian decisions of the Bahrain government, they are praising the Saudi government and royal family (same same la?). Obviously this suggests that the bots are based in Saudi, which was probably obvious already.

We still do not know who is behind this. Nonetheless, it seems that a certain group, or institution, or agency, is working to drown out information that may cause anger and unrest in Saudi Arabia. This is in addition to promoting sectarianism, or the idea that Iran is behind all the regions ills. Yet with this latest study, we can deduce that the bots change their hashtag targets to drown out issues as they arise, suggesting it is an ongoing and dynamic, if not crude, pro-Saudi project.

Always happy to answer questions, either on Twitter or the blog.


A Former Durham Tutor’s View on Durham’s Tuition Fee Increase

I cringed when I saw that Durham University had preemptively advertised its undergraduate fees for 2016/17 at £9250 – currently 250 above the national maximum limit. I cringed for a number of reasons, not limited to, but including; I am an alumnus of Durham University, I have personal experience of teaching there, and since I started my undergraduate only 12 years ago, university fees have gone up 900%. Turns out you can put a price on the ‘Durham Difference’, which works out as about £250.

The proposed changes, to be activated if the Higher Education Bill passes, will mean that universities that are deemed to ‘meet expectations’ by the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) can raise tuition prices in line with inflation. Roughly speaking, this means these universities can raise their fees from £9000 to £9250. However, the law (which probably will pass), has not been passed yet. The bill would put into law a body called the Office for Students, who according to the explanatory notes, can then implement the TEF.  The Times Higher noted too that ‘The bill does not deal with the TEF, which does not require legislation to be implemented at institutional level, other than to give the OfS powers over the exercise’.

It therefore seems clear that Durham, Kent, and Royal Holloway Universities are making assumptions that the law will be passed. Durham have already sought advice from the  Department for Business Innovation & Skills about whether they  satisfy the requirements of the TEF. As Durham University say on their website ‘Durham University has received confirmation from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills that we meet the first year expectations of the TEF’. Personally though, I do not understand why, if the Bill creates the OfS, and the OfS are to implement the framework, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills are already pre-empting the work of a body who do not, as yet, exist by law. The fact that they provided Durham University with information that has not been formalised into law is perhaps a reflection of the motives of not just Durham, but the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, who clearly want to set the ball rolling on this project. Certainly, framing the increase as a ‘fait accompli’ would indicate that, although it also indicates a healthy disrespect for parliament and the law-making process.

Despite the seeming mess of all this, the TEF is no secret. The Times Higher Education magazine ran a piece in which they measured how universities would perform *if* the TEF were to be implemented. Ironically, of the three Universities (Durham, Holloway, and Kent), that rushed to advertise their tuition fee increases, only Kent would actually finish in the top ten of the benchmarked TEF rankings. Thus the most eager to increase their fees are certainly not the best in terms of teaching reputation. To be fair, I guess the TEF is only concerned with institutions that ‘meet expectations’. Hopefully, if they are suitably low, then everyone can raise tuition fees. Money all round (for the universities that is)!

I say that knowing full well I taught at Durham. I should also add that myself, and some other colleagues (I do not wish to universalise this), taught and received good feedback from students, but rarely received acknowledgement by the department or university. I personally had very poor experiences lobbying for reasonable changes in remuneration policy. Indeed, most who mark essays and give feedback recognize that if this is to be done to a good standard, then the time required would mean that most of us would be receiving less than the minimum wage. However, the TEF clearly does not consider the actually arbitrary nature of how teaching is conducted. Safe to say, a lot of it is done by overworked and underpaid PhD students who receive little acknowledgement. As one Durham student said when asked what she would say to prospective freshers, ‘ I will also mention first year is largely taught by PhD students on casualised teaching contracts, something the university neglects to mention’. Fortunately for students, myself and most PhD students I know, care deeply about their students, and will feel obligated to do the best for them. Clearly though, the Office for Students is certainly not for Research Students.

Durham University’s announcement was framed by them as an act of due diligence and benevolence; they were simply fulfilling their obligations under the Competition and Markets Authority legislation’, whereby they are ‘required to provide comprehensive and transparent information to applicants, including in relation to fees, on the University website and at pre-application Open Days (which in our case were held in June 2016)’. So really, Durham were just doing everyone a favour, by managing their expectations and making sure no one felt conned. Obviously it would be ludicrous to keep fees at £9000 for say, another year, while the law has time to actually be passed. Maybe Durham don’t realise that the increase is not compulsory?

Naturally Durham’s chomping at the bit to raise fees fits in with their reputation as a University with a poor reputation for attracting poorer students. However, it probably better reflects their desperation to make more money. Recently, I was involved, along with a number of student colleagues, in protesting at the increase of college accommodation fees (much of which goes on capital expenditure), and international student fees. As you can see, this debate is still ongoing. Although the university ‘listened’ to students, I do not think they listened. In fact, from my perspective, the outcome of the discussions actually caused an immediate increase in accommodation prices for students living at one particular college, because it was deemed unfair that they weren’t paying as much as other postgraduates in other colleges. Essentially, universally higher prices were better than universally reasonable ones. In other words, Durham needs the money.

The recent announcement just illustrates that universities, given the choice, and in some cases, no option, will keep raising their fees to the detriment of both poor and middle income students. From a personal and political perspective, I find this alarming. My own experience in student politics, and of the past ten years, illustrates that students, certainly at the institutional level, are consulted, but only in the sense that they are ‘conned’ and ‘insulted’ in one super-efficient go. I do not wish to be facetious, but it would certainly seem that consultation with students to many institutions is merely part of a checklist, and not a process designed to seriously consider the position of students on topics that will impact their life chances. Either way, in the immortal words of the Offspring, ‘the kids aren’t alright’.






Are Twitter Bots on Yemen and Bahrain Hashtags linked to News Broadcaster Saudi 24?

Over the past few weeks, investigations published on this blog have revealed that thousands of apparently automated bot accounts on Twitter have been polluting the Bahrain hashtag with sectarian Tweets. On some days, these sectarian bots accounted for over 50% of the Tweets on the Bahrain hashtag. Despite Twitter suspending upward of 1800 accounts, the bots still exist. In my latest calculations approximately 16279 Tweets out of 51194 downloaded from the API between 3 – 11 July 2016 were automated. The tweets sampled were produced by approximately 9167 unique accounts. Of these unique accounts, approximately 1886 are unique bot accounts. Therefore from this sample, 32% (3sf) of Tweets on the Bahrain hashtag were from automated accounts, which make up approximately 21% of the total accounts in the sample. Although the API search does not reveal all Tweets on the hashtag, (potentially only 1% of all Tweets), it gives an idea of the scale of the operation.


This morning, some fellow Tweeps alerted me to the use of similar bots on the #Yemen hashtag, so I did some preliminary tests. Sure enough, the same bots on the #Bahrain hashtag are using the Yemen hashtag to promote the idea of Iranian influence in Yemen, a common trope in Gulf politics. The accounts are indeed the same, and some have changed from Tweeting about Bahrain to tweeting about Yemen. Many still continue to tweet on the #Bahrain hashtag. The most common Tweets on the Yemen hashtag are;

العوين:مجئ الخوميني هو بداية الشر و اشعال الحروب في المنطقة … #الشيخ_عيسي_قاسم #ايران #Iran #حزب_الله #yemen #Iraq

(translation: The appearance of Khomeini was the beginning of evil and the spread of wars in the region #Shaykh_Isa_Qasim, #Hezbollah, #Yemen, #Iraq, #Iran

توجيهات خادم الحرمين بايصال رسالة المملكة للعالم كله ومنها برنامج الإمامة في الخارج … #ايران #Iran #حزب_الله #yemen  (The custodian of the holy mosques sends a message to the whole world….)

Of the 11,541 Tweets pulled from the Twitter API over an approximately 48 hour period, around 2,493 appear to be from bot accounts. In the sample, there were approximately 1172 individual bot accounts engaged in polluting the Yemen hashtag with the above tweets. You can see the spreadsheet data here. I have used the same methodology as in previous posts, but have not got into it here (happy to answer questions though)

The role of Saudi24?

What is interesting about virtually all the videos analysed on the #Bahrain and Yemen hashtag is that they contain links almost exclusively to the YouTube channel Saudi 24. Saudi 24 is a satellite channel that I am still trying to find more information on. Their Twitter account was set up in July 2012, before the automated Twitter activated seemed to begin. Their live link can be found here. Their website can be found here. The email address given on their Twitter bio is They joined YouTube in January 2015, after many of the bot account had been created (On Youtube they have 12,501 subscribers and over 3,743,929 views ). This appears to be the Twitter account of the main presenter, Mohammad Rashid. Their rhetoric seems loosely aligned with state rhetoric. They are anti Islamic State, but antagonistic towards Iran, and sectarian towards the Shia. At the moment the link is speculative, but it does seem unusual that the bots should almost exclusively choose news clips from Saudi 24, when there are plenty to choose from that broadcast a particularly anti-Shia, anti-Iran, sectarian agenda.

New Sectarian Bots Still Flooding Twitter with Anti-Shia Hate Speech

On June 22nd, after I completed this investigation on automated Twitter bots,  Twitter looked into it and banned multiple accounts after confirming bot-like activity. These apparently automated accounts were sending thousands of sectarian Tweets per day on the #Bahrain hashtag. However, I have been monitoring the hashtag regularly, and it has yet to show diminished activity. On 23rd June, 51% of the Tweets on the #Bahrain hashtag appeared to emanate from sectarian bot accounts. Indeed, it appears that the majority of the accounts I examined or reported have not been suspended, despite the investigations revealing behaviour that appeared to reflect high levels of automation. In fact, on 23rd June, more accounts were actually created, (scroll down for more information). At the moment, sectarian tweets still account for 50% of all tweets on the #Bahrain hashtag.

Summary of Tweets 26/06/2016

Before I discuss new bot accounts created since 22nd June,  I will examine the #Bahrain hashtag on 26th June. Once again, I searched the Twitter API for ‘#Bahrain’. It returned the following results (you can download data  here ((Look at the sheet titled ‘#Bahrain’).

Total number of Tweets extracted between 4.45.12 and 23.54.56 on 26th June 2016: 10923

Total number of Tweets suspected to be ‘fake’: 5456

Total number of suspected fake accounts: 1754

Percentage of Tweets on Bahrain hashtag suspected to be fake on 26th June 2016 = 50%


The Tweets

As usual, there were a cycle of a certain number of Tweets broadcast at regular intervals by accounts displaying the same qualities. In this examination of 5456 Tweets, only 12 unique, yet oft repeated Tweets came up, all of which contained derogatory and sectarian terms. Most contained the term Safavid, while some contained the term Majusi. The term Shia was repeatedly used, and in close proximity to sectarian terms or terms denoting violence, such as terrorist. The below table is a breakdown of the approximately 5456 fake tweets, all of which were not actual retweets, but copy and pasted tweets from individual accounts. (Number of Tweets is approximate in below )

اعتداءات الإرهابي الهالك نمر النمربدعم وتوجيه من النظام الصفوي الفارسي الإيراني … #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد Assaults by the deceased terrorist Nimr Al Nimr with the support and direction of the Safavid Persian Iranian regime #leader #faqih 88
الإرهابيين الصفويين … #آية_الله_قاسم #الشيخ_عيسي_قاسم #سحب_جنسية_عيسى_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد Safavid Terrorists. #Ayatollah_Isa_Qasim #Shaykh_Isa_Qasim #Withdrawal_of_nationality_ofIsa_Qasim #Bahrain #Faqih #Leader 1511
الارهاب الصفوي المجوسي ضد بلاد الحرمين … #سحب_جنسية_عيسى_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد #آية_الله_قاسم Safavid Majusi Terrorist against the country of the  Holy Mosques #Withdrawal_of_nationality_ofIsa_Qasim #Bahrain #Faqih #Leader #Bahrain #Isa_Qasim 39
الشيخ الشيعي السعودي البلادي يكشف حقيقة #ايران الصفوية ضد المملكة … #اسقاط_جنسيه_عيسي_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain Saudi Shia Shaykh reveals truth about Safavid Iran against the Kingdom #Withdrawal_of_nationality_ofIsa_Qasim #Bahrain #Bahrain 891
الفرس والمجوس …حقد على العرب … #آية_الله_قاسم #الشيخ_عيسي_قاسم #سحب_جنسية_عيسى_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain #الفقيه Persians and the Majus hate the Arabs #Ayatollah_Qasim #Shaykh_Isa_Qasim #Withdrawal_nationality_isa_qasim #Bahrain #Faqih 12
تقرير الاعلام الصفوي الكذب وتزييف الحقائق ’’’ #سحب_جنسية_عيسى_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد #آية_الله_قاسم Media report of Safavid lies and distorted facts #Withdrawal_nationality_isa_qasim #Bahrain #Faqih #Leader #Ayatollah_Qasim 204
تواصل .. لقطات روحانية من الحرمين … #البحرين #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد #آية_الله_قاسم #الدراز #البحرين 470
تواصل.. إسقاط الجنسية البحرينية عن الشيعي الصفوي عيسي قاسم … #سحب_جنسية_عيسى_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد Removal of Bahraini nationality from Shia Safavid Isa Qasim #withdrawal_of_nationality_of_Isa_Qasim #Bahrain #Faqih #Leader 481
داعش وإيران والخطاب الموحد … #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد #آية_الله_قاسم #الدراز #البحرين #اغلاق_جمعية_الوفاق Da’esh and Iran and their unified discourse #Faqih #Leader #Ayatollah_Qasim #Duraz #Bahrain #closing_of_AlWefaq 254
سوسن الشاعر:البحرين لا تعبأ بتهديدات قاسم سليمانى ولا غيره … #اسقاط_جنسيه_عيسي_قاسم #آية_الله_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain Sowsan Sha’ir*: Bahrain will not listen to the threats of Qasim Suleimani**, or others like him.

*Sowsan Sha’ir is a pro-status quo Bahriani Columnist

فيديو الإرهابيين الصفويين … #آية_الله_قاسم #الشيخ_عيسي_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد #آية_الله_قاسم #الدرا Video of Safavid terrorists #Ayatollah_Qasim #Shaykh_Isa_Qasim #Bahrain #Faqih #Leader #Ayatollah_Qasim #Dura  (<1511)
فيديو:الإرهاب الإيراني الصفوي بمكة المكرمة … #آية_الله_قاسم #الشيخ_عيسي_قاسم #سحب_جنسية_عيسى_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain Video: Irani Safavid Terrorists in Holy Mecca #Ayatollah_Qasim #Shaykh_Isa_Qasim #Withdrawal_nationality_Isa_Qasim 1413

Following this, I combined data from 22nd, 26th, and 27th June to get an estimate of how many unique bots there were. This would allow me to get a better sense of the number of bots out there. After I compiled all the suspicious accounts, I performed a remove duplication report in  Google Sheets, resulting in about 3108 active accounts (approx), all of which  fit the profile of sectarian bot accounts. (Feel free to peruse a list of the accounts here, I could find very few that had been suspended ((Look on the sheet titled ’22, 26,27 Aggregated’). While it is early days, this would suggest that different bots become active on different days, meaning daily API extractions only reveal a limited number of bots. It does not help establish how many bots might be out there, although it indicates that there are clearly a lot.

New Bots Since  June 22

What is especially interesting is that since Twitter suspended the accounts on 22nd June, new fake accounts have been created that follow much the same pattern. Either this a planned move, or a reaction to the suspension of accounts. At least 58 accounts were created on 23rd June. These accounts demonstrate many of the same qualities as their predecessors, although arguably they are more sophisticated in the sense that they have more information to appear more ‘credible’, such as a location and birthday (you can download the data here of all suspicious accounts monitored on 27th June). Yet there is little doubt they are bots or possibly people operating dozens of accounts. The following points highlight some of the patterns.


  1. The accounts repeating the same Tweets were all created on the 23rd June.
  2. All Tweets were from TweetDeck
  3. All accounts had a similar number of tweets and followers (Usually about 300 Tweets; follower numbers in the fifties; and following numbers around 11-15)
  4. All accounts are tweeting the same, copy and pasted tweets, most of which were mentioned in the first table in this post.
  5. All accounts had the same input location and format, which was ‘Saudi +((city name)). See Table X for details at the bottom of this post It should be noted that this location information is input manually and so does not reflection the actual location of the account or the servers. It should also be added that previous accounts believed to be suspicious did not include this information. However, this reflects a progressive improvement over the course of three years in providing more information on the account. (As we saw before,  accounts created after 2015 began including biographical information).
  6. Because the new accounts were set up less than a  week ago, the Twitter archiver pulled the majority of the Tweets from the account, including the first one. This gives us a better sense of the origins of the accounts. Interestingly, all the new accounts from the 58 or so known new accounts exhibited the same pattern. Their very first Tweet contained an unusual idiom, saying, or phrase in Arabic. This idiomatic phrase was always launched from ‘Twitter Web Client’,  while the rest of the Tweets were launched from TweetDeck. I tested this on about 10 of the accounts registered on 23rd June. One of the examples was ‘البس يحب الخناقة’, the idiomatic translation of which I am told is (People love their oppressors lit: cats love their stranglers/cats love to fight). See below for some examplesaccount onesnippet 2snippet 3It is interesting to note that while the Archiver can only pull Tweets from the past week, if you manually go to some of the sectarian bot accounts created earlier in the year (2016), and scroll down to the beginning of their profile, you will sometimes see the same pattern of putting out a unique tweet (usually a proverb or saying), before the account begins its automated activity. Here is an example. This appears to be a relatively recent development.

    You can also see on this account that the first Tweet occurred on Feb 19th, while the next one was 21 June


  7. Looking at the timeline of each individual account,  we see once again certain patterns of Tweeting. In the table below, or the two above, you can see that the accounts tweet approximately every four or 5 seconds in three tweet bursts, a pattern suggesting formulaic and repetitive behaviour. This pattern was apparent across all those new accounts created on 23rd June.
6/24/2016 9:15:46 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي داعش وإيران والخطاب الموحد … #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد #آية_الله_قاسم #الدراز #البحرين #اغلاق_جمعية_الوفاق 746187535529836546 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 9:15:51 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي داعش وإيران والخطاب الموحد … #آية_الله_الشيخ_عيسى_قاسم #عيسى_قاسم #qatif #القطيف #ايران #حزب_الله #العراق 746187554421018624 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 9:15:55 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي داعش وإيران والخطاب الموحد … #اسقاط_جنسيه_عيسي_قاسم #الحشد_الشعبي 746187572095811584 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 9:39:33 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي تقرير الاعلام الصفوي الكذب وتزييف الحقائق … #اسقاط_جنسيه_عيسي_قاسم #آية_الله_قاسم #الشيخ_عيسي_قاسم 746193522345152512 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 9:39:37 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي تقرير الاعلام الصفوي الكذب وتزييف الحقائق … #سحب_جنسية_عيسى_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد #آية_الله_قاسم 746193538975596545 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 9:39:42 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي تقرير الاعلام الصفوي الكذب وتزييف الحقائق #الدراز #البحرين #اغلاق_جمعية_الوفاق #آية_الله_الشيخ_عيسى_قاسم #عيسى_قاسم 746193556637814789 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 10:02:45 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي تقرير الاعلام الصفوي الكذب وتزييف الحقائق … #qatif #القطيف #ايران #حزب_الله #العراق #الحشد_الشعبي 746199359994265600 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 10:02:50 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي اعتداءات الإرهابي الهالك نمر النمربدعم وتوجيه من النظام الصفوي الفارسي الإيراني … #اسقاط_جنسيه_عيسي_قاسم 746199378952478720 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 10:02:54 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي اعتداءات الإرهابي الهالك نمر النمربدعم وتوجيه من النظام الصفوي الفارسي الإيراني … #ايران #حزب_الله #الحشد_الشعبي 746199396576985088 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 10:26:04 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي اعتداءات الإرهابي الهالك نمر النمربدعم وتوجيه من النظام الصفوي الفارسي الإيراني … #qatif #القطيف #ايران #حزب_الله 746205227829723139 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 10:26:08 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي اعتداءات الإرهابي الهالك نمر النمربدعم وتوجيه من النظام الصفوي الفارسي الإيراني #آية_الله_الشيخ_عيسى_قاسم #عيسى_قاسم 746205245437403136 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 10:26:13 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي اعتداءات الإرهابي الهالك نمر النمربدعم وتوجيه من النظام الصفوي الفارسي الإيراني … #اغلاق_جمعية_الوفاق 746205263405821955 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 10:49:15 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي اعتداءات الإرهابي الهالك نمر النمربدعم وتوجيه من النظام الصفوي الفارسي الإيراني … #آية_الله_قاسم #الدراز #البحرين 746211059346726913 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 10:49:19 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي اعتداءات الإرهابي الهالك نمر النمربدعم وتوجيه من النظام الصفوي الفارسي الإيراني … #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد 746211076857991168 TweetDeck 12
6/24/2016 10:49:23 @gasemsheblikhau جاسم شبلي اعتداءات الإرهابي الهالك نمر النمربدعم وتوجيه من النظام الصفوي الفارسي الإيراني … #سحب_جنسية_عيسى_قاسم #البحرين 746211094595674114 TweetDeck 12

The new accounts are, as mentioned, using lots of sectarian terminology. In what is becoming a tradition, I have included a word cloud below of all the tweets used by one of the new accounts. As you can see (or not, depending on if you read Arabic), the dominant

wordcloud (1)

words include ‘Safavid’, ‘Shia’, ‘Iran/Irani’, ‘Faqih’, ‘Hezbollah’, ‘Al-Majusi’, ‘Terrorist’. As mentioned before, many of these words are derogatory terms used to refer to Shia. Terms such as Faqih too are often used, playing on Arab fears that the Shia in the Gulf are attempting to set up an Iranian-style theocracy based on Vilayat e-faqih (guardianship of the jurist).

Some Remarks

To sum up; half of the tweets on the Bahrain hashtag appear to be hate speech generated by sectarian bots. Despite reporting this to Twitter and Twitter taking action the figure has not changed. Despite Twitter’s suspension of accounts, new ones are still being created, raising question of how difficult it is to tackle them.

Clearly the problem of sectarian bots has not gone away, and will not go away anytime soon. I do not know what information Twitter have on their side to be able to determine unusual activity coming from specific email domains, or servers located in specific places for example. Unfortunately for Twitter, tales of thousands of bot accounts spewing hatred across the internet does not fit into their brand as a progressive, democracy-encouraging social media platform.

Needless to say, while the tweets examined do suggest that whoever is behind the accounts are technically anti-Islamic State, the anti-Shia discourse used indicates substantial overlap with the rhetoric of groups like Islamic State. Indeed it resembles some sort of Wahabi orthodoxy evident in places like Saudi Arabia. I certainly would suggest that these bots be taken more seriously in the fight against hate speech. Given the scale, it is very hard to imagine that this is the work of a small group of individuals. Instead it implies a large-scale operation undertaken with assistance of technical specialists, and possibly reputation management/PR companies.


Table X

حتات سدير – السعودية
الصفانية – السعودية
Saudi Arabia
النويعمة – السعودية
أرجح – السعودية
الفايضة – السعودية
مكة – السعودية
العوامية – السعودية
الجوف – السعودية
القيسومة – السعودية
غرّان – السعودية
أبقيق – السعودية
العديلية – السعودية
الصحف – السعودية
الصالحية – السعودية
الخفجة – السعودية
الطائف – السعودية
مليجة – السعودية
جيزان – السعودية
جرّارة – السعودية
الأفلاج – السعودية
الدلم – السعودية
البجادية – السعودية
حائل – السعودية
المزاحمية – السعودية
عثيثية – السعودية
القنفذة – السعودية
عفيف – السعودية
الزبية – السعودية
الظهران – السعودية
الدمّام – السعودية
الرياض – السعودية
ينبع – السعودية
أحد رفيدة – السعودية
الرفيع – السعودية
بالأسمر – السعودية
العيون – السعودية
البدع الشمالي – السعودية
الخصرة – السعودية
القصيم – السعودية
السيح الشمالي – السعودية
الشوارى – السعودية
القصب – السعودية
مدينة الجبيل الصناعية – السعود
مسدح – السعودية
الدغيمي – السعودية
الزيقين – السعودية
بيشة – السعودية
الأرتوية – السعودية
حفر البطين – السعودية
جدة – السعودية
خليص – السعودية
الخوار – السعودية
السلمية – السعودية
العيينة – السعودية
Datu Saudi
القويز – السعودية

Network Visualisation of Sectarian Bots

I thought it would be interesting to do a visual representation of Bahrain’s sectarian bots. For those of you who have been following recent blogs, we have been establishing that the #Bahrain hashtag is compromised by a sectarian bot network that could amount to hundreds of thousands of accounts.

In this network visualisation of the #Bahrain hashtag from the past few hours, you will see a colourful, connected core of dots (nodes), surrounded by hundreds of grey nodes. Each node represents a twitter account. The colourful centre of the image represents legitimate Twitter accounts Tweeting on the Bahrain hashtag. The lines between them, and their proximity, represents that they are interacting with one another. The larger nodes represent those accounts with more ‘influence’, that is to say, accounts connected to other highly connected accounts. Nodes of the same colour represent communities of tweeters, who have interacted regularly recently (in the sample of Tweets)

All the grey nodes are small, and disparate from the network, not connected to each other or anyone else. This means that they tweet, but do not interact with anyone. Essentially it would suggest they are individuals tweeting but not interacting (a bot). The fact that the visualisation shows them on the periphery of the community is deliberate, as it highlights how they are not actually engaged with the community. A small number of these grey dots are legitimate people who just tweeted on the Bahrain hashtag, but the majority are bots.


Note how the bots create a visual ‘shield’ around legitimate accounts

What I like about this image though is that while the grey, mostly bot accounts are not engaged, the fact they surround the core community is a good metaphor for how they pollute, or drown out the genuine interactions. The visual strongly shows a grey shield around a core, attempting to make real debate impenetrable. It blocks out prying eyes! It also gives you a sense of how many bots there actually are.



A close up…

Around 51% of Tweets on #Bahrain Hashtag Created by Automated Sectarian Bots

Yesterday Twitter suspended 1800 sectarian bot accounts after me and a Bahrain Watch colleague contacted them with the results of an investigation conducted yesterday (You can read that here). A brief summary; the de-nationalisation of Isa Qasim prompted lots of activity from suspicious looking Twitter accounts that were all Tweeting the same thing, essentially justifying the move against Qassim. The accounts, which have been active since 2013, have tweeted thousands (probably millions) of Tweets containing anti-Shia and anti-Iranian content over the course of their existence. This, naturally, suggests a government, institution, individuals, or group of individuals, are using marketing techniques to promote sectarianism.

Today, I wanted to see if the 1800 that Twitter suspended was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and I have a feeling it is. Using similar techniques to yesterday, I looked on the Bahrain hashtag. As is usual, there were many replica tweets from different accounts. That is to say, tweets that are not RTs, but what look like copy and paste jobs.I then requested Tweets from the Twitter API under the #Bahrain hashtag. This returned 10887 Tweets from today (download the data here). The timestamp of the first tweet was 3,38,54 and the last  15,20,55. This means that these 10887 Tweets were from a 12 hour period (approx) on 22nd June 2016. That’s a lot of tweets.

Three repeating tweets among the 10887 bore the classic hallmarks of the suspicious accounts yesterday (i.e. they were created around the same time, they were all launched from Tweet Deck, they all recycled the same tweets a number of times, they had similar numbers of followers and followed, their bio was either absent or generic, and those created on certain periods (2014,2015) had no banner photo).

The results were quite staggering. If you look at the table below, you will see that 51% (5556) of Tweets on the Bahrain hashtag are most likely produced by bots with a sectarian, hate-inciting agenda. And this is the day after Twitter suspended 1800 accounts.


Number of Tweets (Out of 10887) Translation Tweet
2742 Persians and the Majus (Zoroastrians) hate the Arabs الفرس والمجوس ……حقد على العرب
946 The Iranian regime are the leaders in war and the manufacturing of terrorism and crises #withdrawalofnationalityfromIsaQasim #Bahrain #Fitna النظام الإيراني رأس حربة في صناعة الإرهاب و الأزمات … #سحب_جنسية_عيسى_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد
95 Iran’s Mullah’s politicise the Hajj (piligrimage) with slogans outside Islam and the Sunna of the Prophet #withdrawalofnationalityfromIsaQasim #Bahrain #Fitna دولة ملالي #ايران تسيس الحج بشعارات خارجة عن الإسلام و السنة النبوي … #البحرين #Bahrain #آية_الله_الشيخ_عيسى_قاسم
1773 Sowsan Sha’ir*: Bahrain will not listen to the threats of Qasim Suleimani**, or others like him.

*Sowsan Sha’ir is a pro-status quo Bahriani Columnist

**QS is an Iranian general who recently said that the move against Isa Qasim would cause a fire in the region

سوسن الشاعر:البحرين لا تعبأ بتهديدات قاسم سليمانى ولا غيره … #سحب_جنسية_عيسى_قاسم #البحرين #Bahrain #الفقيه #القائد
Total 5556

5556/10886 x 100 = 51% (2sf) of total Tweets are by bots.



A Closer Analysis

Although the bots cycle a number of different tweets, I wanted to examine some more accounts further. I settled on the Tweet الفرس والمجوس …حقد على العرب . Translated, this means ‘Persians and the Majus hate the Arabs’. Because of the term Majus, a slur used to mean ‘zoroastrians’ ((used to as derogatory term for Iranians), I thought it would be an appropriate example of a sectarian Tweet to explore. It was also the most commonly occurring Tweet in the above data.

Focusing on one Tweet, I searched the Twitter API, and it brought back 7500 tweets, from about 1387 different accounts (you can download the date here). That’s a lot of tweets,especially considering that they are just from today (22 June 2016). What’s more, they are all the same tweet, so considering each bot churns out a cycle of Tweets (at different rates as discussed yesterday), they are, when notably active, producing tens, probably hundreds of divisive and hateful tweets per day each. ( You may notice that the 7500 number is higher than the total number mentioned earlier from today (5556), which includes the same Tweet (Persians and Majus hate Arabs etc). This probably reflects the fact that the Twitter API search only brings back the latest tweets. Either way, it means that there are more sectarian Tweets out there per day than accounted for even in the large dataset used earlier). 

It is important to note that once an account has been suspended, Tweets can no longer be extracted from the API. On this basis, (which I tested by seeing if I could access some of the Tweets/accounts of those I mentioned yesterday ((I couldn’t)), we can assume that accounts whose data shows up in this analysis are still active, and have not been suspended by Twitter. Indeed, I randomly tested at least 100 profiles in this dataset of 1387 accounts, and all those tested were still active accounts.  Of these accounts, only  10 were probably legitimate accounts. However, while this a small number, some of them had retweeted the propaganda from the bot accounts, implying that there is some notable impact of this disinformation on real people.

New Patterns:

Below are some more patterns that suggest the accounts are bots or automated in some way.

  1. Like Yesterday, all the accounts were frequently created on consecutive days within certain months. Some of the accounts were created in the same timeframe as those yesterday (i.e. June, July, August 2014 and February 2016). Today’s examination (which was much larger), threw up some new, and earlier, time frames. For example, approximately 101 accounts were created on either the 26th, 27th, 28th, or 29th August 2013.  Like yesterday a substantial amount (around 200) were created on 6, 8th, 9th, 10, and 11th June 2014. (I checked to see if date creation matched any particular working week but it did  not – so no lead there). usercreation
  2.  All accounts tweet in a specific number of bursts. Most of those analysed tweeted the same tweet six or nine times.  Naturally given the time frame, we may have cut off some accounts before they had a chance to complete their full Tweet cycle.  See Fig 1 below for an example of the pattern of six tweets.



3) There are varying, but consistent patterns of Tweets. For example, if you look at the times below for the account @aliielsa3a75, you will notice how the account sends bursts of two tweets four seconds apart, three times.

6/22/2016 4:00:51 @aliielsa3a75
6/22/2016 4:00:55 @aliielsa3a75
6/22/2016 4:13:15 @aliielsa3a75
6/22/2016 4:13:19 @aliielsa3a75
6/22/2016 4:25:39 @aliielsa3a75
6/22/2016 4:25:43 @aliielsa3a75

A number of the other accounts follow a similar pattern, 6 identical tweets, spaced out in regular intervals. Below you will notice that the account @alielqany125 sends a burst of six tweets, 4 or 5 seconds apart. However, the account @aliesbashir sends six tweets in two sets of three. Within each set the tweets are also spaced out by four or five seconds.

6/22/2016 3:30:55 @alielqany125
6/22/2016 3:30:59 @alielqany125
6/22/2016 3:31:04 @alielqany125
6/22/2016 3:31:08 @alielqany125
6/22/2016 3:31:12 @alielqany125
6/22/2016 3:31:17 @alielqany125
6/22/2016 8:05:00 @AliesBashir
6/22/2016 8:05:04 @AliesBashir
6/22/2016 8:05:09 @AliesBashir
6/22/2016 8:27:26 @AliesBashir
6/22/2016 8:27:31 @AliesBashir
6/22/2016 8:27:35 @AliesBashir

This four or five second permutation is very common. Other accounts also engage in patterns, although they are not always the same as this. However, I am not going to go into all the patterns, safe to say, they exist within users, and vary to an extent across users.

4) Like yesterday, the only accounts with biographies are those created in 2016. All those created before 2016 do not have a bio. Similarly, only those created in 2016 have banner images. As with yesterday, all the bios are generic, mentioning religious idioms or generic Arabic pleasantries. The most common word was ‘Allah’ which appeared 816 times in the Bios. Presumably this is to convey a sense of pious zeal, or an image of a ‘good muslim’. As with yesterday, I’ve  done a word cloud….

wordcloud (2)

Word cloud of fake bios. So meta…


5) As with those accounts examined yesterday, different accounts created on the same day have a damningly similar number of Tweets. E.g. @@raaeelhady, @@farrgebrahim @terkassam@khalobar66yy@aelharby1, all created on 19th February 2016, have 1342, 1350, 1366, 1335, and 1352 respectively. To take another random example, accounts @mohammedturki10@metebbuqami1@yahyaib73997849 and @sultanmater2, all created on 4th March 2015, have 872,863, 839, and 848 Tweets respectively. I won’t go on, you get the picture.

6) Although I did not mention it yesterday, the profile pictures and images tend to be rather generic, usually consisting of slightly pixelated traditionally dressed Gulfi  men, or children (not unusual in the Middle East for a DP). My favourite example is this elderly, yet obviously technologically savvy gentleman, and an orange. Why the orange?


The Orange

Concluding Remarks

Considering the above, it seems fairly clear that large numbers of bot accounts are still polluting the #Bahrain hashtag with sectarian content. They are also polluting other hashtags, so long as they relate to Iranian expansionism or Shia subversion. Unfortunately, this sectarian content, which amounts to hate speech, has amounted to approximately 51% of the Tweets on Bahrain hashtag today. For those familiar with the Bahrain hashtag, this appears to be a common occurrence, and it makes getting any actual, genuine news, more difficult. Not only does this damage the utility of Twitter, but it’s impact on regional tensions could also be hugely problematic. It’s hard to know the causal implications of this, safe to say it distorts the information sphere around the Arab Gulf in favour of what seems like Wahabi orthodoxy. So it’s not only Twitter who need to take note (I am grateful for their banning of 1800 bots), but also policy makers who worry about Daesh, or the general escalation of conflict in the region.

As a final note, these snapshots I have provided do not necessarily reveal the full scale of what’s going. It is still hard to determine how many of these accounts exist.

The Automation of Sectarianism: Are Twitter Bots Spreading Sectarianism in the Gulf?

**Update** After writing this article, and sending it to Twitter, they subsequently suspended up to 1800 accounts and are investigating more. 

The recent de-nationalisation of Isa Qasim, Bahrain’s most prominent Shia cleric, sparked a massive public reaction in Bahrain and across the globe. The move, which made Isa Qasim stateless (ironically on World Refugee Day), is a common one in Bahrain. The government frequently remove  the citizenship of those they deem to be dissidents.

As is the case with any public outcry, it didn’t take long before it reached Twitter. However, Twitter activity related to the Isa Qasim incident indicates that there are automated Twitter accounts attempting to justify the decision against Qasim. This, in turn, implies that a company, country, individual, or individuals, are using software to distort the informationscape by generating sectarian, anti-Shia, and anti-Iranian propaganda.

Why suspicious?

How did this suspicion arise? If you look at the below screenshot, you will notice a number of things. That is, there are numerous accounts all tweeting at similar times, the exact same text, without a suggestion of a retweet. These all appeared after I searched for ‘Isa Qasim’ on Twitter. 2016-06-21 12-24-51

My curiosity piqued, I pulled some data from Twitter. Specifically, I requested from the Twitter API Tweets that included the phrase ‘Isa Qasim’ (I did other searches in Arabic and with different English spellings of Qasim, but let’s stick with this particularly one). I got 628 tweets back from the past few days. Of these, 219 were the exact same Tweet. That is, tweets with the text ‘Isa Qasim, the #Shiite #terrorist, telling followers to annihilate #Bahrain’s Security Forces’. I then copied these 219 tweets and put them in a separate spreadsheet for easier analysis. See below for a screenshot


Spreadsheet showing a selection of the Tweet under examination

Evidence to suggest these are fake accounts, or automated

There are a number of things that suggest quite strongly that the tweets are automated and the accounts managed by either a machine or a small number of people.

  1. Every one of those Tweets, with the exception of the first, (the original Tweet which was presumably copied), was launched from Tweet Deck – a program favoured by marketeers that allows one to manage multiple accounts from a single machine. In this case, this was the original:originator
  2. All the accounts have a similar, low number of followers and people they follow.
  3. All of the accounts were created in either February, March, June, or July of 2014, with the exception of a few, which were all created 18th or 19th February 2016.
  4. The accounts created in 2014 were also created across a span of two or three consecutive days within the same month. Here is an example: For those accounts created in February 2014, 7 were created on the 4th, while 10 were created on the 5th. For those created in March, 10 accounts were created on the 2nd march, 12 created on 3rd March, six created on 4th, 14 on 5th March etc. You get the picture…
  5. Accounts created on the same day tend to have a similar number of tweets. E.g. those accounts created on 2nd February 2014 all have about 400 Tweets to their name, all those created in March 2014 have about 3,500, and all those created in June 2014 have about 7000. Obviously this figure will change, yet the correlation between the date of account creation and number of tweets  is interesting, especially given that the older accounts actually have less Tweets.


    A snapshot of the spreadsheet

  6. The apparent anomalous accounts, created in 2016, are actually anything but. The interesting thing about those accounts is that, unlike the other accounts, which have no biographical information or banner photo, the ones created in 2016 do have a bio, and a header image. What’s more, of the 43 accounts created in 2016, 14 were created on the 18th February, while the remainder were created on 19th February. Thus not only were they created on consecutive days like the other accounts, they bore the same characteristics of header image and biographical information.
  7. The biographical information that does occur is fairly generic. By doing a crudish corpus-based aggregation, and after removing a lot of commonly occurring prepositions, the most common word is ‘Allah’, and various other religious idioms or pleasantries. See the below word cloud.

wordcloud (1).jpg

9. When you copy  one of the Arabic Tweets, and paste it into Twitter’s search facility, you get the Top Tweet, which in this case is the person who usually first Tweets it. What almost always happens is that the first person to Tweet the information was also one of the suspicious accounts. In particular, a lot of the recent tweets seem to originate with those suspicious accounts that were set up in 2016.


Copy the Tweet from one suspicious account and paste it into a search, and you will get the original account that Tweeted it


If you click the account, almost all of them at the time of writing were the ones created in February 2016

While this might just be a phenomenon within a cycle relating to recent tweets, it is more likely that the new accounts, which look  more credible (i.e. have banner picture and biographical information) are control accounts, that mimic more credible sources, and are then copied by the rest of the bots. The only exception I have found so far is that the very few Tweets in English were copied from accounts that look legitimate. In addition to the English tweet examined above, another recent one included the text ‘The decision is a legal matter based on article 10c of ’s Nationality , codified within Bahrain’s constitution’. This was written by Fawaz Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Minister of Information, and presumably copied. The majority of the Tweets are in Arabic.

They all Tweet the same, but what do they Tweet?

Twitter limits API requests to Tweets that have occurred in the past week or so. However, we can still go to the individual accounts and look at their content for an insight into their most recent concerns, which will logically reflect the ideology of whoever is behind them. Since all these accounts appear to copy from a Master Tweet, they are all essentially Tweeting the exact same Tweets, albeit at different rates, times, and frequencies (presumably this is to give an air of human agency). However, if you take two random accounts from the above list, and extract their tweets from the past week, arrange them in alphabetical order or date order, you will see they essentially tweet the same things. The homogeneity again adds credence that they are bots with a specific, collective agenda.


Example 1) From the account @mohammedhadimoh


Example 2) From the account @yasserbinmasoo3

The discourse ?

Although the big data only goes back a week, we can see most of the Tweets bunch around the same thing. They condemn ‘terrorist’ acts in Saudi’s mostly Shia Eastern province, and acts by the ‘Shia’ opposition in Bahrain. I use the term Shia here because it is mentioned frequently, as are derogatory terms, such as Rawafid (A term used to mean the Shia are ‘rejectionists’ of the true Islamic faith).This Tweet, for example, ‘رد قوي من شاعر سعودي على روافض’, translates as ‘strong response from Saudi poet against the Rawafid’ (A video was attached of the poem in question). Often times, Iran is invoked, or the concept of fitna (discord). I won’t go into too much detail about the exact content of the tweets but anyone is welcome to the data.

The relevant thing is that hundreds of what seem to be automated Twitter accounts are repeating propaganda that conflates acts of violence, terrorism, and unrest, with both Arab Shia and Iran. This strongly suggests that institutions, people, or agencies, with significant resources, are deliberately creating divisive, anti-Shia sectarian propaganda and disseminating it in a robotic, but voluminous fashion. The problems here are numerous, yet such accounts can not only contribute to sectarianism (hard to infer causal relations from this), but create the impression that polices, such as the denationalisation of Isa Qasim, have widespread popular support.

It is also interesting to note that among the many hashtags used by these accounts are Da’ish, the derogatory term used to describe the Islamic State. It could be that they wish to tap into that wider audience, in the hope that the message gets out – entirely possible given the generous hashtagging the accounts engage in. While the notion of bot accounts is probably not news to anyone, the evidence here hopefully highlights that much online sectarian discourse is perhaps inflated by those groups or individuals with specific ideological agendas, and the means to do so.  Of course we know  PR and reputation management companies offer such services, yet their work is often done secretively and behind close doors. Would be interesting to find out who is behind this.

It would also suggest that Twitter need to better regulate spam. On the plus side, if an account looks suspicious, you have an idea of what to look for in terms of date creation, Tweet numbers etc. Happy blocking🙂