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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

OPINION: Saudi-UAE run bot factories are a threat to free speech


Fake online bots emerged as a recent cyber warfare tactic to aid repressive governments in disseminating propaganda while attacking all critics, Ghada Oueiss writes.

In the months and weeks leading up to the 2017 Qatar blockade, millions of fake online bots, commonly referred to locally as “electronic flies”, were deployed across social media platforms to send out coordinated tweets and posts in a bid to manipulate the political discourse in the region.

The fairly recent cyber warfare tactic was vital in disseminating pro-Saudi and pro-UAE government propaganda en masse, often attacking dissidents and opponents and riling up citizens to imitate similar attitudes and behaviour. 

With just a few clicks, technical teams are able to programme an army of fake bots to ‘retweet’ posts from specific influential accounts, such as government figures and websites like ‘QatariLeaks’, providing a means to amplify false information of a biased nature using specific keywords. 

In other cases, such as mine, the bots position themselves on specific timelines – consistently responding to tweets with cruel insults and unwarranted attacks.

Although the three-year crisis ended with the signing of the Al Ula Declaration in January, little has been done to stop Saudi and Emirati disinformation networks on popular social media platforms like Twitter.

Read also: Al Jazeera journalist files lawsuit against Saudi, UAE crown princes

While here has been a notable decrease in the number of tweets targeting the State of Qatar and its leadership, the bots that once took aim at Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, his father and mother, have now been redirected to focus their attacks on other individuals like myself, my colleagues at the Al Jazeera media network, as well as other journalists and human rights activists.  

A simple search of ‘Ghada Oueiss’, or my colleague ‘Ola Alfares’, on Twitter will provide a glimpse of the magnitude of online abuse, harassment, misogynist terrorism, threats, attacks, and manipulated pictures and cartoons designed to do nothing less than to demonise us as professionals and human beings.

It also comes as no surprise to see the tweets are repetitive – a lousy copy and paste job by technicians at the headquarters of the troll factory. They usually conclude with some sort of messages of support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, making them easy to spot.

The similarities in the content, in account creation date, in number of followers and the profile pictures, are all factors into determining that the account is flagged as a Saudi tool.

Trolls dominate trending hashtags to reach as far and wide as possible. In most cases, they are deployed to tweet random disinformation to reshape narratives even in irrelevant conversations online. 

Spygate: how the UAE and Saudi are using spyware to silence journalists

Earlier this year, the US declassified an intelligence report that confirms Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman’s involvement in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khasshogi. 

In 2018, the journalist was killed and dismembered in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate and to this day, the remains of his body are yet to be found. According to the damning US report, this all happened with full knowledge and approval of MBS, who sent a team of 15 to Turkey for quick in and out job.

Despite this, Twitter accounts seemingly continue to sing his praise and anyone who dares to call him out for this heinous crime is hounded by fake bots designed to silence critics and maintain a polished image of the Saudi authoritarian regime.

In its efforts to stop state-sponsored propaganda, Twitter has removed thousands of accounts it said were backed by the government of Saudi Arabia. Most recently, the  popular social media platform said it removed 3,500 accounts it said were involved in spam activity and engaged in platform manipulation in relation to the intelligence report. 

While this venture is a step in the right direction, it’s nothing more than a needle-in-a-haystack approach when compared to the fast-paced production lines at troll factories in the region. 

If these multi-billion dollar companies truly care about protecting their consumers, more bold action must be done to pressure repressive governments around the world to abide by the rules.  

In short, the blockade has indeed ended, but the troll factories and fake bots are alive and tweeting, and while they may have changed their target for now, so long as they exist and go unchecked, they will continue to threaten free speech and press freedom in our societies. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Doha News, its editorial board or staff.

Ghada Oueiss is a renowned anchor and journalist at the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Network.

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