The Middle East's cyber-wars

Political battles are increasingly fought via social media and Arab governments (among others) have been quick to join in – often covertly. Below is a collection of blog posts looking at the use of robots, fake Twitter accounts and other forms of online deception in the Middle East.

Facebook cracks down on propaganda campaign in Jordan

10th July 2021

Facebook has removed a network of accounts, groups and pages after discovering "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" in a campaign to support Jordan's king after a dispute broke out in the royal family.

Pro-Saudi bots spam the Khashoggi hashtag on Twitter

11th October 2019

Twitter's hashtags offer a quick and easy way to find out what people are saying on a given topic. But for those who dislike what is being said there's also a quick and easy way to obstruct the discussion: they can summon an army of bots to flood the hashtag with irrelevant tweets.

Twitter shuts down 'manipulative' accounts in the Middle East

21st September 2019

Twitter announced on Friday that it has closed down a series of accounts connected with the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia as part of its effort to shed more light on "state-backed information operations".

How the Middle East became an electronic battleground

18th June 2017

Viewed in isolation, the temporary disappearance of Al Jazeera's Arabic-language Twitter account last Saturday might seem fairly insignificant. In the light of other events, though, it's yet another sign that political battles in the Middle East are increasingly being fought via the internet. There's already 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 robots programmed to deluge Twitter with propaganda or sectarian hate speech.

Robots and Russians: the Qatar hacking mystery deepens

8th June 2017

Yesterday, CNN suggested that Russian hackers may have been behind the planting of a fake news item on the website of Qatar's government news agency last month. The news item – a fictitious account of a speech purportedly made by Qatar's emir – provided the spark for a barrage of attacks on Qatar by Saudi and Emirati media which has now escalated into a full-blown international crisis.

Redevelopment or counter-terrorism? The battle over Awamiyah

18th May 2017

For more than a week clashes have been taking place in Awamiyah, a town in Saudi Arabia's predominantly Shia Eastern province. Polarised media coverage of the events is also reflected on Twitter where there have been several waves of suspicious activity – some of it anti-Saudi and some anti-Iranian.

How Twitter robots spam critics of Saudi Arabia

28th July 2016

For several weeks now there has been growing evidence that Twitter is being used for a covert and highly organised propaganda operation which disparages Shia Muslims while supporting the Sunni Muslim governments of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The tactic is to deluge Twitter with multiple copies of identical tweets. These come from fake (robotic) accounts which are programmed to post tweets at fixed intervals.

The automation of hate speech

29th June 2016

Dissemination of hate speech on Twitter is an obvious cause for concern – especially when automated accounts can be used to propagate it on a massive scale. This is currently happening in the Middle East where thousands of robot accounts are posting an endless barrage of tweets directed against Shia Muslims.

How robots have over-run the #bahrain hashtag on Twitter

23rd June 2016

A few months ago I began to feel that something odd was happening whenever I posted a tweet about Bahrain. My tweets, usually critical of Bahrain's government, rapidly disappeared from view – pushed down the #bahrain live Twitter feed by lots of newer tweets, mostly supporting the Bahraini government. 

Sectarian robots

22nd June 2016

Twitter announced yesterday that it has suspended hundreds of apparently fake accounts that have been posting sectarian tweets directed against Shia Muslims. 

Who is Suzan Hadad?

10th August 2011

Liliane Khalil, the "veteran" Middle East journalist whose real identity is being questioned, appears to have had an earlier incarnation as Suzan Hadad, "a journalist located in Atlanta, Georgia".

An update on Liliane Khalil

6th August 2011

Mystery continues to surround Liliane Khalil, the "veteran investigative journalist" who last month became "North America bureau chief" for the Bahrain Independent and formerly held the title of contributing editor for the Bikya Masr website.

Libya, Bahrain and a mystery journalist

3rd August 2011

Articles carrying the by-line "Liliane Khalil" have been appearing on various Middle East websites. She is described as a "veteran investigative journalist" with "with over a decade of experience" reporting about the region but her background is a mystery and it's doubtful whether she really exists.