Cyber warfare is not new in the Gulf, but the current Saudi-led onslaught against the tiny state of Qatar is seeing the most formidable instance of it yet being deployed, as Doha’s brothers-turned-enemies eye to dominate the war for narratives, in the media and on social media.
The current crisis itself was triggered by the hacking of Qatar News Agency, with the hackers planting fabricated controversial remarks by the country’s ruler to incite a fake news-inspired outrage.
Many analysts believe the incident and the campaign that followed were planned in advance, to justify the current blockade on Qatar and force a major policy change from the more independently minded Doha.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, the engineers of the blockade, have spared no means in the current diplomatic and media war on Qatar: expulsion of diplomats and ordinary citizens, the blocking of airspace, severing of marine and land routes, and even a banking and postal embargo.
In the media sphere, Saudi Arabia and the UAE reportedly instructed outlets they fund to ignore all facts and denials from Qatar and crank up the pro-government propaganda machine. Together with Egypt, they have blocked several Qatari-supported and independent television channels and websites. The UAE and Bahrain have even criminalized expression of sympathy with Qatar.
|While the recent diplomatic breakdown between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours exposes the political differences between the Gulf Cooperation Council member states, it also highlights the emergence of new types of cyber and information warfare
– Marc Owen Jones, Gulf researcher
Yet none of this is new. The same cannot be said however, about the deployment of cyber assets.
“While the recent diplomatic breakdown between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours exposes the political differences between the Gulf Cooperation Council member states, it also highlights the emergence of new types of cyber and information warfare,” wrote Marc Owen Jones, a Gulf research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.
In addition to the hacking against QNA, and the possibly connected leaking of the UAE’s Washington ambassador’s embarrassing emails, Twitter hashtags and bots seem to be a key weapon in the cyber war.
The measures by the Saudi-Emirati camp against Qatar are proving unpopular within a large segment of the Gulf public opinion, who are wise to the fabricated outrage and have noticed the convergence between Saudi Arabia and Israel in bashing Qatar.
Hashtags in solidarity with Qatar have been trending this week, all the way from Mauritania and Turkey (Qatar Is Not Alone), to Saudi Arabia (Statements of Al Jubair Do Not Represent Me) and the rest of the Gulf.
The Twitter bots are programmed to send out coordinated tweets, often hijacking unrelated trending hashtags, to disseminate messages defending governments like those of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others, or attacking their dissidents and opponents, who now include Qatar.
Just four days before Qatar’s hacking, wrote Jones, an Arabic hashtag translated as “Qatar is the treasury of terrorism” was trending. On the hashtag, “social media accounts – many of them bots – echoed similar themes of criticizing Qatar for its relationship with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas”.
The bot armies appeared again on Twitter after the hack, most of which criticized Qatar. Jones wrote: “My analysis shows the presence of propaganda bots on numerous hashtags. One of these Twitter trends was #AlJazeeraInsultsKingSalman, and my analysis shows 20 percent of the Twitter accounts were anti-Qatar-bots.”
What these bot armies represent is not an organic outpouring of genuine public anger at Qatar, added Jones, “but rather an orchestrated and organized campaign” to promote the “discourse that Qatar is a supporter of terrorism by creating the misleading impression of a popular groundswell of opinion.”
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