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Social Media Clash: Is it the Third Gulf War?

As the world adapts to the new realities of the cyber revolution, almost all areas of life are affected by digitalization. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now being used in countless ways, including the manipulation of public opinion through the creation of fake analysis pieces. In this new era of AI producing increasingly sophisticated Orwellian propaganda, consumers of online media must better understand how to detect disinformation. This information manipulation has now become one of the tools implemented by Gulf states in their ongoing rivalry.

As the Yemen war, Gulf crisis, and tension with Iran linger on with no end in sight, we can expect formal and social media platforms to continue to be battlegrounds of wars of information, waged with weapons of alternative facts, fabricated information, and the newly-created network of automated analytical work.

Fake Analysts to Influence Public Opinion

Recently, Marc Owen Jones, a digital researcher at Hamad bin Khalifa University, uncovered a propaganda campaign that fooled many, with numerous outlets publishing articles written by fake personas. “Salma Mohamed” and “Badani” are two examples of non-existent “experts” writing opinion pieces that have appeared on nearly 50 different platforms. The published pieces were mainly repeating the Saudi and Emirati agenda that depicted Qatar, Turkey, and Iran as predatory states. Other fake personas who have written pieces calling for tougher policies against Doha, Ankara, Tehran, and Shi’a militias in the region includeJanet Grabowsk”i,Joyce Toledano”,Joseph Labba”,Lisa Moore”, andAmani Shahan”, among others. This disinformation campaign highlights the extent to which influence operations can dupe global news, social media, and analysis platforms in order to influence public opinion and shape governments’ policies.

There is no doubt that the Gulf region is politically fraught. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been seen using fake propaganda and misinformation in social media and other press platforms against their regional rivals in Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. Since the beginning of the GCC crisis, vast networks of bots—mainly from accounts that push out messages on the same day—have been disseminating anti-Qatari information and pushing fake news about the Gulf dispute. The bots have also been using hashtags and other promotion tools to go viral on social media and maximize the impact of information dissemination. Now, in tandem with zombie Twitter accounts, the production of articles produced by nonexistent writers appears to be part of a new strategy that some governments in the Middle East use to influence public opinion.

Twitter’s Security and Privacy is Jeopardized

The security and privacy of Twitter and other social media platforms have become a real concern for public and media experts. The fact that Twitter has failed to end the privacy violation and put an end to disinformation via bots that violate Twitter’s own rules and policies raises red flags. Even more disturbing than the freedom of speech restrictions and misinformation campaigns targeting critics of some Gulf governments, Turkish investigators indicated that Saudi officials spied on Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post Columnist, through his Twitter account prior to luring him to his death in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The infiltration of Twitter by Gulf governments became public when it was revealed in November 2019 that the Saudi government recruited three Twitter employees Ahmad Abouammo, Ali Alzabarah, and Ahmed Almutairi, to spy on Saudi dissidents. The US Justice Department indicted the three, all now ex-Twitter employees, for spying on the private accounts of Twitter users on behalf of the Saudi government. 

More recently, Saudi Twitter users carried out a vicious misogynistic campaign against two Al Jazeera presenters, Ola al-Fares and Ghada Oueiss. The latter had recently published an opinion piece in The Washington Post describing how she has faced online bullying and harassment by bots directed by certain Gulf countries. However, Twitter was “seemingly reluctant to do anything.” For example, Oueiss explained in her Post article that her phone was hacked and photos of her and her family were stolen and published on Twitter by Saudi and Emirati public figures. This was part of an online campaign of character assassination. As a result of the rising security concerns stemming from Twitter’soffice in Dubai, media specialists have been calling for its removal.

While many are quick to credit Twitter and other social media platforms for helping Arab revolutions in 2011 and after, the social media platform is becoming a minefield for its users in the Middle East. Unless Twitter realizes that it is not able to uphold one of its objectives–providing a space for free speech–and as long as Twitter is unable to put an end to the violation of privacy and security of its users, one can expect more crimes such as the killing of Khashoggi and online bullying of Ghada Oueiss and others.

 

Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.

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