Using doctored and misleading videos, Saudi propagandists on Twitters have been creating a narrative of instability in the Gulf emirate, and Saudi media outlets are parroting the reports.
If Saudi bot accounts were someone’s sole source of news, they would be forgiven for thinking that Qatar was in the midst of political turmoil.
For days now, accounts linked to Riyadh, including verified ones run by actual people, have been amplifying tweets claiming that a military coup is taking place in Qatar.
For the record, as is evidenced by the thousands of rebuttals by Qataris and residents of the country, nothing of the sort is taking place.
In fact, Twitter users have provided near instantaneous rebuttals of videos claiming to be of military maneuvers taking place over Qatar. In almost all cases, these were videos from prosaic military exercises or parades taken months and even years earlier.
In one instance, a video purporting to show a gunfight in the Qatari city of Wakrah, was actually of violence in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, filmed several years earlier.
In another, a video by a Qatari parodying the claims was repackaged by Saudi trolls and used to claim there was actual fighting going on the streets, despite the video not depicting anything of the sort.
Academic Marc Owen Jones from Hamad bin Khalifa University has found strong evidence that the false claims have been amplified by armies of bot accounts, and later by verified accounts run by people loyal to the Saudi regime.
Despite the very clear falsity of the reports of unrest in Qatar, media outlets owned by the Saudis reported them earnestly.
Al Arabiya adopted a speculative analysis approach for one article that carried the headline: “After bizarre coup rumors, is Qatar's ex-PM plotting against the Emir?”
The ex-PM in question is Hamad bin Jassim, who alongside the former emir, Hamad bin Khalifa, are frequent targets of Saudi bot campaigns on Twitter.
The Saudi regime and its ally, the UAE, blame the two for Qatar’s foreign policy during the Arab uprisings, which saw it take the side of pro-democracy protesters in most cases, although not all.
Many Qataris have been bewildered by what the Saudis intend to gain from creating and amplifying such easily disproved claims.
While motivations might be hard to figure out, the tactic has prior, albeit more sophisticated, precedent.
May marks three years since ‘unknown entities’ hacked Qatari news outlets, such as the official Qatar News Agency (QNA), filing false reports that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani had given a speech praising Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.
The false reports were similarly seized upon by Saudi media outlets, and officials, who delivered condemnations of Qatar.
The incident was the opening salvo in the three-year-long Gulf crisis, which has seen Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain, cut off relations with Qatar and impose a land, sea, and air blockade of the emirate.
Given that the recents rumours of a coup in Qatar have had zero success in stirring actual discontent in the country, some analysts suggest this most recent effort is aimed primarily at domestic consumption.
Writing for Middle East Eye, King’s College London academic Andreas Krieg said: “ Bread and circuses has been a proven recipe for bin Salman to divert the Saudi public’s attention from uncomfortable questions about the progress of his reform agenda, which promised more employment, a growing private sector and foreign direct investment.”
Saudi Arabia is known to have developed a large, if not successful, online propaganda apparatus, which has relied on bots and allegedly, paid agents placed inside social media companies, such as Twitter.
In November, US authorities charged three people, including two Twitter employees, for attempting to mine information on critics of the kingdom.
Other tactics include the use of spyware that is clandestinely installed on a targeted dissident’s phone, and the use of swarm tactics on social media to harass and intimidate critics of the regime.
Twitter regularly purged bot accounts associated with Saudi propaganda efforts, but the efforts continue.