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Saudi disinformation campaign reveals fear of progressive Muslim congresswomen Open in fullscreen

Wilson Dizard

Saudi disinformation campaign reveals fear of progressive Muslim congresswomen

Along with Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar (above) is one of the first Muslim congresswomen [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 December, 2018

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Comment: The internet is a fertile forum for fear and deception, but it's clear Congress has no idea what to do about it, writes Wilson Dizard.
American lawmakers on Tuesday posed absurd questions to a Google's chief executive, Sundar Pichai, who was called to testify to answer questions about search engine results and consumer privacy online.

Republicans wanted to know why search engine results were biased against them, some of them holding up their own smartphones to illustrate their disbelief that the devices don't present fair and balanced search results.

One Republican congressman from Iowa, the white nationalist Steve King, asked for the names of Google employees, so he could see if they were liberals. Liberals, making Google liberal!

As for the issues of consumer privacy and data protection, or algorithms robotically brainwashing pensioners into believing racist conspiracy theories, lawmakers didn't care or didn't understand.

Democrats, for their part, repudiated the Republicans' assertion that Google was biased against conservatives. This isn't exactly something for Democrats to brag about, as their opposition will remain unconvinced and consumers remain just as vulnerable to violations of privacy. Good job, everybody.

As with the Senate's equally farcical attempt to get answers out of Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg about disinformation, the hearing only served to illustrate that US lawmakers have no understanding of the basics of how the internet actually works, as a business, or as a technology. 

This is kind of funny, except it isn't. It's as though people who don't know how to drive are responsible for writing traffic laws.

How do we keep Saudi botnets from spreading noxious lies about Muslim American lawmakers?

Ironically enough, the internet was first invented by the federal government, as a way for the country to communicate after a nuclear attack.

The 'net' would still transfer messages even if part of it was obliterated by nuclear bombs. Fifty years later, the job of transferring raging rivers of traffic is in the hands of a few Internet Service Providers, and not evenly distributed between a handful of universities. (Bad news: In the event of a nuclear war, your WiFi is toast, too.)

The content of this traffic, once just benign nerd jabber, today has the potential to upend governments and tear at the fabric of society itself. It's a Sphinx-like monster that escaped from a government lab, and its riddles wreak havoc across the world; a horror movie, more or less.

Another scene in that horror movie played out this week, as news emerged of an online disinformation campaign directed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which aimed to slander the first Muslim women ever elected to US Congress, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, both Democrats.

They also directed their ire at Abdul El-Sayed, who made an unsuccessful bid to be Michigan's governor.

According to the Foreign Policy piece, Gulf diplomats, commentators and social media accounts attempted to cast the newly elected lawmakers as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The fact that Omar and Tlaib were elected by Americans concerned about the future of healthcare in the United States doesn't matter to these Gulf Twitter trolls. What they fear are lawmakers in Washington who might be able to see through their lie that brutal authoritarianism is the only legitimate form of government for Arabs, or anyone else.

The author of the Foreign Policy article, Ola Salem, puts it this way:

"It should be little surprise that America's authoritarian allies have responded with panic and fear to voices like Tlaib and Omar. These regimes have always benefited from the false choice they present to policymakers in the West - in Muslim countries, they say, extremists are the only alternative to dictators. That argument is eloquently undermined by American politicians who share those regimes' religion, but not their cynicism about democracy."

Worringly, the disinformation campaign may have an audience in the US, especially among racist Republicans suspicious of Muslims gaining political power, and the notion of multiculturalism or pluralism in general. But what's striking is how that same audience is also receptive to toxic foreign interpretations of whiteness in America.

Indeed, some of these reactionary, white nationalist campaigns resemble what the Saudis or Emiratis demand, too. Monarchy is the only legitimate, stable form of government, and democracy always causes chaos, not liberation. White people were better off as subjects, not citizens.

Many of the pseudo-intellectual backers of Trump's presidency saw him as a return to a sterner, purer form of European identity, one where pale, hereditary monarchies replace the government by the consent of the governed, bloodline and titles of nobility replace paperwork and visa applications.

The hearing only served to illustrate that US lawmakers have no understanding of the basics of how the internet actually works

While the monarchist internet types are dressing up in crusader costumes to troll the snowflakes, absolutist monarchies absolutely exist in the Gulf and they are terrified of giving up a single grain of authority. It is, they say, for their subjects' own good that political power remains in as few hands as possible.

And while Europe's royals are little more than feckless, overfed celebrities, Gulf monarchs sentence people to gruesome, public executions for political speech.

So what does this all have to do with Congress not knowing its dots from its dashes when it comes to how the internet works?

How does a Saudi torture dungeon have anything to do with an American-made cage for a crying migrant child? The link lies in how the fear and deception travel along the internet in ways that convince us to give up our rights, and the rights of others, for the sake of an imagined safety.

Mohammed bin Salman has decided to build a kind of Saudi nationalism, nurturing it on Twitter, the most toxic possible

In a sharp break with his ancestors, Mohammed bin Salman has decided to build a kind of Saudi nationalism, nurturing it on Twitter, the most toxic possible place to start a national identity.

It's a bedrock for a national identity that offers little space for reflection or restraint, and includes thick veins of vile racism and invective. US President Donald Trump did a similar thing in 2016, but the Make America Great Again crowd do not have an absolute monarch backing them up.

So what is to be done? How does one make the internet a better place to spend the rest of our lives? How do we keep Saudi botnets from spreading noxious lies about Muslim American lawmakers? How do we stop Russian troll armies from stoking resentment against refugees, boosting white nationalists? I don't know. But I do know Congress doesn't know either.

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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