How can journalists avoid being used in disinformation operations?
27 Jul 2020|

Twitter suspended 16 accounts earlier this month for breaching the platform’s policies on ‘manipulation and spam’. The move followed an investigative report by The Daily Beast that uncovered a network of fake personas that had been presented as consultants or freelance journalists. These manufactured identities pushed out articles advancing anti-Iran and anti-Qatar narratives favourable to the United Arab Emirates. They were surprisingly successful and had more than 90 reports appear in 46 different publications, mainly US media outlets.

This case is merely one of many information operations emanating from the Gulf and the Middle East. Viewed together, they demonstrate how the role of the media and journalists as guardians of the public interest can be manipulated to project false content into mainstream spheres.

Journalists play a crucial role in bringing the truth to light and holding the powerful to account. Authoritarian regimes see how high-quality journalism can erode their legitimacy and support by exposing poor governance. This results in attempts to censor the free press, not only internally but also outside of autocratic states.

The Middle East provides myriad examples of autocratic leaders seeking to silence criticism from journalists overseas. The killing of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia is one of the most notable and demonstrates how far some states will go to eradicate dissent. Iran is also known for its efforts to threaten critical journalists based overseas and to harass their Iran-based family members.

However, such states also exploit public trust in journalism, and weaponise journalists and news media organisations, to amplify propaganda and disinformation favourable to their regimes. Indeed, inauthentic content doesn’t usually get much traction unless it is picked up and promoted by legitimate platforms.

A key tactic of the Iran-aligned ‘Endless Mayfly’ disinformation campaign, for example, was to publicly and privately engage journalists and activists on Twitter in an attempt to disseminate and amplify false content that advanced Iranian state interests.

Similarly, news media played a role in propagating a Saudi-based Twitter disinformation campaign following the blockade of Qatar in 2017. A researcher in Qatar says Saudi-based bots were used to amplify anti-Qatar hashtags and hashtags that painted a manipulated picture of grassroots opposition to the Qatari government and the ruling family. The campaign sought to legitimise the stance of the blockading countries, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, which have long criticised Qatar for its friendly ties with Iran and alleged funding for, and support of, terrorist groups. BBC Arabic’s ‘Trending’ service picked up the story, and then BBC Arabic reported on the trending hashtags. This example shows how easily media organisations can find themselves assisting in the spread of state-backed disinformation.

Another operation from the Gulf came in the form of a tit-for-tat hacking and leaking of emails that played out between the UAE and Qatar. After the blockade was implemented, there were numerous cases of unnamed sources providing hacked emails to journalists and media organisations. Some of these outlets went on to publish stories that stood to influence US foreign policy in the Middle East.

For instance, hacked emails from the accounts of the UAE ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, and US businessman and Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy* sought to erode US support for the blockade of Qatar. Conversely, hacked emails and phone and text messages from an Iranian businessman and Qatari officials attempted to push an anti-Iran and anti-Qatar message to the US administration.

The ethics of publishing news based on hacked information that seeks to further a state’s geopolitical objectives has been hotly debated. David Kirkpatrick, a reporter at the New York Times has said that ‘if we were to start rejecting information from sources with agendas, we might as well stop putting out the paper’. Others have argued that there’s no issue as long as the information has been verified. Still, some commentators are concerned about the potential consequences of these practices, pointing to how hacked emails were used to derail Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Regardless, the hacking of emails and the distribution of content have continued, and efforts to utilise journalists and news outlets in the West have not ceased. It’s therefore important that all elements of news media—journalists, editors and publishers writing and vetting articles—have a high degree of literacy on the agents, tactics and infrastructure of disinformation, and are aware of best practices when reporting such content.

Being as transparent as possible without compromising sources, verifying and authenticating information, and contextualising content are all necessary for those reporting on disinformation or on information that stands to advance the interests or agenda of a state, a group or an individual. These principles were followed in reports about Al Otaiba and Broidy which noted that the information was provided by ‘those critical of Emirati influence in Washington’. The articles also provided context on the UAE–Qatar rivalry and fractious relations within the Gulf.

The ‘publish or not’ decision becomes even more fraught when material arrives on a journalist’s desk without any indication of where it came from. Dealing with that requires substantial research and careful judgement calls.

A failure to follow clear professional practices will see journalists and news outlets relegated to pawns in the geopolitical games of states, rather than performing the much-needed function of exposing these tactics.

Disinformation and information operations more broadly constitute a multifaceted problem. A wide variety of people have a responsibility to respond, including political actors, social media platforms, civil society actors and even individuals not directly involved in the process.

Journalists and media outlets can often find themselves at the coalface of information operations. While many in the field have a high degree of awareness of and resilience to such tactics, the profession must develop a clear understanding of how these operations work if journalists are to avoid being used by actors out to deceive.

* Editors’ note, 29 July 2020: An earlier version of this post identified Elliott Broidy as a ‘UAE lobbyist’. A representative for Mr Broidy has since advised The Strategist that Mr Broidy was not a lobbyist for any foreign country.