An image of King Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 6, 2015.
Tomas Munita—The New York Times/Redux
Ideas
August 24, 2022 5:30 AM EDT
Marc Owen Jones is Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar and author of Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Deception, Disinformation and Social Media

On The Weather Channel, meteorologist Dave Schwartz was always known for his easy-going manner and gentle sense of humor. So followers and fans, whom Schwartz often referred to as “friends,” were surprised when, in 2018, he started tweeting Saudi regime propaganda. In Arabic. Two years after his death from pancreatic cancer.

An obituary had appeared in the New York Times. Fans called out the hack in public. Yet for months Schwartz’s Twitter account remained “verified” – with the blue check-mark Twitter uses to signal authenticity.

And it wasn’t just Schwartz. Around 70 more verified accounts belonging to athletes, professional baseball players, musicians and comedians, were also hacked by accounts reporting their locations as Saudi Arabia. Among the public figures singing the praises of the kingdom was Debbie Smith, a Democrat elected to the Nevada state senate before also passing away from cancer.

When it comes to social media manipulation, the US needs to look closer at its allies, not just its enemies.

Russian disinformation may come first to mind for interfering in U.S. politics, but some of the most damning evidence of efforts to influence the American public leads to Washington’s allies in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are at the forefront of undermining democratic deliberation–from manipulating the impact of Donald Trump’s tweets, to tricking editors across the world into publishing propaganda. Worryingly, Twitter seems to be very slow to do anything about it.

Saudi Arabia has the highest Twitter population in the Middle East, and its manipulation of the platform was allowed to reach alarming proportions. In 2019, Twitter suspended a network of 88,000 fake accounts promoting regime propaganda. Despite its known manipulation of social media in the US, Russia cannot compare. When you group the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt together–as the company does in its information dumps—the two Gulf states rank second only to China in manipulating Twitter.

The FBI in 2019 found evidence that employees at Twitter’s San Fransciso headquarters, groomed with bribes such as luxury watches, were co-ordinating with members of the Saudi royal family to obtain private information from Twitter users. In August 2022, a jury found one of these men guilty. Two others couldn’t be tried because they were in Saudi Arabia.

Not even the former U.S. President Donald Trump was immune (or at least his Twitter timeline wasn’t). In 2017, when Trump tweeted support for Saudi’s King Salman, thousands of bot accounts retweeted Trump’s praise of the Saudi regime.

One of the most audacious deception operations appeared to be connected to the UAE. Between 2019 and 2021, op-eds that supported the foreign policy position of the UAE, Saudi, and the U.S. administration under Trump began appearing in numerous well-known U.S. outlets, such as Newsmax, The National Interest, The Post Millennial and the Washington Examiner. The catch: The journalists writing them did not actually exist.

The fake journalists would steal profile photos from real people including U.S. citizens. They would then create Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin accounts, and pitch ideas to unsuspecting editors at news sites soliciting contributions. As the project developed, the manipulators used realistic-looking faces generated by artificial intelligence to set up social media profiles. By the time the imposters were outed, they had published at least 90 different opinion pieces in 46 different publications.

Some of these articles were shared on Twitter by the likes of Ryan Fournier, the founder of ‘Students for Trump’, and French senator Natalie Goulet. I spoke to the editors of some of the publications who had been tricked into publishing articles; none had met or had a video conversation with the journalists they were publishing.

Companies are also involved. Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Social Limited, worked with the UAE to create a social media advertising campaign attacking Qatar, a Gulf rival that’s home of the largest U.S. military base in the region. Though better known its use of “soft power” through projects like Al Jazeera, Qatar has also been reported to use disinformation, as well as allegedly hacking the email of the Emirates’ powerful ambassador to Washington.

For their part, the Emiratis worked with ex-NSA spies to hack the devices of U.S. citizens. And both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the biggest customers of NSO, the Israeli firm that sells the spyware Pegasus, which they have used to target dozens of activists, journalists and academics. No one is off limits. Even New York Times journalist Ben Hubbard, who wrote a book on Mohammed bin Salman, was targeted by a Saudi-linked Pegasus operator. This “spyware diplomacy” comes with the increasingly warmer ties between Israel and certain Gulf countries and, along with their shared security vision of the region, will only strengthen digital authoritarianism.

We have travelled far in the space of a decade – but not in a good direction. In 2011, during the heady days of the Arab Spring, social media and digital technology was touted as the force that would help liberate the region from authoritarian rule and bring democracy. Now, authoritarian regimes in the Gulf, along with Western companies and expertise, are using digital technology and social media to try and hack democracy wherever they find it, including in the U.S. The effect is clearest, however, in the Middle East. With critics silenced through incarceration, surveillance, torture, or death, opposition voices are increasingly fearful of self-expression, meaning that the digital public sphere is simply a space to praise the regime or engage in banal platitudes.

Gulf regimes like Saudi and the UAE are joining the truth-hostile ranks of other digital superpowers. But their alliance with the U.S. provides cover not available to a Russia or a China.

Left unguarded, the integrity of the digital public square will continue its decline.

 

 

 

 

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