The 2022 World Cup has turned into a mixed blessing for Qatar. What at first seemed like a brilliant opportunity to showcase the small Gulf state has instead brought a torrent of bad publicity – some because of the way Qatar was chosen by football's corrupt governing body, Fifa, to host the contest and some because of the harsh conditions faced by migrant workers, thousands of whom are employed in the construction of Qatar's new stadiums.
Over the last few years numerous rights organisations have focused attention on the migrant workers' plight and those efforts, along with critical media reporting, have stirred the Qatari government into making some reforms – though not as many as campaigners would like.
In the midst of that activity a new "human rights" group emerged. Known as "Voiceless Victims" and ostensibly located in France, it had a website and a network of social media accounts ... but a false office address.
The identity of its five named staff was also puzzling. Biographical information about them was scanty and contradictory, and it seemed they had also chosen to become invisible. The organisations that Voiceless Victims approached with a view to cooperating had contact by email and on a few rare occasions by phone but never saw or met any of its workers.
Last month, following investigations by Amnesty International (one of the organisations that received emails), Voiceless Victims was exposed as a fake.
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But who was behind this fakery, and what was its purpose? As yet, there are theories but no clear answers. In the hope of shedding more light on this mystery I have pieced together an account of Voiceless Victims' known activities. In compiling it, I am grateful to Amnesty for providing help with chronology and copies of material that has been deleted from the internet.
Constructing a network
The first recorded social media activity by Voiceless Victims came on 3 September 2015, with a crudely Islamophobic post on the Playbuzz website. It posed a question in Spanish – "What will life be like in Seville in five years?" – and invited viewers to click on a series of pictures contrasting life today with life in the future. The pictures suggested that within five years pork would be banned in Seville, that Spaniards would be forced to convert to Islam and "romance" would be stifled.
The Voiceless Victims account on Playbuzz had been registered two days earlier using the name "Luz Bardem" – who was later described on the organisation's website as its "social media manager" and "campaigns coordinator".
Like everyone else allegedly working for Voiceless Victims, Luz Bardem is surrounded in mystery. This is her profile picture as it appeared on the website:
According to the now-deleted website, she previously "worked in public affairs for a Spanish PR agency" but it didn't name the agency. Aside from her work for Voiceless Victims, Google searches reveal no further trace of Luz Bardem. She did once have a Facebook page where the profile picture showed two people in dark glasses, but that too is now deleted:
September and October 2015 brought a flurry of other activity from Voiceless Victims on social media. In September it set up a Twitter account (@vlvictims) and another called "I Support Qatar Workers" (@ISQW2022) which was also given a Facebook page.
Other accounts created around the same time were @HR_AreNotOption ("HR" meaning "human rights"), "Free MigrantWorkers" (@wilsonjane4911) and @AndrewSven69 on Twitter, plus Bloody Football 2022 (@bloody_football) on both Twitter and Facebook. It's unclear whether these other accounts were set up by Voiceless Victims but subsequent online activity strongly suggests a connection.
Meanwhile, a Facebook page in the name of Daniel Faulkner – another member of Voiceless Victims' enigmatic workforce – was suddenly updated after apparently being dormant for more than two years.
On 13 October, Faulkner announced: "Started studying at UAL: University of the Arts London" and added a generic male face as his profile picture.
But Faulkner's university course seems to have lasted only a week because on 21 October he posted again: "Started working at London, United Kingdom". He has not posted on Facebook since.
Although there are dozens of Facebook accounts with the name "Daniel Faulkner", there's no doubt that this was the one connected with Voiceless Victims. His "likes" included Voiceless Victims itself, as well as "I Support Qatar Workers" and Bloody Football 2022.
Bizarrely, though, the Voiceless Victims website gave a completely different account of Faulkner's background, describing him as an "expert in international development research":
"Daniel joined Voiceless Victims in 2015 after completing a MPA [Master of Public Administration degree] in International Development at UCL [University College London]. Prior to this, Daniel spent two years in Angola where he worked as a field project manager for a humanitarian organisation."
As with Luz Bardem and the anonymous PR agency, Voiceless Victims didn't name Faulkner's previous "humanitarian" employer.
A non-viral video
Activation of these various accounts paved the way for the release of a short video and its promotion through social media. Entitled "Qatar World Cup 2022 – First Official Footage", the 73-second video was presented in the style of an imaginary report from a football commentator at the end of the 2022 final. It included subtitles which said: "By the time the World Cup is actually held in 2022 more than 4,000 workers will die in Qatar" and "More than 62 workers will die for each game played during the 2022 World Cup".
(These claims, extrapolated from figures about mortality rates which had been circulating for a couple of years, were somewhat misleading. There was little doubt that mortality rates among migrant workers were high but the Qatari government didn't keep records. Figures quoted by some of the media reports and 2022-related campaigns had thus relied on other sources, such as foreign embassies. However, these were estimates which included deaths from all causes – not just work-related – and included migrants who were working in Qatar but not building football stadiums. For workers of some nationalities no figures were available.)
The World Cup video looked slick and professionally made but there was no indication of who had produced it or paid for it. It first surfaced on 19 October, in three locations on the internet. "Bloody Football 2022" posted it to YouTube, as did someone using the name Kelly Brennan. It also appeared on Vimeo, posted in the name of Alisha Owen. All three postings acompanied the video with identical text. The "Kelly Brennan" and "Alisha Owen" accounts seem to have been created specifically for this purpose and have not been used since.
On 20 October, a copy of the video was uploaded to YouTube by an account called "Lisa Loza" whose other postings are mainly videos advertising products and services.
Also on 20 October, the video appeared on Bloody Football's Facebook page, where it was "liked" by Voiceless Victims' "expert in international development research", Daniel Faulkner. On the same day @HR_AreNotOption, @ISQW2022, @AndrewSven69 and @wilsonjane4911 began promoting the video on Twitter – as did @bloody_football and @vlvictims a day later.
Meanwhile, a dormant Twitter account registered the previous July in the name of "Zak Williamson" suddenly woke up. Over the next week it posted more than 120 tweets promoting the video. With one exception, all the tweets posted by this account before it fell silent again in December 2015 were about Qatar, Fifa and the World Cup.
Voiceless Victims later claimed in a press release that its campaign promoting the video "was a viral success and spread like wildfire on social media". It said the video itself had "reached millions of people all over Europe and the Middle East". This was an overstatement, to say the least. More than a year after the video appeared, viewing figures recorded at the various locations where it is known to have been posted are as follows:
|YouTube: Lisa Loza
|YouTube: Voiceless Victims
|YouTube: Bloody Football 2022
|Vimeo: Voiceless Victims
|YouTube: Qatar World Cup 2022
|Vimeo: Alisha Owen
|YouTube: Kelly Brennan
Although Voiceless Victims and those associated with it tried to attract attention by tagging popular accounts in their tweets, they were basically tweeting into a vacuum: they had very few followers of their own, sometimes not even reaching double figures.
The video may have been a flop but Voiceless Victims had achieved something else. It had created the appearance – or rather, the illusion – of an active campaigning group which, with a bit of luck, could gain recognition and trust from the human rights community ... so long as nobody looked at it too closely.
On 20 October, as the social media campaign got under way, Voiceless Victims' alleged founder and director, "Luke Hann", sent an email to Anti-Slavery International, introducing himself, sharing a link to the "provocative viral video", and requesting them to help "spread the word".
The email address used for this message was "firstname.lastname@example.org". The ".in" part of the address is interesting because Voiceless Victims' website was ".org". There is no trace of a website at "voicelessvictims.in", and the domain name is currently registered in Moscow.
Early in 2016 Voiceless Victims' spokesperson, "Amélie Lefebvre", entered the picture. On 11 January she posted for the first time on Twitter and Facebook, simultaneously announcing that she had become a "PR professional" and "started school" at the European Communication School in Paris.
It wasn't long before Amelie showed interest in Amnesty International's activities regarding migrant workers in Qatar. Amnesty had been compiling a report, "The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game", which was due to be published on 31 March. The day before publication Amélie began posting a series of tweets which publicised Voiceless Victims but also tagged one of Amnesty's Twitter accounts and included a hashtag that Amnesty had created – #worldcupshame. Voiceless Victims' Facebook page hailed the Amnesty report as "important" and Amelie retweeted tweets by several of Amnesty's staff.
While this may have been perfectly innocent, with hindsight it looks as if Voiceless Victims were trying to get themselves noticed – in Amnesty's words, "to insert themselves into social media conversation on the topic and to promote their profile".
Besides the tweeting, it transpired that "Amelie" had also been seeking to establish direct contact with Amnesty. Starting in late March and continuing until August, she sent a series of emails – seven in all – to various people working at Amnesty. Basically, they were all very similar, introducing herself and Voiceless Victims and expressing a desire to cooperate with Amnesty "in our next move".
Oddly, though, she seemed in no hurry to take the disussions with Amnesty further. Early in April, when Amnesty's press office offered to put her in touch by phone with the relevant staff, Amélie replied that she was on a "mission" until 1 May and contactable only be email.
On 2 May, in apparent confirmation of this, Amélie posted a tweet in French saying she had just returned from a month-long trip to India which she described as "une mission humanitaire". The purpose of this trip – if it took place at all – is a complete mystery and when invited by another Twitter user to share her experiences of India, Amelie declined. Considering that Amélie was supposed to be Voiceless Victims' spokesperson and "a PR professional" she might have been expected to be more eager to talk about it.
Soon after that, Amélie was off on her travels again, or so she claimed. On 29 May she tweeted that she was returning from another "mission" which Voiceless Victims described as "a meaningful field trip to Africa". This time she was slightly more talkative about it, but only slightly. Her 100-word "report", posted on the organisation's Facebook page, stated a few very obvious facts in extremely general terms:
"As human rights activist, I've always wanted to visit Africa. Unfortunately, human rights abuses are occurring on a daily basis in that area and child abuse is one of the more common violations. While other kids in the world are playing with toys, African children usually have to work. These poor children have a tough life; they sometimes live in areas afflicted by violence and insecurity and they are less like to get proper education than their counterparts in Asia, America and Europe. When I saw these children in Africa, it made me even more certain that we must fight ferociously for the rights.”
Amélie also seems to have forgotten to take a camera on her mission, because the only photo accompanying her account had already appeared many times on the internet.
Lengthy periods of foreign travel seem to have been a regular feature of life at Voiceless Victims, especially when others were trying to contact its staff. Its founder and director, "Luke Hann", also claimed to be travelling – and thus unable to speak on the phone – when journalists started asking questions about the organisation and its activities.
Qatar renews sponsorship of Barcelona football club
In July 2016, Barcelona football club's sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways came up for renewal, prompting a further burst of activity from Voiceless Victims. Between the end of June and the beginning of August, Amelie contacted various organisations, mostly by email but occasionally by phone: Anti-Slavery International, Amnesty International, Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and the International Transport Workers Federation.
Voiceless Victims was inviting these organisations to collaborate with it in campaigning against renewal of Barcelona's Qatari sponsorship and it sent them copies of a draft petition. On 19 July, however, FC Barcelona announced a one-year extension of the sponsorship deal. Voiceless Victims was aware of this but didn't seem deterred and for a couple of weeks Amelie continued sending out emails about the petition. Oddly, though, the conversation in these emails never seemed to move very far forward. Amnesty noted that emails received by three of its staff on 3 August consisted of "template text as if Amelie had never emailed us before or called Amnesty International".
Despite these semi-robotic emails from Amelie, Voiceless Victims was gradually losing its voice. Its Facebook page and the @vlvictims Twitter account both fell silent on 6 June. A month later the same thing happened to "I Support Qatar Workers" on both Twitter and Facebook. Since October there have been no further posts from "Bloody Football 2022" on either Facebook or Twitter.
In September, Voiceless Victims' website stopped functioning for a while but later returned – only to be deleted in December. By that stage, with Amnesty International and journalists from Le Monde and Forbes magazine pursuing Voiceless Victims with questions, it looked as if the people behind it were trying to cover their tracks, if in a rather piecemeal fashion. The "campaigns coordinator", Luz Bardem, deleted her Facebook page but not the Playbuzz account she had set up. Amelie Lefebvre deleted her Facebook page and her Twitter account while leaving her LinkedIn profile intact.
What was it all about?
There's a lot in the story of Voiceless Victims that simply doesn't add up. A key question is whether it was really trying to support Qatar's migrant workers or just pretending to do so. Either way, its online campaigning was plainly ineffective and contributed nothing very new or significant.
But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that it was what it claimed to be: "a group a volunteers – principally composed of graduate students in the field of social sciences and professionals who are devoted to humanitarian causes".
We might also picture them as sincere but disorganised, which could help to explain their lack of response to emails and phone calls. Conceivably their dissimulation – the false office address and staff profiles that were impossible to corroborate – might have been intended to protect them from any reprisals. But if they were so concerned about security why did they invite migrant workers in Qatar (who faced a far greater risk of reprisals if identified) to send them stories about ill-treatment by insecure email?
If there are innocent explanations for all this, Voiceless Victims has so far failed to provide them despite having had plenty of opportunity to do so. Not only that; the subsequent deletion of web pages and social media accounts when people started asking questions suggests a desire to frustrate investigations.
This points to the conclusion that Voiceless Victims was just an empty shell and that the purpose of its fakery was to create the impression of an active human rights organisation without actually being one.
The very limited amount of public campaigning that it did consisted almost entirely of postings on social media. Voiceless Victims boasted of using "unconventional and creative" methods to campaign but there was nothing very creative about its social media posts. Many were just vague exhortations such as "Have a heart", "Lend a hand", "Stand out and make a difference". The graphics accompanying some of its posts looked slightly more creative but they were not original. Google image searches on a random sample showed they had all been copied (sometimes with adaptations) from elsewhere. The graphic used here, for example, had appeared earlier on an Italian website. Another, showing a row of light bulbs, had previously been used in Britain by the National Health Service.
Apart from the draft petition against Qatari sponsorship of Barcelona football club – circulated to activists but never implemented – Voiceless Victims' only contribution of substance was the 73-second video about the 2022 World Cup which actually said nothing that hadn't been said previously by others.
The suspicion is that Voiceless Victims was some kind of covert operation to identify individual activists, to find out who was doing what in connection with Qatar's migrant workers, and perhaps discover more about their plans.
There are several reasons for that suspicion. One is that at least two organisations received emails from Voiceless Victims containing links to a website that has been associated with cyberattacks in the past. This appeared to be a first step towards gathering information about the workings of their computer system. One of the recipients was Amnesty International where the email triggered a security alert but others may have received it without being aware of the threat it posed.
Besides proposing cooperation with Amnesty and other organisations, Voiceless Victims also asked Amnesty to keep them informed about campaign plans.
The soliciting of abuse stories from workers in Qatar was another worrying aspect: though possibly innocent but ill-conceived, it could potentially be used to entrap activists inside the country.
Nor was the Voiceless Victims affair an isolated case. There is a history of mischief-making in connection with the World Cup and Qatar's construction workers and in January 2016 the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) issued the following statement:
"The ITUC has for some time been facing a disinformation campaign by unidentified persons, in connection with our campaign to defend the rights of migrant workers in Qatar including those preparing infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.
"This campaign has included the dissemination of fake videos and other materials, setting up of fake social media accounts and various other techniques aimed at the ITUC and at individual people.
"This week the ITUC received confirmation that ITUC email accounts have been hacked, and falsified material inserted into emails. We anticipate that this campaign may intensify in the coming weeks with the election of a new FIFA President due on February 26 and important discussions in UN institutions ... in the first quarter of this year."
This is not to suggest Voiceless Victims was responsible for those attacks but there was clearly someone, somewhere, seeking to disrupt the work of activists.
Voiceless Victims is of course welcome to respond to any points in this article. though it has had opportunities before and has not taken them up. In the meantime there is one person who may be able to shed some light on the affair: the man who did the voiceover for the video below. He sounds like a professional sports commentator and perhaps someone, somewhere, may recognise his voice.