Keep a look-out this week for a Saudi-made video previewing the "emergency" Arab summit in Mecca due to be held on Thursday. If you see it on social media, chances are that the person posting it is being paid to do so.
Several Twitter users with Middle East connections have reported receiving messages from a Dubai-based marketing and advertising firm called InHype. It invites them to take part in "a paid collaboration with a famous Saudi TV channel".
According to the message, all they have to do in order to earn money is post "the summit's ready-made video" on Twitter and/or Facebook on May 29 (the day before the summit). Here's one example of the message received by Twitter user Mariem Masmoudi:
InHype's speciality is advertising that doesn't look like advertising. The idea is that people will be more receptive to an advertiser's message if they think it's a personal recommendation from someone they follow on social media.
InHype's own Facebook page gives some examples of how persuasive this kind of advertising can be. Here's one of them:
The firm's website seeks "micro-influencers" to post ready-made content or create their own content at the request of clients. "Start getting rewarded from posting on your social media just like thousands of people that already do," it says.
At the same time, it urges potential advertisers to "get micro-influencers and bloggers to create your hype". Its Facebook page offers advertising packages starting at 5,000 Emirati dirhams ($1,360) for "35 micro-influencer posts reaching 200K followers". That works out at almost $39 per post.
InHype is owned by another Dubai-based firm called Access Digital Middle East which describes itself as "the pioneer" in a new advertising concept.
The "emergency" Arab summit was called at short notice by the Saudi king. The Saudi government news agency said its purpose is "to discuss the attacks on commercial ships in the territorial waters of the United Arab Emirates and the attack by terrorist Houthi militias, backed by Iran, against two oil pumping stations in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and their serious implications on regional and international peace and security and the supply and stability of world oil markets".
It's reported that the summit will be held "in conjunction" with a scheduled meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation which is based in Saudi Arabia.
Gulf states have a history of using Twitter bots and fake accounts for propaganda purposes (previously discussed here, here, here and here) but this is the first known attempt to enlist support from genuine social media users by offering them payment.
In the past, much of this online activity has been aimed at creating an impression that Gulf regimes enjoy tremendous support from their loyal citizens. It has also been used to encourage sectarianism amongst Sunni Muslims, directed at Shia Muslims and Iran.
In 2017, the Gulf states' feud with Qatar – led mainly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE – turned the Middle East into an electronic battleground with a plentiful array of weaponry in use, from hacking and other forms of electronic harassment to politically-targeted phishing attacks, fake social media accounts, and bots programmed to deluge Twitter with propaganda or sectarian hate speech.
In 2018, when the emir of Qatar visited London, a mysterious PR company hired a theatrical agency to recruit anti-Qatar demonstrators. Actors looking for work were offered £20 ($26) to stand outside Downing Street with placards. The agency told them: "You will not have to do or say anything, they just want to fill space. You will be finished at 12:30."
- You can view the research for this story via Write in Stone.