Fake accounts, trolls promote anti-Qatar misinformation amid blockade

Fake accounts, trolls promote anti-Qatar misinformation amid blockade
4 min read
03 September, 2018
Fake accounts, trolls and dubious hash-tags are being used in online misinformation campaigns amid political conflicts in the Arab world, notably in the spat between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours.
Social media is a key tool in controlling narratives online. [Getty]

Fake accounts, trolls and dubious hash-tags are being used in a concerted online misinformation campaign amid political conflicts in the Arab world, notably in the year-long spat between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours, according to a BBC report.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt launched a blockade on Qatar last June, cutting diplomatic ties with Doha and halting air, sea and land links to the Gulf state.

The Saudi-led bloc accuses Qatar of supporting terrorism and being too closely allied to regional rival Iran, claims Doha strongly denies.

Social media has been a key tool in controlling narratives in the dispute, with trolls engaging in an online propaganda war by using fake accounts to increase their followers and project credibility.

The accounts, often with patriotic names, have tens of thousands of followers and are dedicated to retweeting derogatory remarks against their opponents.

Fake accounts

A BBC investigation found that a significant proportion of followers were fake, with their sole purpose to boost the credibility of larger accounts.

One such account is Saudi-based @m6mp3, which claims to be a media platform seeking to expose Qatar's "support for terrorism and corruption". The account has 41,000 followers.

Fake accounts often contribute to the promotion of trending Twitter hashtags, posting consecutive tweets over a short period in order to get recognised by Twitter's algorithms

The BBC examined 1,000 random followers of the account and discovered 350 had no profile pictures or had ever posted a tweet.

Another anti-Qatar account @qatarileaks has more than 55,000 followers, with a sample of 1,000 followers showing that 23 percent were inactive, the BBC reported.

Fake accounts often contribute to the promotion of trending Twitter hashtags, posting consecutive tweets over a short period in order to get recognised by Twitter's algorithms.

The BBC report cited one such example following a reported meeting between Qatari and Israeli officials in Cyprus.

Anti-Qatar trolls launched the hashtag  "Cyprus meeting exposes Qatar and Israel". The hashtag appeared in more than 7,000 tweets and trended in the UAE and Qatar last week.

Fake accounts tweeted the hashtag multiple times in a matter of minutes to give it a boost, with one account retweeting the hashtag four times in four minutes. The tweets were all deleted the next day.

Bot armies

In July, thousands of tweets were sent out using the #OpposeQatarVisit hashtag in an attempt to damage the reputation of Qatar during the emir's visit to the UK.

An analysis by The New Arab showed that a large number of the profiles using the hashtag were likely bots, designed to spread fake news about Qatar and build traffic and visibility for the hashtag.

Accounts, often with patriotic names, have tens of thousands of followers and are dedicated to retweeting derogatory remarks against their opponents

Many of the Twitter profiles used exactly the same text and images when posting, suggesting that they were probably automated accounts controlled by algorithms.

According to Trendsmap.com, 40 percent of tweets using the #OpposeQatarVisit hashtag originated in Saudi Arabia with 18 percent seemingly from France.

Fake accounts have also been used to increase the number of likes on a post to help it stand out amid a crowded news cycle.

In Egypt, the official Twitter account of Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in August had an average of 2,000 to 3,000 likes each post.

Most of the accounts liking the posts had never tweeted before and did not have profile pictures, with their activities appearing solely to promote pro-Sisi posts, the BBC reported.

In a recent example of online disinformation, fake visuals flooded social media after Yemen's Houthi rebels claimed on 27 August to have attacked Dubai International Airport with a drone.

YouTube channel Shasha 24 posted a video showing smoke filling the sky at Dubai airport, fuelling the rumours.

The faked video was shared by pro-Houthi Twitter users, which increased the video’s reach. The footage was in fact from when an Emirati flight crash-landed in 2016.

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