Anatomy of a disinformation campaign: The coup that never was

In the early hours of May 4, news of a coup in Qatar started trending on Twitter.

At about 1:30am Saudi time, a mysterious account that uses a photo of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman as its profile picture tweeted that an explosion was heard in the Qatari city of al-Wakra, just outside the capital, Doha. Soon after, a Saudi-based account with only a few followers replied to the tweet, claiming there had been a coup attempt against Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

By all accounts, residents of al-Wakra had heard a bang that night. This, in and of itself, was not unusual – people living in this city are used to being startled by the sonic boom of jets from time to time. Nevertheless, the fact that a loud bang was heard near the capital gave people motivated to spread disinformation about Qatar a peg on which to hang the plausibility of their claims.

Soon after the first tweet claiming that there had been a coup in Doha, the Arabic hashtag “al-Wakra” began trending on Twitter in Qatar, and “coup in Qatar” began trending in Saudi Arabia. In a matter of hours, hundreds of thousands of tweets about the alleged coup attempt were produced across several hashtags, making “coup in Qatar” the number-one trending topic in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The narrative that was being pushed on Twitter was that former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim, disgruntled by a corruption investigation, had sought to overthrow the emir, with Turkish troops stationed in the country interceding on behalf of the current leadership.

The vast majority of accounts tweeting about this alleged coup attempt appeared to be based in Saudi Arabia, raising suspicions that the rumours could be part of a long-running Saudi-led campaign to discredit the Qatari leadership.

On June 5, 2017, four Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain – severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of funding “terrorism” and fomenting regional instability – allegations Doha rejects. The countries also cut off all land, air and sea links to Qatar.

The move was followed by a relentless disinformation campaign, led mostly through social media, aiming to create the impression that the Qatari leadership is in crisis and that Riyadh’s aggressive policies towards its Gulf neighbour are justified.

A few days after the blockade was imposed, for example, there were claims made over Twitter of a coup being under way in Qatar. At the time, these unfounded claims were swiftly reported on, and supported by, media outlets that have links to the blockading countries.

This month’s Twitter-storm about the alleged coup attempt in Qatar appeared to have several similarities with the Saudi-led disinformation efforts of 2017.

Suspicious, I decided to investigate.

‘Sock puppets’ and influencers

Most of the accounts spreading the rumours appeared to be anonymous and based in Saudi Arabia.

Hundreds of others, with European-sounding names, meanwhile, were “sock puppets” – accounts set up under fake names to bolster a particular point of view online. Indeed, none of these accounts had a history of tweeting in Arabic or on Middle Eastern politics prior to May 4.

However, amid all these anonymous and clearly fake accounts, I found a key group of verified accounts spreading disinformation. Abdallah al-Bandar, a Saudi presenter for the international news channel Sky News Arabia who has 234,000 followers on Twitter, for example, added fuel to the rumours by tweeting early on May 4 that warplanes were flying over Qatar.

Numerous other influential Saudis contributed to the rapid spread of the rumours by sharing false, unverified information on social media, including influencer Monther Al Shaykh Mubarak, sports commentator Musaid AlSohimi, and poet Abdlatif Al Shaykh.

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