AI and ghost journalists: behind an anti-Qatar propaganda campaign, the shadow of the United Arab Emirates
Antoine Champagne and Jacques Duplessy on 28/09/2020
False journalists have produced dozens of articles aimed at denigrating Qatar. Real newspapers fell for it and resumed their writings. “Marianne” led the investigation, and saw the probable paw of the Emirates behind this elaborate sleight of hand.
For almost a year, 19 fake journalists wrote more than 90 articles in 46 newspapers and websites. A common thread running through many of these papers is that they praise the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and denigrate Qatar, as in this article subtly titled “Qatar destabilizes the Middle East”. Some also attack Turkey, Iran, China or Facebook’s policies.
The operation was well done. The profiles of the fake journalists or geopolitical specialists claim brilliant careers. False Linkedin profiles had been set up to give importance to the “authors”. Two websites fed mainly by these ghostly colleagues were even created for the occasion, The Arab Eye and Persia Now. Ironically, the first one claims to fight against distorting information. But above all, 46 authentic media have been deceived. Conservative American websites and magazines such as the Washington Examiner, The Post Millennial, American Thinker or The National Interest, but also The Jerusalem Post, Asia Times or South China Morning Post. No French media in this list.
Nevertheless, centrist senator Nathalie Goulet, a great friend of Saudi Arabia, shared one of these articles by Lin Nguyen. In one of her papers, the pseudo-journalist evokes the “manipulations of classic newspapers and social networks” from “Hong Kong to the Persian Gulf”! The title of this article, which she had managed to get published by the site AsiaTimes.com, was particularly evocative: “Disinformation becomes a tool of soft power”. One could not say it better… Taking the example of the Hong Kong demonstrators in their struggle against Beijing, and going so far as to quote Reporters Without Borders, Lin Nguyen immediately allied herself with democrats from all walks of life. It can then unroll its partition over the Gulf countries. And, above all, on the sworn enemy that is Qatar, which would have published delicate information on the United Arab Emirates. Through distorting information, she explains, “Qatar can pass itself off as a liberal haven in a sea of conservative and regressive regimes, and other countries can enforce archaic laws using misleading, and in some cases completely fabricated, information.
TRACK GAME It must be said that the articles were subtly written and distilled. This is a far cry from the crude misinformation as Russian “content farms”, for example, know how to produce. Here, much of the geopolitical analysis holds up, seems well-founded and does not differ greatly from that produced by some experts interviewed by television channels… It is in the midst of a seemingly legitimate jumble that the attacks on Qatar, Iran or Turkey appear, which, in terms of disinformation, are not to be outdone. More innovative, the photos in the profiles of the fake journalists were modified photos of existing people or images generated by artificial intelligence so that it was not quickly apparent that they were identity theft.
Beyond this well-run propaganda operation, this media intox raises the question of the validation process of expert opinion articles that are submitted to newspapers and then published. None of them have realized that these “journalists”, “experts” or “bloggers” have any real existence. It is easy to imagine the scale of such an operation with a team of journalists supervising a pool of texts concocted with the help of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is now capable of efficiently producing “journalistic” content on economic issues or sports results. The New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters, Washington Post are already using it.
Who is behind this world-class intoxication revealed by the American newspaper The Daily Beast? The authors of this twisted trick were very careful. But we were able to find traces of the possible sponsor on the Net. It’s a treasure hunt. The names and addresses of the owners of the two sites created for the occasion, The Arab Eye and Persia Now, have long since been masked. A possibility offered by the companies that sell the domain names of the sites. But before hiding his identity, the owner of one of the fake websites had provided (in 2014 and 2015) a first name and a surname. Probably false. Starting from his name, Marianne was able to trace his name to another domain, for which he had this time provided an address in Ajman … in the United Arab Emirates.
Verification made on the spot, it is a large house proudly displaying the flag of the country, with a large antenna obviously not used only to receive television channels and a very large covered parking lot. The name left for the purchase of the domain name, however, does not appear on the mailbox.
SOFT POWER In addition, several computer traces can be used to link the fake websites together. Thus, they share the same Google Analytics account allowing to analyze the audiences. This point is interesting because, in this case, the only entity to have very precise information on the sponsor is precisely Google. It would be enough for the justice to ask him for the information for the masks to fall off.
No wonder the UAE is possibly behind this twisted coup, while Qatar and the UAE are waging a war of influence. Contacted, the Qataris play the frightened virgins. Which is amusing when one knows the astronomical sums spent to extend the country’s soft power via, in particular, the television channel Al-Jazeera. “The State of Qatar is very concerned that this kind of practice may have fooled Western media. Freedom of the press, which is a fundamental principle, should not be misused to play the game of large-scale manipulation operations, a spokesman for the Emirate Foreign Ministry reacted. We trust the authorities of the countries concerned to take the necessary vigilance measures so as to no longer mislead public opinion. “The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates did not respond to our request for an interview. After the false news, we must now beware of false journalists.