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News outlets published propaganda by non-existent Middle East 'analysts', investigation finds

At least 19 fake personas placed over 90 opinion pieces in 46 different publications [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 July, 2020

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Multiple news websites published propagandist Middle East takes by a network of fake analysts, according to an investigation by The Daily Beast.
Dozens of news outlets have published op-eds by fake personas posing as Middle East experts spreading fake "anti-Qatar propaganda", according to an investigation by The Daily Beast.

The site found that at least 19 personas placed over 90 opinion pieces in 46 different publications.

Common takes by the "authors" included praise for the UAE, criticism of Qatar, advocacy for tougher sanctions on Iran, and criticism of Turkey's military support for the Libyan government.

The personas were published in conservative US media outlets such as The Washington Examiner, RealClear Markets, American Thinker, The National Interest, Human Events and The Post Millenial.

Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post, Saudi news outlet Al Arabiya and Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post also fell for the fake experts and published their pieces.

The personas operated under fake names and fabricated work experience and academic credentials, The Daily Beast reported. 

They billed themselves as political consultants and freelance journalists mostly based in European capitals. Some headshots were stolen from real people or free image databases, while others were AI-generated faces.

One persona wrote a story for the International Policy Digest last year titled "How Qatar is using Disinformation Tactics to Attack its Rivals", in which it accused Doha-based broadcaster Al Jazeera of disseminating fake news.

The International Policy Digest has pulled the piece, but the network of fake personas resurfaced in the Asia Times with another article, a few days later, again accusing Qatar of spreading disinformation.

On Monday, Twitter suspended 16 accounts belonging to the personas uncovered by The Daily Beast, citing their policies on "platform manipulation and spam".

In addition to sharing similar geopolitical viewpoints, the personas also tended to contribute to two websites: The Arab Eye and Persia Now, which do not appear to be genuine news and analysis websites.

Though both sites appear to be different at surface level, The Daily Beast found them to be covertly linked through commonalities such as sharing a Google Analytics account and being hosted on the same IP.

As of Tuesday, The Arab Eye and Persia Now's URLs remained active, though the contents of their websites appear to have been scrubbed.

Networks of fake profiles aiming to push political agendas been persistent issues in the Middle East.

Last month, a misogynistic online harassment campaign saw pro-Saudi Twitter accounts targeting two female Al Jazeera journalists. Twitter has previously had to crack down on spam accounts from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE for pushing pro-government content.

Last month, Twitter cracked down on "state-linked information operations" that were employing "coordinated inauthentic activity" from Turkey, suspending thousands of pro-Erdogan accounts for violations of the social network's platform manipulation policies.

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