The Age of Digital Deception in the Gulf
Marc Owen Jones regales us with absurdist tales from Gulf Twitter
Abu Aardvark’s Monday Book Review Essay
Marc Owen Jones, Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Deception, Disinformation and Social Media (Hurst Publishers and Oxford University Press, 2022)
The 2017 blockade of Qatar by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt may have been one of the stupidest of all Middle Eastern crises, but it was something of a golden age for a certain brand of gonzo disinformation and online abusiveness. In his long-awaited new book, Marc Owen Jones drops us into the deep end of the Gulf Twitter wars, piling on vignette after vignette of online absurdity, fake personalities, swarming bot activity, and sinister hacking exploits. It makes for a great read, a trip down memory lane for those of unfortunate enough to have lived through it, an eye opening tour of the horizon for those new to the issue. But it’s much more than that: it paints a theoretically significant portrait of a new political era defined by post-truth politics, digital manipulation, and constantly evolving forms of online propaganda and manipulation.
Jones has been an active presence in the online space of Gulf disinformation and deception for years, specializing in identifying inauthentic activity such as the use of bots. He incorporates many of his adventures into the text of the book, enlivening what could otherwise have been presented in a more conventionally dry format. It’s difficult to not marvel at some of his exploits, particularly the unmasking of multiple accounts using false identities posing as journalists or outright appropriating the existing accounts of Twitter verified athletes or minor celebrities. His methodical identification of inauthentic activity such as hashtag swarming or bot amplification may be less thrilling, but serves a critical function in pointing out the manipulation of online opinion here — and in real time.
This has implications for academic researchers well beyond the immediate politics of it all. I’ve been working on similar issues related to the internet and politics in the Middle East for decades. For nearly a decade, I was part of a team running the “Blogs and Bullets” project for the US Institute for Peace, which later spun out into the PeaceTech Lab. We published a whole series of reports and academic articles which both explored how to think about how social media was impacting politics and conducted empirical analyses of cases ranging from Iran’s Green Movement, the Arab uprisings, Syria’s civil war, and Egypt’s failed democratic transition. I also recently edited a POMEPS collection on digital authoritarianism, to which Jones contributed. One of the upshots of Jones’s careful analysis of inauthentic activity is that many of our empirical research strategies, which worked well at the time, would no longer be viable today. The sheer volume of coordinated inauthentic activity and bots on Arab social media over at least the last half decade renders the sort of network analysis, keyword and content trend analysis, hashtag analysis, and automated sentiment analysis at best problematic.
The core of Jones’s book is the move by several wealthy Gulf regimes — particularly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — to devote sizable resources toward the surveillance, manipulation and control of online political communication. This digital power advantage has given them significant abilities to intervene across borders, whether promoting favored politicians or polarizing political conflicts or disrupting protest movements. He devotes considerable attention to Saud al-Qahtani, the so-called “Lord of the Flies” who is believed to have constructed, guided and directed many of the campaigns in support of Mohammed bin Salman and against his critics. While we speak of digital authoritarianism, his story is not unique to the Gulf, of course, nor even to autocracies. He nods to Shoshana Zuboff’s concept of surveillance capitalism, placing the mass monitoring of online behavior firmly within a logic of neoliberalism. Autocratic Gulf regimes avail themselves of tools generated by Silicon Valley or Israeli defense-linked technology firms, and emulate the aspirations towards full spectrum surveillance and control pioneered in China. Nobody who has followed the chilling stories of how US states which have banned abortion might use online evidence (such as period tracking apps, Facebook messages, or Google searches) to restrict women from interstate travel or prosecute them for seeking abortions can really believe that these techniques will be limited to authoritarian regimes or to the Middle East.
Jones carefully distinguishes between various forms of deceptive behavior online, parsing the distinctions between disinformation, misinformation, malinformation, propaganda, and coordinated inauthentic activity. The most useful distinctions are arguably between surveillance and manipulation. On surveillance, Jones presents the full range of scandals associated with the various no-click and other spywares (the NSO Group, Pegasus, and so on and on) which Gulf regimes have used against activists, journalists, and politicians. While not as comprehensive on this front as James Shires recent book The Politics of Cybersecurity in the Middle East, Jones lays out the key cases and issues in all their gory detail. He especially vividly recounts the hacking and harrassment of al-Jazeera journalists Ghada Oueiss and Ola al-Fares. And, of course, he tells the grim story of Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the harrowing tales of other Saudis whose hacked electronics put a target on their backs.
Where Jones really shines, though, is in his rich and detailed accounts of manipulation. He shows in graphic detail how Gulf regimes used bots, trolls, hashtag hacking, and more to both dominate their own national information space and to exercise influence abroad. While much of his research uses the more easily accessible and by its nature public Twitter data (a second edition of the book should pay more attention to Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Tiktok), his case studies generally examine the full media ecosystem to show how disinformation travels from Twitter to ideologically aligned television stations and newspapers. The book’s cases range widely, from the manipulation of local discourse about the Saudi acquisition of a European football club and Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup to the shameful defamation campaign against Syria’s White Helmets to efforts to disrupt or exploit political protests in Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon. Readers will likely be especially drawn to his analysis of the 2017 Gulf Crisis, which receives special attention for the depth and centrality of online manipulation to the anti-Qatar campaign (as well as more conventional public relations gambits like covertly organizing anti-Qatar conferences and movies). Even readers who pay close attention to these things have probably forgotten some of the scandals and curiosities Jones uncovers.
Readers may come away from Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East a bit overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of these campaigns to mislead, deceive, and shape online discourse. It isn’t always obvious how much real world impact these campaigns have — does it really matter if a particular hashtag is made to trend, or if the vast majority of the accounts retweeting a particular Gulf leader are bots? — and it may sometimes seem as if the extremely online care because that’s where they spend their time. But Jones makes a strong case that these online campaigns have become a central part of the political world within which we live, and that journalists, analysts and academics need to develop the tools and the theoretical perspective to make sense of them. The book should be accessible and informative to specialists and newcomers alike, and would work well in courses on political communication or international relations.
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