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Middle East disinformation wars and the battle for narratives in the digital space

MEMO in conversation with Marc Owen Jones

September 22, 2021 at 3:50 pm

The Middle East’s disinformation wars and the battle for narratives in the digital world were discussed in this week’s “MEMO in conversation…” programme. The region has in recent years become a major source of disinformation and a key battlefield in the global information system as regimes not only pit themselves against each other, but also against their own citizens.

This week’s guest was Marc Owen Jones, Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Doha’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University. He shared his expertise with us on the issue, and fielded questions on the major disinformation actors; the methods and techniques in use; and the threat that propaganda poses to democracy.

The conversation began by looking at the techniques for monitoring disinformation on social media. Jones has been following twitter trends in the Middle East to identity their origins and expose “deception” and the spread of state-led disinformation. In July, for example, following the coup in Tunisia, he exposed a UAE, Saudi and Egyptian-led twitter campaign to control the narrative over exactly who was to blame for the country’s problems.

One of the ways that disinformation campaigns are carried out, Jones explained, is the use of fake accounts and astroturfing. There are said to be millions of fake accounts generated in the Middle East whose sole purpose is to spread disinformation and propaganda on behalf of one state or another.

“Co-opting” the voices of social media influencers is one of the tried and tested method, Jones pointed out. Bots and troll farms have also been deployed to amplify government narratives and create the “illusion of consensus” and public support for regional autocrats and dictators.

In the battle over narratives and disinformation, Jones made a distinction between what he called “coordination” and “fake”. Coordination isn’t necessarily fake but nonetheless there is an element of disinformation. He gave the example of a troll farm where a group of people are paid to spread a specific narrative. Though they may promote “truth” their coordination is designed to amplify a message. This is different to having content that is fake to begin with. In both cases, however, there is “deception”, his preferred term for state led propaganda as it covers both fake content as well as aggressive dissemination.

Asked about the main target of state-led propaganda campaigns in the digital world, Jones explained that it was both domestic and international. He mentioned an investigation he carried out last year to expose unbelievably high levels of sophistication in state-led propaganda. He uncovered dozens of articles published in around 40 different international publications whose “authors” did not actually exist. As many as 25 identities were created using stolen personal profiles generated through artificial intelligence (AI). The source of the campaign is believed to have been the UAE because, according to Jones, the articles in question were very much pro-Abu Dhabi.

The mention of AI-generated profiles and fake journalists segued neatly into a discussion about Israel and its use of disinformation to delegitimise the Palestinians and their cause. The occupation state is no stranger to highly sophisticated disinformation campaigns. Last year, pro-Israel news outlets ran what were described as “deepfake” op-eds and opened up a “new disinformation frontier”. Jones, who has also written about Israel’s disinformation campaigns, cited examples from May’s onslaught on Gaza to highlight the occupation state’s propaganda.

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He went on to explain that the Arab Spring was instrumental in the growth of disinformation generated in the Middle East. Regimes became extremely paranoid and reactionary and concluded that social media posed an existential threat. He cited Bahrain as an example where Western PR companies were employed to aid the regime’s efforts to contain a popular uprising.

It was argued that social media has become a tool in the authoritarian arsenal and that the exponential rise of disinformation presented a global problem which threatened to undermine democracy. Jones explained that the availability of high-quality information that allows for people to make decisions based on reason is the lifeblood of democracies. The denigration of institutions that are charged with supplying the public with good quality truthful information is thus a threat to social and political cohesion. Digital technology, he argued, was being employed by regimes to export disinformation across the world and poison democracy’s life blood.

A distinction was made between the objectives of Russian and Middle Eastern disinformation campaigns. Russia is alleged to have used social media and disinformation as tools to sow divisions in Western societies and undermine their governments from within. Some blame Moscow for the culture wars erupting in the West that pit communities against each other.

The most dominant form of disinformation emanating from the Middle East, Jones explained, is used to market the Gulf and cover up various outrageous acts, such as the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia, and appalling human rights abuses. Much of it is also effusive propaganda and praise of regional rulers. Nevertheless, there are examples where attempts have been made to infiltrate American right-wing networks, said Jones, which could fuel culture wars.

He was asked if the balance of power has shifted in the Middle East in favour of regimes in terms of who controls the digital space. The beginning of the Arab Spring a decade ago is seen as something of a high point for the Arab people in their ability to come together to tilt the balance of power in their favour. After years of government crackdowns, citizens have become generally more distrustful, Jones explained. This discourages people from creating “resistance networks.” Governments have also become savvier. They have passed legislation constraining the use of social media and developed technology to target their own citizens opposed to government policy. This has had a “chilling effect,” said Jones, and people are very wary about criticising regimes. The rulers have “co-opted” social media, he warned.