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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

How a Saudi-Emirati plot tried to falsely link Qatar Airways with ‘terrorism’

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Since the 2017 illegal blockade, thousands of fake online accounts have attempted to spread misinformation on Qatar’s flagship national carrier, writes Marc Owen Jones.

A new Al Jazeera documentary revealed that the United Arab Emirates has been trying to smear Qatar Airways as an alleged supporter of terrorism.

The two-part documentary, ‘Point Blank’, stated the Emirati Civil Aviation Authority requested the media attempt to link Qatar Airways the terrorism. This was mostly done through the hashtag ‘Two Hamads’, a hashtag that has garnered millions of tweets over the past few years, most of which were designed to demonise Qatar.

Attempts to smear Qatar Airways were revealed in 2019, when Twitter suspended thousands of accounts linked to DotDev, a private technology company operating from the UAE and one of many emerging digital mercenary companies.

DotDev also operated QatariLeaks, a website largely focused on publishing disinformation about Qatar. According to Shelby Grossman of the Stanford Internet Observatory, one of the stories, titled “Death Haunts Passengers on Qatar Airways”, had no info about any Qatar Airways deaths.

The Gulf Crisis: A Digital War Zone

In 2017, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut off relationships with Qatar and imposed an illegal land, air and sea blockade. In the subsequent months and years, ongoing attempts have been made to smear Qatar as a terrorist supporting state by the blockading countries.

A large part of this campaign has been the use of ‘adversarial social media content’ – whereby the blockading states have attempted to use social media to portray Qatar and other perceived enemies of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as an adversary to global audiences. Since 2017, Twitter has suspended tens of thousands of accounts linked to the UAE, Saudi and Egypt.

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

Indeed, Saudi Arabia is one of the worst offenders in the world for Twitter disinformation and has seen thousands of its accounts taken down by the popular social media app for ‘influence operations’.

In fact, behind China, Saudi Arabia has the highest number of accounts removed by Twitter for information operations. Higher than Russia or Iran.

The number of accounts is so large that they are not all listed on Twitter’s website and some 88,000 alone belong to just one Saudi-based digital marketing firm, SMAAT.

Qatar Airways attacked on multiple fronts

Disinformation strategies often like to piggy-back on topics dominating the news cycle in order to maximise their chances of being read. COVID-19 has created a shift in disinformation strategies, and Qatar and its flagship national carrier have both faced weaponising of COVID-19 ‘fake news’ by its rivals.

For Qatar Airways, this is nothing new.

The airline has been a target of this adversarial content since the start of the illegal 2017 blockade. In May 2020, an expansive network of fake journalists, who successfully tricked editors in at least 46 different news organisations into publishing over 90 opinion pieces, were publishing news favourable to the UAE regime.

“Despite Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies taking very visible steps to combat disinformation, there is still a blindspot”

One of the articles, published by the non-existent Raphael Badani on the South African publication, Business Day, directly singled out Qatar as being responsible for spreading the novel coronavirus. The article, which is still available online, accused Qatar Airways of being lax in its approach to tackling COVID-19, implying that it helped spread the infection from Iran to Europe.

In contrast, Badani sought to praise the measures taken by the UAE’s flagship carriers Etihad and Emirates. The attacks reflect an attempt to undermine rival airline companies as they compete for business in the post-COVID-19 economic downturn. This rivalry has been made more acute by UAE’s rivalry with Qatar.

Another similar attempt occurred in March 2020, when several Twitter accounts started spreading false messages that accused Qatar of being negligent in its handling of the health crisis, suggesting it had spread the virus to Argentina via Qatar Airways. Other accounts also claimed Qatar Airways “encouraged the spread” of scabies.

“This is what I’ve been thinking past weeks the negligence and incompetency of #Qatar causing madness! A person who flew from Qatar to Argentina turned out to be positive of Corona Virus. Why aren’t they checking all the passengers? Is Qatar really spreading the virus?,” one of the dubious messages read.

Most of the other tweets, posted by accounts featuring attractive young women as their display pictures, stated that Qatar was guilty of ‘negligence’ or ‘incompetency’.

Read also: DN Special: Qatar Airways ‘one of first global airlines’ to introduce pre-flight rapid COVID-19 testing

None of the accounts had any evidence of previous expertise, knowledge or even concern about Argentina, COVID-19, or Gulf politics. In fact, the only common factor that united the accounts was their link to the BTS fandom – a community of hardcore fans of the Korean Boy Band.

The accounts were soon suspended by Twitter.

Despite Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies taking very visible steps to combat disinformation, there is still a blindspot when it comes to enforcing governance in non-European languages.

This oversight smacks of digital orientalism, where companies in Silicon Valley treat the Middle East as the ‘Wild West’, ripe from profit and consumers but undeserving of the cost of ensuring those products are not used for nefarious purposes.

Marc Owen Jones is an assistant professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at the Doha-based Hamad bin Khalifa University. He is also an honorary research fellow at Exeter University.


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