Sophisticated new disinformation campaign targets Qatar
- Text by Rachel Sherman
In March, Coda Story’s Burhan Wazir wrote about the surge of disinformation against Qatar in the wake of Covid-19, following an attack from fake Twitter profiles and bot accounts spreading conspiracy theories about the country and the virus.
The Gulf country is under a disinformation attack once again. According to a Daily Beast investigation released earlier this week, fake journalist personas published “Middle East hot takes” in op-eds for 46 different right-leaning publications, including Newsmax and Washington Examiner. Many of the articles criticized Qatar and heaped praise on the United Arab Emirates, while pushing for a tougher line on Iran and Turkey.
The digital propaganda campaign used stolen avatars and AI-generated headshots to create fictitious authors. The avatars employed photos of real people but cropped and mirror image reversed the pictures in an attempt to thwart detection. Fake biographies, academic credentials, LinkedIn profiles, and Twitter accounts added plausibility.
The Daily Beast investigation revealed that the network of fabricated contributors endorsed similar viewpoints in more than 90 articles: criticism of Qatar’s state-funded news outlet, Al Jazeera, a demand for stricter sanctions against Iran, and praise for the United Arab Emirates’ response to Covid-19.
One op-ed in The Asia Times, a Hong Kong-based English language news outlet, condemned Qatar for using — ironically enough — disinformation to paint itself as “a liberal mecca in a sea of conservative, regressive regimes.” Another opinion piece on fake news and political discourse by a fake journalist was titled, “How Qatar is using Disinformation Tactics to Attack its Rivals.”
“These kinds of statements are created to build a narrative,” said Kiran Nazish, a Middle East analyst and professor of politics and media at Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada. “The whole point is to create leverage against a country,” she said in a phone interview.
Qatar has been under a land, sea and air blockade since June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic links with the gas-rich country, after years of foreign policy disagreements.
Nazish said that any propaganda campaign against Qatar strengthens the blockade and builds momentum for Saudi and Emirati foreign policy.
“It gives adrenaline to the anti-Qatar lobby because Qatar is instrumental in foreign policy with Iran. It’s about who has regional power in the Middle East and who has economic power globally,” she said.
Though many of the articles have been taken down and accompanying Twitter accounts deleted, the incident shows how sophisticated disinformation campaigns can go undetected. “Disinformation is the great tool that everyone is free to use,” added Nazish.
Photo by AFP via Getty Images
The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Support journalism that stays on the story.