The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has promised Trump to help quell protests against police violence. The UAE has made covert and illegal contributions to the Trump campaign. American Chicken McNuggets will give you COVID.
These are just a few of the articles that three “journalists” – Sadia Ben Yousef, Rumaisa Hanaoui and Ahlam al-Shumayli – have published in dozens of articles since May 2019. But it is not just the stories that they are all wrong. They are all based on spoofed websites, spoofed screenshots, or non-existent events. And as Facebook reported on Tuesday, a number of them have been publicized by Iran-based trolls using fake accounts.
A joint investigation by the Daily Beast and intelligence Mandiant Threat identified dozens of these bogus articles published in 35 different Arab media outlets during a nearly two-year disinformation frenzy that drove critical pro-Iran narratives to whitewash the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. in legitimate media by bogus journalists.
After The Daily Beast contacted Twitter about Hanaoui and al-Shumayli’s accounts in October, the company suspended them for violating Twitter’s spam handling and platform rules. The Daily Beast could not find any social media accounts with Ben Yousef’s name.
In a report on coordinated inauthentic behavior released Tuesday, Facebook said it identified four accounts that are part of a network of Iranian accounts that “primarily target Arab, French and English audiences around the world” and “typo-centric. squatting off-platform. domains “after reviewing information from The Daily Beast and Mandiant. The company wrote that automated anti-spam systems have shut down the” vast majority “of account activity when they were active in 2020.
It’s unclear who was behind the fake content the characters used for their articles. But the raw material for their stories featured tactics similar to those seen in the Iran-aligned Endless Mayfly disinformation activity, first identified by researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
Content produced as part of Endless Mayfly’s business frequently relied on spoofed news websites that mimicked real news organizations to push stories discrediting the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
Shadia Ben Yousef, the more active of the three characters, published an article about a misspelled version of the American media Defense One, which focuses on military matters. The article, formatted to look like the actual site, launched a false claim that the Mossad leader had visited an Iraqi military base where US troops were stationed.
Social media impersonations have also proven to be a fertile source of content for personas. Ben Yousef relied on a multitude of spoofed Twitter accounts, including those in the name of an American diplomat from the American embassy in Baghdad, a former senior French intelligence official and member of parliament, and a fictitious Yemeni jihadist splinter group that threatened an Arab. -Conference of peace in Israel in Bahrain.
Shortly before the 2020 presidential election, someone also registered a Facebook account to pose as an Israeli cybersecurity official and claim that the UAE royal family “ made a generous donation of $ 200. million USD to Trump’s campaign in the hope of keeping him in power. Hanaoui published an article on the fake in the Algerian daily El Wamid which alleged a big plot by Israel and the United Arab Emirates to keep Trump in power.
The fake Israeli Facebook account was also shared by a Twitter account masquerading as Corey Lemley, a genuine Antifa activist in Tennessee. It was an apparent attempt to broadcast a false story of electoral interference in the Middle East to an English-speaking left-wing audience. Lemley confirmed to the Daily Beast that the account was fake and was not in any way associated with him.
Facebook and Twitter suspended the accounts involved when The Daily Beast shared examples of the content, but were unable to determine who was behind them.
The characters have published their work in predominantly legitimate Arab news outlets, but a few have also appeared on fake news sites set up by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. At least two articles were published on Nilenetonline and Libya Al Mokhtar, IRGC-run fake news sites claiming to be Egyptian and Libyan media, which the Justice Ministry later seized and attributed to the IRGC.
The characters stayed true to similar themes to the Endless Mayfly activity – criticizing the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel – but also added a new lens in response to events in the Middle East. : the United Arab Emirates and the Arab normalization process they led. in the Middle-East.
As the UAE moved closer to diplomatic recognition with Israel, the characters sought to tarnish the country’s image and sow division between the Emirates and its allies. The Ben Yousef character has published false stories claiming the UAE has turned its back on Saudi Arabia and embraced a rapprochement with Gulf Kingdom rival Qatar plotted with Israel to take control of the mosque al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and carry out a “false flag” attack with Israel against oil tankers in the Gulf to blame Iran.
Emirati Ambassador to the United States Yousef al Otaiba told the Daily Beast that while he was unfamiliar with the specific disinformation effort, he did not consider it surprising. “It was something we obviously knew was going to happen. We knew where it was going to come from. We all knew what the messages would be, ”Otaiba said.
Despite the apparent effort to sway minds against normalization, Otaiba says the propaganda campaign has had no impact on public opinion. “In the UAE, it did not affect our approach with Israel. We are at full steam. “
The characters also seized the global pandemic as an opportunity to use the coronavirus as a propaganda weapon against the U.S. Ben Yousef’s character has written fake stories about Americans and the symbols of America acting as vectors of infection in allied countries. One story cited a fictitious cluster of coronavirus infections among US troops in Iraq and another used a forged Twitter screenshot of a French MP to claim that a four-piece box of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets could giving him the virus.
Throughout the almost two-year ake press campaign, the characters seemed to receive little critical attention from the public until an article by Ben Yousef victimized a grieving Lebanese woman when Najwa Qassem, a popular Al Arabiya broadcaster, died suddenly of a heart attack In January 2020, her friend Rima Najm, a Lebanese journalist and author, recounted her horror upon discovering a fake quote about the incident attributed to her in a story by Ben Yousef. The story, published in Egyptian media, used a bogus quote from Najm to label the death as suspicious and linked to an attempt to leave for a job in another network.
Najm did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast, but wrote about the experience in an article shortly after the incident.
“It’s painful that some people put you in a position you don’t belong to. So you end up being associated with an act you didn’t do and a saying you didn’t speak, ”she wrote.
– with additional reporting by Kelly Weill
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