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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Saudi state-backed disinformation accounts taken down by Facebook and Twitter

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Accounts with tens of thousands-to-one million followers promoted doctored videos and false information about Qatar.

Fake state-backed Saudi Twitter accounts under the names of Qatari royals and governmental bodies were taken down by Twitter in its anti-disinformation campaign, the company announced on Thursday.

“Post-investigation, we permanently suspended all 1,594 accounts associated with the five networks, for various violations of our platform manipulation policies,” said Twitter in a statement.

The accounts spread rumors of a military coup in Qatar and fabricated statements from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Some of the fake Twitter accounts, with one million followers, impersonated the identity of members of the Qatari royal family, including Fahad bin Abdullah Al-Thani, who currently resides in Saudi Arabia. The accounts fabricated statements by Amnesty and HRW, saying Al-Thani was being tortured in a Qatari prison.

In May, an account under the handle “@QtrGov” spread rumors of a military coup in Qatar. Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha who specialises in disinformation on social media, identified the network of Twitter accounts spreading the coup-related rumors.

In a Twitter analysis, Jones traced back the doctored videos and found that they had incorporated clips and audios from different countries, including China and Saudi Arabia—none from Qatar.

According to Stanford Internet Observatory, the accounts changed their handles several times and cleared out their previous tweets to increase their legitimacy, including what could be audience-building spam tweets.

Read also: ‘Blockade was premeditated’: Al Jazeera documentary discloses leaked documents

Recently, Ahmad Abouammo, a former Twitter employee, had pleaded not guilty to 23 criminal charges, including acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Saudi Arabia and helping Riyadh spy on its critics, following his arrest in 2019. He was also acquitted of all charges made against him regarding the illegal access and collection of data belonging to anti-Saudi activists and sending them to the Royal Family.

In December, Twitter also suspended 88,000 accounts linked to Smaat, a Saudi marketing company co-founded by an individual linked to the royal family. Smaat has been critical of Saudi’s rivals, including Qatar, Iran and Turkey.

Hacking efforts

Last month, an Al Jazeera documentary revealed that the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar was premeditated, with online hacking plans and campaigns prepared years in advance.

“Distance Zero”, the Al Jazeera documentary, found that Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt created 80,000 fake Twitter accounts used to promote the hashtag “Qatar Supports Terrorism”.

According to the investigation, the hashtag was traced back to 2013, four years before the blockade, and was ready to be activated a month earlier.

Moreover, a ‘Qatarileaks’ account was used to spread false information. The account was also traced back to an apartment in Ahmed Abdulaziz Street in Cairo. According to a former ‘QatariLeaks’ employee, Emirati company Dot_Dev began preparing the platform at the end of 2016.

Qatar continues to fight the ongoing, illegal air, land and sea blockade while maintaining its regional sovereignty.

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