July 8, 2021


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Anatomy of a disinformation marketing campaign: The coup that by no means was | Saudi Arabia

Within the early hours of Might 4, information of a coup in Qatar began trending on Twitter.

At about 1:30am Saudi time, a mysterious account that makes use of a photograph of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman as its profile image tweeted that an explosion was heard within the Qatari metropolis of al-Wakra, simply exterior the capital, Doha. Quickly after, a Saudi-based account with just a few followers replied to the tweet, claiming there had been a coup try towards Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.


By all accounts, residents of al-Wakra had heard a bang that night time. This, in and of itself, was common – folks dwelling on this metropolis are used to being startled by the sonic growth of jets now and again. Nonetheless, the truth that a loud bang was heard close to the capital gave folks motivated to unfold disinformation about Qatar a peg on which to hold the plausibility of their claims.

Quickly after the primary tweet claiming that there had been a coup in Doha, the Arabic hashtag “al-Wakra” started trending on Twitter in Qatar, and “coup in Qatar” started trending in Saudi Arabia. In a matter of hours, lots of of hundreds of tweets in regards to the alleged coup try have been produced throughout a number of hashtags, making “coup in Qatar” the number-one trending subject in each Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The narrative that was being pushed on Twitter was that former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim, disgruntled by a corruption investigation, had sought to overthrow the emir, with Turkish troops stationed within the nation interceding on behalf of the present management.

The overwhelming majority of accounts tweeting about this alleged coup try gave the impression to be based mostly in Saudi Arabia, elevating suspicions that the rumours could possibly be a part of a long-running Saudi-led marketing campaign to discredit the Qatari management.

On June 5, 2017, 4 Arab international locations – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain – severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of funding “terrorism” and fomenting regional instability – allegations Doha rejects. The international locations additionally minimize off all land, air and sea hyperlinks to Qatar.

The transfer was adopted by a relentless disinformation marketing campaign, led principally by social media, aiming to create the impression that the Qatari management is in disaster and that Riyadh’s aggressive insurance policies in direction of its Gulf neighbour are justified.

A couple of days after the blockade was imposed, for instance, there have been claims remodeled Twitter of a coup being beneath means in Qatar. On the time, these unfounded claims have been swiftly reported on, and supported by, media shops which have hyperlinks to the blockading international locations.

This month’s Twitter-storm in regards to the alleged coup try in Qatar appeared to have a number of similarities with the Saudi-led disinformation efforts of 2017. 

Suspicious, I made a decision to analyze.

‘Sock puppets’ and influencers

Many of the accounts spreading the rumours gave the impression to be nameless and based mostly in Saudi Arabia.

Tons of of others, with European-sounding names, in the meantime, have been “sock puppets” – accounts arrange beneath pretend names to bolster a selected standpoint on-line. Certainly, none of those accounts had a historical past of tweeting in Arabic or on Center Jap politics previous to Might 4.

Gulf disinformation graphics - sockpuppets

Nonetheless, amid all these nameless and clearly pretend accounts, I discovered a key group of verified accounts spreading disinformation. Abdallah al-Bandar, a Saudi presenter for the worldwide information channel Sky Information Arabia who has 234,000 followers on Twitter, for instance, added gas to the rumours by tweeting early on Might Four that warplanes have been flying over Qatar.

Quite a few different influential Saudis contributed to the fast unfold of the rumours by sharing false, unverified data on social media, together with influencer Monther Al Shaykh Mubarak, sports activities commentator Musaid AlSohimi, and poet Abdlatif Al Shaykh.

Doctored movies

Amid the tweets purporting a coup try and be beneath means in Qatar, “evidence” within the type of brief movies allegedly displaying gunfire and explosions close to Doha have been additionally circulated.

It didn’t take lengthy to determine that these movies have been both closely doctored or utterly pretend. One video, which had been shared hundreds of instances as proof of the alleged clashes in al-Wakra, was really recorded in Riyadh, in April 2018. One other video that was broadly shared in the identical context turned out to be from a chemical explosion that befell in 2015, in Tianjin, China.

A number of Saudi-based Twitter accounts and sock puppets additionally shared a video clip shot in al-Wakra on the morning of Might 4, a number of gunshots could possibly be heard within the video’s soundtrack. Nonetheless, it was quickly revealed that the video had initially been created by a Qatari citizen named Rashed al-Hamli to mock the claims that there was a coup within the nation. Al-Hamli’s light-hearted video making enjoyable of the coup claims was apparently doctored to take away his voice and change it with the sound of gunfire. 

The efforts to persuade the world that the Qatari state is unstable weren’t restricted to the doctoring of movies. The originators of the obvious disinformation marketing campaign additionally created a pretend tweet by former Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim to attempt to show {that a} violent coup try had taken place within the nation.

A second spike

By the morning of Might 5, the hashtag “coup in Qatar” had 150,000 tweets. After a quick respite, possible attributable to the fast debunking of the claims by Qatari authorities and residents, the story picked up once more on Might 12-13.

The identical rumours have been as soon as once more being propagated by the identical Saudi influencers, Saudi-based nameless accounts and sock puppets, suggesting some type of coordination.

Gulf disinformation graphics - timeline

Throughout this second spike, the disinformation marketing campaign was extra subtle than earlier than. The verified accounts belonging to an American musician and a baseball participant have been hacked, repurposed as Arabic accounts, and used to spice up the salience of the disinformation.

This time round, the pretend movies used to substantiate the claims have been additionally extra subtle. A brief clip that confirmed two boys filming an explosion close to Katara in Doha, for instance, was circulated broadly. The video was extra plausible than those shared earlier than, because it was undoubtedly filmed in Qatar. A fast open-source intelligence (OSINT) investigation, nevertheless, confirmed that the video was almost definitely filmed throughout a fireworks pageant in February.

Gulf disinformation graphics - osint

Feeding Twitter disinformation to the media

It’s clear that the rumours about an alleged coup try in Qatar didn’t organically materialise on social media, however have been the product of a coordinated marketing campaign just like the one which disseminated disinformation in regards to the nation again in 2017.

The story has now died down – most of the Twitter accounts that contributed to the disinformation marketing campaign have both been suspended by Twitter or modified their display names.

This, nevertheless, doesn’t imply this advanced disinformation marketing campaign was unsuccessful.

Media shops around the globe already reported on the rumours promoted by these accounts, creating the impression that the Qatari state is weak and unstable.

Whereas media organisations with recognized political and financial hyperlinks to Riyadh, corresponding to Al Arabiya or Impartial Arabia, printed opinion items and information reviews supporting the claims, different information sources contributed to the disinformation marketing campaign just by reporting on the claims made on social media with out questioning their credibility.

Disinformation campaigns usually search to not show the claims they make, however to impress discord, instability, and uncertainty of their targets. Just by reporting that there have been “rumours of a coup in Qatar”, subsequently, many unbiased media shops performed into the fingers of the propagandists behind this marketing campaign.

The true story is just not that there have been rumours of a coup, however that there was a disinformation marketing campaign designed to provide the phantasm of a coup. In an age the place disinformation is rife, even a technically factual report on social media traits can fan the flame of faux information.

The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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