State influence operations are growing on social media, the new turf for the gulf’s regional rivalries.
Rabat – Egypt’s Arab Spring “Facebook Revolution” in 2011 popularized a modern era mobilization tactic. Social media expanded from a casual networking tool to a means for mass mobilization against oppressive regimes. Online platforms still play a central role for protesters, from Sudan to Venezuela to South Africa.
Masses possess a powerful tool to mobilize. At the same time, governments possess a powerful tool to manipulate public opinion. State-backed influence operations are on the rise, often marked by propaganda posts masquerading as news, and the use of bots to spam social media with retweets and Facebook likes.
Social media giants identify Saudi government-linked operations
Twitter suspended or removed thousands of accounts linked to Middle-Eastern governments, the company reported in a blog post September 20.
Six of these accounts were directly linked to Saudi Arabia’s state-run media. The accounts masqueraded as “independent journalistic outlets while tweeting narratives favourable to the Saudi government,” according to Twitter.
Twitter also permanently suspended the account of Saud Al-Qahtani for violations of Twitter’s platform manipulation policies, in a “separate” move. The former Saudi royal adviser was fired last year after suspected involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, though sources say Al-Qahtani was not among those arrested and continued to advise Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after his dismissal.
Al-Qahtani ran the royal media center and reportedly strategized a state-run troll farm in Riyadh, which employed hundreds to spam social media with pro-Saudi messages, as well as attacks on rivals such as Qatar and Iran. The adviser initiated a blacklist on Twitter during the Persian Gulf crisis in 2017 that named, shamed, and endangered alleged Qatari sympathizers.
Twitter’s account suspensions are little more than a symbolic move, according to Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor in Middle East studies and digital humanities at Doha’s Hamad bin Khalifa University. “Like a game of whack-a-mole, suspended fake accounts will be replaced by more sophisticated efforts at deception,” Owen Jones explained.
Twitter’s actions follow a Facebook move in August removing over 350 accounts linked to the Saudi government. Facebook’s announcement was the first time the Saudi state was officially tied to such influence operations.
Middle Eastern government influence campaigns are on the rise
Saudi Arabia is not the only country to come under fire for such activity. Facebook has removed activity tied to Iran three times in 2019 alone.
Iran “has always had this contradictory position in relation to established media and emerging media. It has always expressed concerns from the outset that these media can be used as a form of cultural invasion from abroad, from Iran’s enemies…. But it has also always recognized the power of media to push forward its own agenda,” explained Niki Akhavan, chair of the Media and Communication Studies Department at the Catholic University of America.
Facebook and Twitter have both suspended or removed thousands of accounts linked to the UAE and Egypt and operated by private third parties. A common thread in such influence operations is attacks on Qatar.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic and trade ties with Doha. They imposed a blockade on Qatar which has remained in place since June 2017. State social media operations aim to legitimize the blockade with domestic constituents.
“The use of such trends as an indicator of public opinion all point to the ability of gulf regimes to co-opt social media as part of their control and censorship apparatus,” according to Owen Jones. “Perhaps more than anywhere, the gulf shows us how social media is being weaponized as a crucial delivery system for fake news, hate speech and propaganda.”
Information wars are key in an era when social media gives public opinion a direct outlet and provides a direct channel to those forming opinions. The growing pattern shows the power of online platforms as new battlegrounds for regional rivalries with a history of proxy conflicts. Troll armies may rival military armies in strategic significance.
The outlook is not optimistic
“This is almost becoming normalized,” explained Ben Nimmo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “Where you get geopolitical tensions, you get stuff like this going on, and we’re moving into a space where the platforms are dealing with this almost as routine.”
Social media can empower individuals and masses. But this power is subject to manipulation. Influence campaigns continue to grow in frequency and complexity. Private social media companies struggle to root out and remove covert behavior. Experts estimate that the actual number of regional influence accounts may be in the millions.
”It doesn’t matter how many of these accounts we delete, they’re just going to keep cropping back up,” said Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C. Few approaches to managing online disinformation are on the public horizon.