Al Jazeera is demanding that Facebook wipe out an Emirati-backed disinformation campaign to discredit its reporting, according to a letter sent to company executives and obtained by VICE News.
The Qatari-backed news outlet called for the suspension of Facebook and Instagram pages it claims are part of a smear job that paints Al Jazeera as a dangerous press organ that incites violence.
Researchers say the pages have been crucial nodes in a digital campaign to promote Saudi-aligned interests for more than two years, and lobbying disclosures reviewed by VICE News suggest they’re one piece of a broader Emirati effort to turn American media and government officials against Al Jazeera.
“The UAE is weaponizing and manipulating social media platforms to achieve a geopolitical goal,” Mohammed Osman Abu Baker, manager of Al Jazeera’s legal affairs department, wrote to Facebook executives. “This is precisely the type of abuse by foreign powers that Facebook’s and Instagram’s policies aim to curtail.”
The letter noted that Twitter and YouTube have already banned accounts linked to the specific pages in question: QatariLeaks. While Facebook has zapped accounts pushing anti-Al Jazeera content in the past, it did not respond to multiple reports flagging QatariLeaks in October. Instagram passed on a takedown, the letter said, adding further confusion to how the different platforms approach disinformation.
“This case is clear-cut and demands immediate attention and action,” Abu Baker added.
Facebook had yet to respond to the letter by Monday morning, and spokespeople for Facebook and Instagram did not reply to VICE News’ request for comment.
Networks of pro-Saudi bots
QatariLeaks bills itself on its website as “young volunteer publishers” who expose Qatari foreign policy across the Middle East and North Africa. Facebook’s transparency tool says the page is administered by six users in Egypt. Until recently it fed more than 16,000 Facebook followers a steady stream of Arabic- and English-language posts to discredit Qatar and Al Jazeera, sharing a similar blend on Instagram.
One Facebook video this summer called the outlet “an official platform for terrorists,” criticizing an interview of a cleric with alleged ties to the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front. Sites including the Riyadh-backed media outlet Al Arabiya and the Saudi Gazette ran their own identical stories on the interview.
It’s unclear if QatariLeaks has advertised on either platform. But the Facebook page has gained more than 1,000 new followers this month despite posting no new organic content.
A message left through the site’s contact form has not been answered. The Emirati and Saudi embassies in Washington have also not responded to VICE News’ request for comment.
Marc Owen Jones, a disinformation researcher at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, described QatariLeaks as “one of the main posters of anything sketchy” within a broader disinformation campaign by Saudi- and Emirati-aligned interests since 2017. The network of opaque social accounts and Twitter bots promoted hashtags including “Al Jazeera Is the Source of Lies” and “We Demand the Closing of the Channel of Pigs” that trended in Saudi Arabia.
“It was designed to look like there were Saudi citizens, who were really bots,” Jones told VICE News. “Whoever was running the bot networks was obviously boosting QatariLeaks.”
Facebook and Twitter have announced the bans of thousands of accounts across the Middle East in recent months, increasingly sharing information and coordinating responses. At times run by third-party marketing firms, the campaigns have reached millions of followers and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars advertising. Some have taken aim at Al Jazeera.
Facebook claims it avoids judgment calls on the message or content of posts in policing what it calls “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Instead, it tries to zero in on deceptive behaviors by users who may be trying to manipulate public debate.
“If we see any instances of [coordinated inauthentic behavior] conducted on behalf of a government entity or by a foreign actor, we will apply the broadest enforcement measures including the removal of every on-platform property connected to the operation itself and the people and organizations behind it,” Facebook Head of Cybersecurity Policy Nathaniel Gleicher wrote in an October blog post.
Al Jazeera’s letter to Facebook marked an escalation of its bid for the platforms to expand their crackdown. Representatives for the broadcaster told VICE News that since early September, they’ve reported 375 Twitter bots, many of which originated in Saudi Arabia, promoting content from @360motions. Twitter has removed at least 248 of those accounts, including @360motions.
But @360_motions since reappeared on Twitter, and 360 Motions remains on YouTube, illustrating the whack-a-mole nature of banning disinformation campaigns. One recent video, crafted in the style of a mobile ad, tied a cringeworthy headline about Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to the account’s broader messaging.
“The Washington Post took a page from al-Jazeera’s book when they mourned ISIS’s leader al-Baghdadi with an offensive post,” read the video’s description.
That rhetoric has grown more common since 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other nations blockaded Qatar and broke off diplomatic ties. They accused it of supporting terrorism, a charge that the tiny but energy-rich country denies, and called for it to shutter Al Jazeera.
The outlet has produced prestigious English-language journalism around the world, but critics — including former staffers — have argued that it has a more activist voice on its Arabic channel. That’s been a growing point of friction since its aggressive coverage of the uprisings against regimes across the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring.
Bloomberg reported last month that the UAE has since been hammering Al Jazeera through a traditional lobbying campaign in Washington. Lobbyists visited or contacted lawmakers and journalists dozens of times over the past two years, according to disclosures reviewed by VICE News, arguing it should register as a foreign agent, like Russia Today has. Al Jazeera and some press freedom groups have vehemently pushed back at the suggestion.
Those influence operations, coupled with international arms transfers, have long been used to project power in the regional dispute between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and their respective allies. But the media battlefield — a centralized broadcaster vs. opaque social media campaigns — appears to be expanding.
“You contest this space, you create armies of bots, you enlist influencers, or co-opt, or intimidate them, and you manipulate this landscape now,” Alexei Abrahams, who researches disinformation at The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, told VICE News. “The lights that turned on with the advent of social media? Now the lights have been dimmed or turned off again. We don’t know what to make of what we’re reading.”
Cover: A banner depicting detained journalist Mahmoud Hussein (portrait) hangs on Al-Jazeera's building facade in Doha on September 19, 2019 during a solidarity campaign for his release. (Photo: KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images)