Expert discusses digital authoritarianism in the Middle East

November 26, 2020

Advancements in artificial intelligence and digital technologies are providing opportunities for state and non-state actors to create more disinformation and fake news, according to research by Marc Owen Jones, a Hamad bin Khalifa University professor and expert on digital authoritarianism in the Middle East. 

Speaking at a Northwestern Qatar webinar, Jones revealed findings from his research that uncovered a network of 19 fake journalist-accounts that appear to have been created by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to disseminate government-backed news and opinion articles to foreign news desks.

“The whole point of these falsehoods, spread maliciously by governments and non-state actors, is to erode our sense of what is real and what is not real, and this is very much the cornerstone of the post-truth age,” Jones said. “It is about undermining our trust in established institutions, and science, and truth.” 

Jones was part of a project that exposed two websites, The Arab Eye and Persia Now that were fake news sites with AI-generated people who were created to impersonate journalists and contributors who submitted news articles and opinion pieces to mainstream media.

“We found about 19 different fake journalists who wrote about 90 different articles between them, which were published in at least 46 different international news outlets – from the United States to Japan, which was a successful operation,” he said.

According to Jones, the articles published by the media that were written by the AI-generated journalists aligned with the propaganda and foreign policies of the same countries that have imposed a blockade on Qatar and have been critical of Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. Many of the articles were also complimentary of the UAE. 

Throughout the lecture, Jones described some of the actions he took to investigate the AI-generated reporters’ identities and the red flags he came across that gave them away, including the use of fake images, undetailed background information, and references to government-back research and policies in their work. 

Another giveaway, he said, was “while the articles were very polished,” they were not asking to be compensated for their work, “which suggests that whoever was behind the operation was probably receiving compensation in some other form.”

The danger, Jones told the students, of trusting what is designed to seem like a credible news source is the level of detail that goes into the development of these fake journalists. He pointed out that they all had long digital trails, including LinkedIn and Facebook accounts, which gave the illusion that the person was real. 

The media operations were effective at getting their articles places because “editors and people at editorial desks were fooled and didn’t conduct sufficient verification about who was writing their content,” Jones said. “This isn’t a critique of editors, but more of a reflection of the times we live in where, increasingly, news outlets are thirsty for content and will go to great lengths to publish anything.”

Jones also noted the different responses he received after publishing the report and exposing the journalists as fake. While some of the media outlets that had published the material took the articles down, other outlets did not.

Jones was also attacked by some news editors on social media for exposing the fake journalists, and statements were posted by the media outlets to validate and support the content of the published articles, which he said was “quite striking.” 

Jones is an assistant professor in Master of Arts in Digital Humanities and Societies at HBKU and an expert on issues of social justice in the Gulf. His research focuses on historical revisionism, postcolonialism, de-democratization, and revolutionary cultural production, policing, digital authoritarianism, and human rights.

The webinar – The Gulf Information War: Post-Truth Media & Fake News – was part of a Northwestern Qatar class on Media and Politics taught by Professor Khaled AL-Hroub.