EITHEROn The Weather Channel, meteorologist Dave Schwartz was always known for his easygoing manner and gracious sense of humor. So supporters and fans, whom Schwartz often referred to as “friends,” were shocked when, in 2018, he started tweeting Propaganda of the Saudi regime. In Arabic. Two years after his death from pancreatic cancer.
In obituary It had appeared in the New York Times. Fans denounced the hack in public. For months, however, Schwartz’s Twitter account remained “verified,” bearing the blue check mark that Twitter uses to signal authenticity.
And it wasn’t just Schwartz. Around 70 more verified accounts belonging to athletes, professional baseball players, musicians, and comedians were also hacked by accounts reporting their locations as Saudi Arabia. Among the public figures singing the praises of the kingdom was Debbie Smith, a Democrat elected to the Nevada state senate before also dying of cancer.
When it comes to social media manipulation, the US needs to take a closer look at its allies, not just its enemies.
Russian disinformation may first come to mind for interfering in American politics, but some of the most damning evidence of efforts to influence the American public points to Washington’s allies in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are at the forefront of undermining democratic deliberation, from manipulating the impact of Donald Trump’s tweets to tricking publishers around the world into publishing propaganda. Worryingly, Twitter seems to be very slow do nothing about it.
Saudi Arabia has the largest Twitter population in the Middle East, and its manipulation of the platform was allowed to reach alarming proportions. In 2019, Twitter discontinued a network of 88,000 fake accounts that promote the regime’s propaganda. Despite its well-known manipulation of social media in the US, Russia cannot compare. When you lump the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt together, as the company does in its information dumps, the two Gulf states rank second only to China in Twitter manipulation.
In 2019, the FBI found evidence that employees at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, duped with bribes such as luxury watches, were coordinating with members of the Saudi royal family to extract private information from Twitter users. In August 2022, a jury found one of these guilty men. Two others they could not be tried because they were in Saudi Arabia.
Not even former US President Donald Trump was immune (or at least his Twitter timeline was not). In 2017, when Trump tweeted his support for King Salman of Saudi Arabia, thousands of bot accounts retweeted Trump’s praise of the Saudi regime.
One of the most audacious deception operations seemed to be related to the United Arab Emirates. Between 2019 and 2021, op-eds supporting the foreign policy position of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the US administration under Trump began appearing in numerous well-known US media outlets, such as max news, The National Interest, The Post Millennial and the washington examiner. The problem: the journalists who write them didn’t really exist.
Fake journalists would steal profile photos of real people, including US citizens. They would then create Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin accounts, pitching ideas to unsuspecting editors on news sites soliciting contributions. As the project unfolded, manipulators used realistic-looking faces generated by artificial intelligence to set up social media profiles. By the time the imposters were discovered, they had published at least 90 different op-eds in 46 different publications.
Some of these articles were shared on Twitter by the likes of Ryan Fournier, the founder of ‘Students for Trump,’ and French Senator Natalie Goulet. I spoke to the editors of some of the publications that had been tricked into publishing articles; none had met or had a video chat with the journalists who were publishing.
Businesses are also involved. Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Social Limited, worked with the United Arab Emirates to create a social media ad campaign attacking Qatar, a Gulf rival that is home to the largest US military base in the region. Although better known is his use of “soft power”” Through projects such as Al Jazeera, it has also been reported that Qatar uses disinformationas well as supposedly to hack the email of the powerful ambassador of the Emirates in Washington.
For their part, the Emiratis worked with former NSA spies to hack the devices of US citizens. And both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the largest. NSO Clients, the Israeli firm that sells Pegasus spyware, which they have used to target dozens of activists, journalists and academics. No one is off limits. Even New York Times journalist Ben Hubbard, who wrote a book about Mohammed bin Salmanwhat it points by a Pegasus operator linked to Saudi Arabia. This “spyware diplomacy” comes with the warming ties between Israel and certain Gulf countries and, coupled with their shared security vision of the region, will only strengthen digital authoritarianism.
We have come a long way in the space of a decade, but not in a good direction. In 2011, during the heady days of the Arab Spring, social media and digital technology were touted as the force that would help liberate the region from authoritarian rule and bring democracy. Now authoritarian regimes in the Gulf, along with Western business and expertise, are using digital technology and social media to try to hack democracy wherever they find it, including in the US. However, the effect is clearer in the Middle East. With critics silenced by imprisonment, surveillance, torture or death, opposition voices increasingly fear self-expression, meaning the digital public sphere is simply a space to praise the regime or engage in trivial platitudes. .
Gulf regimes like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are joining the truth-hostile ranks of other digital superpowers. But its alliance with the US provides cover not available to Russia or China.
If left unprotected, the integrity of the digital public square will continue to decline.
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