Following the September 14, 2019 attacks on the Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, Saudis who were near the attack sites posted images and videos of the aftermath, including images of missiles found by the sites and of the large fires that had broken out. These images were posted independently on social media and were widely disseminated before the Saudi state media and security authorities could control the story, thereby placing the Saudi authorities in an embarrassing position.
The circulation of these posts evoked criticism from other social media users, who claimed that they exaggerated and distorted the events and jeopardized state security. Criticism was also voiced by writers in the Saudi press, who called on the security apparatuses to educate the public about responsible use of social media and to punish those who disseminated harmful information.
This report presents some of the posts that were circulated about the attacks, and some of the responses on Twitter and in the Saudi press.
Tweets By Saudi Users Reveal Details About The Attacks Precede Official Reports, Criticized By Fellow Users
Posts published by Saudi Twitter users on September 14 showed remnants of "cruise missiles that were fired at the Abqaiq oil [facility]," when the official media was still referring to the incident as a drone attack.
Tweet by user OTB shows remnants of cruise missiles (twitter.com/fnaot, September 14, 2019).
A user called Qassem_saad1 posted a video of the fire at Abqaiq and expressed his joy about the attack. The post evoked furious responses from Saudi users, such as a user calling herself Gharaam MBS, who wrote: "After this video this animal should be banished."
Twitter user Gharaam MBS retweeted the video by Qassem_saad1 of the fire at Abqaiq, while criticizing him for posting it (Twitter.com/gharaam96__, September 14, 2019)
Other videos of the attacks likewise sparked criticism on Twitter. Saudi user 'Amr Darwish wrote in response to another video of the fire in Abqaiq: "Severe legal measures must be taken against whoever filmed this event and [posted the video] with the overblown comment that even the October 6,  war did not see an incident like the Abqaiq fire."
'Amr Darwish's post (twitter.com/DarwishAmrM, September 14, 2019)
Saudi Campaign For Information Security On Social Media: "Don't Be A Tool In The Hands Of Your Homeland's Enemies"
In response to the videos and images documenting the attack, posters were circuated calling on the public to refrain from publishing sensitive information that harms the homeland and serves the enemy. Some of the posters also noted that this was a criminal offense. The posters were circulated on the social media accounts of Saudi state bodies as well as by private users.
The Saudi News Twitter page posted the following message: "Be aware: When you relay videos and rumors, this gladdens the enemies of the homeland and spreads alarm, and you may be held to account by the authorities. Do not be a tool in the hands of your homeland's enemies." Twitter user Bint Al-Ajwad posted a series of old posters urging caution on social media, captioned "Don't Be Their Lens," "Don't Be Their Eye," and "Don't Be Their Reporter."
Posters tweeted by Bint Al-Ajwad: "Don’t Be Their Reporter," "Don't Be Their Lens." (Twitter.com/Ghostshi1, September 14, 2019)
'Abdallah Al-Bander, a Saudi host on the Sky News Arabia channel, posted on his personal Twitter account a quote from Article 6 of Saudi Arabia's Anti-Cyber Crime Law, stipulating that any person who publishes information on the Internet that infringes on public order, religious values, public morals and privacy shall be subject to imprisonment for a period of up to five years and/or a fine of up to three million riyals. He expressed puzzlement at people who post information without taking note of its sensitivity, and called for "spreading awareness and a culture of responsibility."
'Abdallah Al-Bander's tweet (Twitter.com/a_albander, September 14, 2019)
Saudi user Amira Zamani tweeted under the #Abqaiq hashtag an old announcement by the Saudi Interior Ministry warning the public that circulating information about movements of the Saudi military and security forces places their members in danger.
Amira Zamani's tweet (Twitter.com/wwff55555, September 14, 2019)
Saudi user 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rwais addressed his fellow citizen, using the same hashtag, stating that posting information about movements of the security forces constitutes treason against their own faith, homeland, and security. He called on people to be responsible and post no information on security issues before the Interior Ministry releases its official announcements.
'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rwais's tweet (Twitter.com/ajaalrwaes, September 14, 2019)
Columnists In Saudi Press: This Is A Real War; Caution Is Paramount
As stated, columnists in the Saudi press denounced the circulation of details about the attacks on social media, and called for punishing those who did so but also for educating the public on its role in Saudi media efforts.
Those Who Circulate Such Videos Are Hostile To The State, Must Be Punished
Sigha Al-Shammri wrote in her column in the Al-Jazirah daily: "The recent event in Abqaiq exposed a situation that persists despite all the warnings and severe penalties, which can amount to a five-year prison sentence and a fine of three million riyals. Yet some ignorant people still provide the enemy with videos that are used against our country and its people. In my opinion, anyone who uses social media applications knows how dangerous it is to film videos of fires and explosions, whether [the filming is done] by a passerby or by someone who came to the site deliberately and [then] posted [the video] on his personal [social media] account, so that it spread all around the world within minutes...
"People who rush to film various fires and accidents fall into several categories, including: despicable, hostile people with a hostile agenda against our country, who wish to publish anything negative in order to undermine security and sow division in [our] ranks; and foolish and ignorant people who are addicted to publishing scoops in order to gain more and more publicity or followers, and who ignore the catastrophic effects of the video they posted... The only way to eliminate this addiction is by imposing penalties and publicizing this in all the media, in order to clarify to these idiots that [they] may not treat the homeland with contempt, and harm its security as they please, whether it is out of hostility or out of ignorance...
"The worst of the people who engage in these practices were those who used Snapchat to circulate images of the fire at Abqaiq... that even the civil defense [forces] did not circulate. But, thank God, these people encountered other citizens who filmed videos, who patrol every part of Abqaiq and assure everyone that the situation is not as bad as [those] hostile, foolish people made it out to be..."
Citizens Must Understand Their Role In The Media Effort
Columnist 'Abdallah bin Bakhit wrote in the Al-Riyadh daily: "Israel, whose army is the only reason it continues to exist, pays [even] more attention to information [efforts] than to [its] military [efforts]. In every war or military operation against it, it keeps the media from covering the operation and refrains from disclosing [the number] of soldiers or civilians hurt, unless [releasing this information] serves its international information efforts, which is the case today with the missiles [fired by] Hamas... [Today] media [coverage] is no longer under the control of the responsible and professional official and state media. [Covering] events, large and small, is within the capacity of anyone who possesses a camera, and everyone possesses such a device.
"The footage we saw of the fires at the [Aramco] facilities [that were attacked] was apparently filmed by passersby, and was not [the result of] deliberate or professional [media efforts], yet this is [nevertheless] a negative phenomenon. I'd like to see the security apparatuses quickly responding to this footage by [circulating] authorized images that convey messages that thwart the enemy's psychological [warfare]. I do not mean that they should circulate fake images, but rather genuine ones [presented] from our point of view, as the [state] media does when handling genuine reports that are negative: it reframes them as positive without detracting from their authenticity.
"Now that the responsibility for circulating [information] is shared by the state and the citizens, programs must be formulated to help the ordinary citizen understand his role in the information [efforts], so as to enable responsible behavior in terms of [choosing] what to publish, what not to publish and when to consult [the authorities]. The members of the public cannot be kept from documenting what they witness, but we must increase their sense of responsibility regarding what should be published and what must not be..."
A Media Administration Must Be Formed Which Citizens Can Rely On
'Okaz columnist 'Abdu Khal wrote under the title "In War, We Need A Media Support [Framework]": "We see that social media [and not traditional media] is the first to rush to provide context for events. This is very dangerous, since [social media allows people] to act freely, letting the many recruits on the Internet who oppose us to manipulate the news in a way which undermines the security of our people. On the night [when the oil facilities were attacked] thousands of Twitter users followed a handful of tweets which were biased [against us] in one way or the other.
"Since we are living in a period of war on all fronts, reality dictates forming an official media administration, which will be present at all times and which citizens will be able to rely on when something occurs. This military mouthpiece must be the one to transmit the details about every event. If it is absent [from the scene], it will be an opportunity for [hostile] media that work against us to fill the vacuum, create uncertainty, and distort the facts…
"There is another matter which the citizens must be aware of, namely [the issue of] disseminating videos of sites of attack, for this is not a wedding whose every detail [can be] publicized. Caution is paramount, for this is a real war, and each of us must do his patriotic duty and defend the homeland."