A new disinformation campaign alleging that a coup has taken place against the Emir of Qatar is just the latest episode in a three-year effort to discredit the wealthy Gulf country by its neighbors. 

On Monday, thousands of Twitter accounts retweeted a doctored video claiming that gunshots had been fired in the coastal Qatari city of Al Wakrah. The footage alleged that a plan to overthrow the ruling Al-Thani family was underway. At least two other videos featuring audio of gunshots pushed similar narratives. 

The videos mark the latest in a new round of attacks against Doha. Last week, an article published by the Saudi Gazette alleged that a member of the Qatari ruling family had called on Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to step down. 

Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, was the first to discover that the videos had been manipulated and audio tracks of gunshots had been dubbed onto the footage

Jones published a thread showing his Twitter analysis of a disinformation campaign that employed the Arabic hashtags “Al Wakra” and “Coup in Qatar.” Jones found the two hashtags had been tweeted, retweeted and replied to in some 20,700 posts from around 12,000 unique accounts. He also found a pattern of “sockpuppets” — fake accounts often employed for disinformation purposes. According to Jones, each sockpuppet had retweeted the false stories 22 times.

The narrative of the “fake coup” was also given some legitimacy by a number of high-profile news organizations, including The Independent Arabia, a Saudi offshoot of the British newspaper The Independent. 

“I think you can tie these disinformation campaigns with events taking place in Saudi Arabia that we’re not aware of,” said Jones, in a telephone interview. “The sense I get is that it is aimed at domestic audiences in Saudi, to distract them from the economic situation there and the spread of the coronavirus.”

Jones added that the claims were likely to be designed to reinforce the policy of ostracization pursued against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.  

“This is an attempt to legitimize the blockade, the reasons for it, and the effect it has had on people’s lives,” he explained.

The geographical and diplomatic isolation of Qatar began during Ramadan in June 2017, when the four countries cut ties with Doha, after years of disputes about its foreign policy. 

The quartet later issued a 13-point ultimatum, stating that Doha should shutter its media operations — including the broadcaster Al Jazeera — and submit to monthly external compliance checks. Qatar was given 10 days to comply with the demands or face unspecified consequences.

In the years since the blockade was launched, Qatar has faced numerous accusations from Saudi Arabia and the UAE of supporting terrorism and, more recently, of spreading the coronavirus. Armies of Twitter accounts have been established to work alongside UAE and Saudi media organizations in an often brazen disinformation campaign against Doha.

Gulf experts have quickly debunked this week’s “fake coup” as part of an ongoing program aimed at undermining the authority of the Qatari ruling family. 

“This sudden spike in activity seems to have returned to the same ground that triggered the blockade in 2017 — a fake news bubble which then becomes a pretext for further action,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, author of Qatar and the Gulf Crisis

“It is bizarre and a repetition of what happened three years ago, in terms of timing and tone and content. It also flies against reason when the initial attempt to blockade Qatar in 2017 failed to win results and created antagonisms in the region.”

This latest round of disinformation ends any hope of an imminent resolution to the Gulf dispute. Qatar withdrew from recent attempts to negotiate a settlement earlier this year. 

At the time, Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, said, “Unfortunately, efforts did not succeed and were suspended at the beginning of January, and Qatar is not responsible for this.”