A recent parallel to the Khashoggi case came this year with the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian intelligence agent, and his daughter in the U.K. They survived the use of a deadly nerve agent, but a British woman died after accidentally coming in contact with it. London has pointed the finger squarely at Moscow. Russia, like Saudi Arabia, denied that it had anything to do with the attempt.
In the face of evidence to the contrary, the Kremlin said the two alleged assassins sent to Britain to kill Skripal were actually tourists on a weekend trip to the cathedral city of Salisbury. That explanation provided fodder for internet memes in the West, but it apparently convinced the Russian public that the pair had nothing to do with the attempted killing: A recent poll suggests that only 3 percent of Russians believe Moscow was behind the attack.
This is not to say that Saudi propaganda efforts are of poor quality. Far from it. In recent years, Saudi Arabia, its allies, and its adversaries have undertaken sophisticated campaigns to bolster their reputations and tarnish those of their rivals. Even during the Khashoggi case, as the kingdom’s public response looked hapless, it was carrying out a high-tech campaign online to stifle domestic and regional dissent about the killing.
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Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at HBKU in Doha who researches Arab propaganda and Twitter bots, told me that after analyzing a month’s worth of tweets in Arabic that used the “Jamal Khashoggi” hashtag, he found that most of those tweets were pro-Saudi. This narrative was boosted by specific accounts, as well as by bots.
“I don’t think many people believe what the Saudi narrative says,” he said. “Yet on Twitter, it certainly seems the dominant message.”
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Jones said the point wasn’t necessarily to convince people about the Saudi narrative. “The point is to drown out other negative information on alternate narratives to muddy the discourse,” he told me. “Because even muddying waters, adding that slight bit of ambiguity, even if it's such a preposterous story, is sometimes enough to say, ‘There’s two sides to the story.’ ”
Saudi Arabia’s image abroad had seen a marked improvement since the ascent of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in June 2017. The kingdom’s public-relations machine presented a picture of a modernizing country. The campaign was so effective that coverage of the kingdom focused on reforms promoted by the prince, who is known as MbS. Regionally, Riyadh took on a more muscular posture to counter Iran’s growing influence.
The Khashoggi killing caught that machine completely off guard. At least three American firms representing Saudi Arabia parted ways with the kingdom in recent weeks.