*This is a piece from 2011, posted here for posterity, and because it was on my old blog*****
If it’s 2 am, and you’re still awake screaming angrily at your Twitter feed, then chances are you’ve been sucked into the Arab Spring – online edition. Indeed, social media and the Arab Spring are two collocations that are often uttered in the same sentence. While such a focus is not surprising considering the widely held idea that social media is playing a positive role in increasing the efficacy of the recent uprisings, it does tend to obscure the darker side of the debate, the one in which social media is used as a tool to spread both disinformation and propaganda. We are not talking about citizens who don’t support the uprisings in their respective countries (that is their own choice), we are mainly referring to the more suspicious and anonymous accounts, that seem to be deliberately filling the bloggo- and tweetosphere with pro-government PR. While this has been alluded to before, it is still difficult to pinpoint who and what might be behind such accounts. Some say PR firms, others say state security apparatus, many say both. Sometimes though there are cases that don’t seem to fit the mold, such as that of the alleged journalist Liliane Khalil, whose case is one of intrigue, mystery, and ambiguity. This investigation reveals that we may have on our hands another Tom McMaster, another fake internet persona exploiting the anonymity of the internet whilst using the Arab Spring as a catalyst to develop that character.
Who is Liliane Khalil? Her Rise to Prominence
Liliane Khalil claims to be (1) an Atlanta-based journalist who writes for BikyaMasr & the Bahrain Independent (which as of 18th July 2011 seems to have disappeared*****). Her recent rise to prominence was in no small part due to her prolific tweeting about the Arab Spring, which earned her a sizeable following. Indeed, before she changed her account in May, the number of her Twitter followers was estimated to be over 3200 (2) ( in April). Despite this impressive figure, and an equally impressive biography (3), it’s been very difficult to track any trace of Liliane Khalil since before about February this year. As a supposedly renowned journalist, whose recent jet setting has taken her travel to Cairo, Israel, Atlanta and New York, it was surprising not to find any significant mentions of her on the web. This is especially true when we consider that she is on first name terms (4) with disgraced U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner, and has claimed to have interviewed a number of notable figures, including King Hamad, the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Natan Sharansky, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi and Dr. AlBaradei. Although we shall discuss this in more depth later, let’s first go back a bit and examine the mystery of her sudden disappearance…
Where is Liliane Khalil?
The intrigue surrounding Liliane Khalil first began after her involvement with a group of Tweeters working from the besieged town of Zintan in Libya. The group, @operationlibyia , gained many followers after Khalil wrote an obituary for one of their members who had apparently died. Following the obituary, the group began to ask people to contribute to relief efforts by putting money into their personal PayPal account. However, it wasn’t long before people began to question the authenticity of the @operationlibyia (why was their Arabic so bad, how could they tweet from a besieged town etc), and after a few days Liliane claimed that she had been duped. Shortly after this statement, Liliane Khalil’s Twitter and tumblr accounts were deleted. ( Full story here). As it stands, there remains no discernible trace of the article Liliane Khalil wrote on tumblr that denounced this group as frauds. The article, which also mentioned two other unknown charities (5) that could be donated to, has vanished into thin air. In short, all Liliane’s blogs and articles disappeared, with the exception of what she wrote for BikyaMasr – and an article she wrote for the Bahrain Independent.
The Return of Liliane Khalil
Liliane’s disappearance caused quite a stir online, with many concerned for her safety after exposing the scam, others thinking maybe she was part of the scam. This conjecture soon ended when Liliane Khalil re-emerged on Twitter, her new name @Liliane_Khalil replacing the old @lilianekhalil. Upon her return Khalil claimed her account had been hacked (6) . It is odd though, if her accounts were hacked, why would the hackers delete all her accounts, including her tumblr blog and all her articles for Bahrain Independent? Did she have copies of her old blogs? If so, why didn’t she republish old articles, especially the one about being duped? Was she trying to hide something? Indeed, with such questions reverberating around our aheads, we continued with the research, trying to figure who Liliane Khalil is.
Liliane Khalil’s History and Background
Apparently Liliane Khalil was educated at Richmond University London (7). However, it has also been alluded to that she studied at New York University (8). While the statement about New York University did not come from her mouth it is perhaps a little more interesting when we consider other, more intriguing revelations. After doing image searches on google we discovered that one of her old Twitter profile pictures (9) actually corresponded to that used on a linkedin profile of someone called Gisele Cohen (10) (link). Now Gisele, like Liliane Khalil, is also based in Atlanta. However, she works for ‘Union Healthcare’, a clinic in Atlanta. You will also notice that Gisele attended New York University (NYU). While it was only alluded to that Liliane Khalil went to NYU, it is a little strange that Gisele Cohen’s linkedin profile contains a picture of Liliane and states she went to New York University. Perhaps even stranger is that there is another Gisele Cohen on myspace, whose educational background states ‘Richmond University London’ & ‘Oglethorpe University’ in Atlanta. Bear in mind that Liliane Khalil stated that she went to Richmond University London, but what about Oglethorpe University? Well, Liliane Khalil said on the 28th May that she was giving a talk to journalism students (11) (and this (12)) at Oglethorpe University – which doesn’t actually offer majors or minors in journalism (though they do have a communications & rhetoric program). Furthermore, Liliane Khalil also claimed that she was giving a lecture (13) at the Arthur L Carter institute at NYU. Crucially, we can’t find any evidence that either of these talks took place, either at Oglethorpe or NYU . There are no records of them occurring. Indeed, it seems that Liliane Khalil is a persona whose background is based on the two profiles of one Gisele Cohen. As if things aren’t already a little weird, they’re about to get a lot weirder.
False Claims & Bad Journalism
Liliane Khalil claims to have interviewed Natan Sharansky (14) and Dr.Hanan Ashrawi (14) (the latter on two occasions ((15))) , though no evidence of these interviews has ever materialised. Also, Khalil clearly indicates that she will be in Jerusalem meeting Natan Sharansky (16) (unless she is being deliberately misleading) at a time when he was probably still in the United States* (Photo). What is more, Khalil claimed to have had a meeting at Orient House (14) in Jerusalem prior to her ‘interviews’, though apparently Orient House has been closed since 2001. Khalil also mentions that she has interviewed the now deceased Iranian pro – democracy activist Haleh Sahabi in 2009 (17), yet the transcripts that she said she would post have not yet appeared. We should also mention that Khalil claimed she (18)had interiewed Dr. Al Baradei. While it possible to argue that Khalil doesn’t specify that it is THE Dr. Al Baradei, I think a reasonable person would assume that she meant him. I also think a reasonable person would assume that Khalil was suggesting that she was meeting those people, rather than just exchanging emails or phone calls (though this of course is possible).
In relation to Bahrain, Liliane Khalil claims to have interviewed King Hamad & the foreign minister (19) for an article she wrote for the BahrainIndependent. While this was deleted off the Bahrain Independent website, it is available here. The article, which caused a great deal of controversy, badly misrepresented and misquoted the works of Dutch academic Katje Niethammer. This was so blatant that Katje Niethammer herself posted a video refuting the misquotes and misrepresentation. Liliane Khalil also claims that she will be interviewing US diplomat Stephanie Williams (20) soon. Whether or not this happens remains to be seen, yet the fact that none of these others interviews ever seems to appear in articles calls their veracity into question. Finally, in regards to interviews and Bahrain, Khalil also requested to interview (21) Zainab Al Khawaja. Zainab, fully aware of Khalil’s previous attempts at defaming the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, declined (21) to be interviewed.
The Sabah News Saga
About 3 months ago, Liliane Khalil stated on at least 3 different occasions that she was contributing articles to a Turkish online news company called Sabah. These articles included two on Libya and one on Syria. Khalil claimed on Twitter that her articles were appearing on Sabah, and the respective links are (Libya 1 , Libya 2, Syria ). What’s very strange about this is that Sabah have denied more than once any affiliation with Liliane Khalil. Furthermore, the articles that Liliane claimed she had written for Sabah were actually copied word for word from Reuters.
Libya 1 | If you click here > Libya 1 , then follow her link to the Sabah article here, then read the original Reuters article here , you will see that Liliane Khalil is claiming credit for an article actually written by Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy
Libya 2| If you click here > Libya 2, then follow her link to the Sabah article here, then read the original Reuters article here , you will see that Liliane Khalil is claiming credit for an article written by William Maclean and Avril Ormsby
Syria | If you click here > Syria, then follow her link to the Sabah article here , then read the original Reuters articlehere, you will see how Liliane Khalil is claiming to use wire reports and witness accounts, though in reality the work is that of a Reuters correspondent in Deraa, Yara Bayoumy in Beirut and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; with writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Ralph Gowling
Surely Someone’s Noticed?
Well, as we’ve mentioned above, people have disputed Liliane’s integrity before, which prompted her on one occasion to issue a tweet saying that she would be filing (22) a libel/defamation appeal with Bahrain’s attorney general. She also claimed that Sabah, the paper she claimed to have worked for, defamed her (23). What is interesting about the libel/defamation appeal that she said she would be filing is the following excerpt;
I have never been paid by the government of the Kingdom of Bahrain to propagate a positive image, write articles supporting the monarchy or provide public relations/media strategies to the ruling Al Khalifa family or their advisers. – Signed, Mrs Liliane Al-Khalil, Monday 25 April 2011, New York City, New York
While Khalil does mention that she hasn’t provided PR services to the ruling family or their advisers, she does state the following in one of her biographies (3).
I have also been a media strategy consultant for the Bahrain Ministry of Information. I was born in the United States, educated in London and lived in Egypt for over a decade. I am from Palestinian Arab and Armenian heritage.
I think you would be forgiven for thinking that being a media strategy consultant for the Bahrain MOI is similar to providing media strategies to the al-Khalifas or, more specifically, their ‘ advisers’ . The term adviser seems to cover all manner of sins. Then again, let’s be honest, whether or not she actually worked for the Bahrain MOI at all is the question. Bear in mind this is the same person who claimed to be working (24)** for the CNN news desk in Atlanta. When this was checked out, it turns out they had never even heard of her.
Liliane Khalil and Bahrain
Despite her stint with the Bahrain MOI, Khalil’s history with Bahrain is a bit ambiguous. The most important thing to bear in mind is that while Liliane supported all the other Arab uprisings, she has, under the guise of Liliane Khalil been very opposed to the one in Bahrain. The blatant inaccuracy of her article about the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights’ connections with Iran would suggest a conscious and deliberate attempt to misrepresent the truth. What is more, a lot of it seems to be taken from an old, anonymous pro-government blog. Regardless of this, Liliane’s work, which unashamedly propagates the ‘ Iran as a bogeyman’ idea, has landed her a ‘job’ with Bahrain’s most notorious and noxious purveyor of propaganda, the Bahrain Independent (BI). Don’t be fooled by the name though, the Bahrain Independent is about as independent as the DRC is democratic.
Maybe we’re being a little harsh though, for the BI is independent to a certain extent. Independent of critical thinking, independent of compassion. Independent of subtlety. Its general shtick is the sensationalist derision of the pro-democracy movement. Its tone is almost always patronising, aggressive or condescending. It puts forward its assertions with very little evidence, and generally regurgitates stories that absolve the Bahraini government of any responsibility or accountability. It simultaneously propagates sectarian ideas whilst asserting that sectarianism is the recourse of ‘opposition’ extremists. It has also developed an unhealthy fixation with Robert Fisk.
I guess what we’re trying to say is that the Bahrain Independent’s editorial style is one that does not tolerate any divergence from a strict pro-government line. While Liliane’s article fits their brief perfectly, the real audacity of the blog lies in its recent revelation that she is to be heading up the US bureau in Atlanta (25), Georgia. While it is news to us that blogging from another country qualifies as ‘ opening a bureau’, it is even more unusual that the Bahrain Independent went as far as to say that they were holding a gala celebration (26) to commemorate this opening. The gala, which was apparently held at a Ritz Carlton in Atlanta on Thursday 23rd June, was a high level affair, with diplomatic representatives of the Cypriot, Indian and British consuls invited. Also invited was the Turkish Honorary Consul General. Whether or not all of them went is unclear, though Khalil posted a picture of herself (27)with ‘ladies from the UK consulate’. Judging from the ukinusa’s Atlanta website and facebook page, the ladies in that picture certainly do not work at the UK consulate in Atlanta. Although we contacted the UK consulate for a statement, they said ‘that for security reasons they don’t disclose information on the consul-general calendar’. While we thought it strange that they refused to answer a question about a potentially non-existent past event, we had more joy with Kenneth Cutshaw, the Honorary consul for India in Atlanta, who said that he had never even heard of the Bahrain Independent or Liliane Khalil. Furthermore, despite Liliane Khalil’s claim that the gala was held at the Ritz Carlton during her live tweets (28), the Ritz Carltons in Atlanta denied that any such event had taken place when we contacted them. Other oddities include the fact she uploaded this picture (29)of herself on the night of the gala. This picture of her in boots at the gala, is exactly the same one she uploaded in 2010 (30) to another, older Twitter account that we managed to unearth called @LilyKhalil.
Indeed, from what we know, the gala stunt and the ‘US bureau’ seem to be entirely fabricated attempts to inject credibility and legitimacy into what is essentially a glorified blog. As if this wasn’t deceptive enough, Khalil’s lack of support for the Bahrain uprisings (compared to her support for the rest of the Arab Spring), is even more peculiar when we consider yet another twist in the tale.
@LilyKhalil, @LKhalilTRT, @vnasr
Prior to the advent of both the lilianekhalil and Liliane_Khalil twitter accounts, there were the following accounts @vnasr (31) @LilyKhalil (32), and @LKhalilTRT (33) . While they have all been deleted***, the notable thing about them is that Liliane was very scathing of the Bahrain government, this was especially true of her @LKhalilTRT account (34), which did not allude to any Iranian influence in the Bahrain uprisings. It seems that the LKhalilTRT account was created to support her statement (32) that she worked for TRT, a Turkish Online News Agency. It does seem, however, that the account didn’t last much longer than a few days. As for her other account @vnasr, or Victoria Nasr. This one is a bit of a mystery. It is clear that it was her account as she uses the same photo (31) as Liliane Khalil. She alludes to being a florist (35), and also mentions living in Cairo (36) and being married to a man called Amir – all things that Liliane has claimed (37). Victoria Nasr then became LilyKhalil, who even had her own blog ‘Betwixt & Between: Mrs Ambivalence’ (38) (An unwittingly appropriate name?). Unsurprisingly though, this blog has also been deleted.
@GiseleMizrahi, @Gisele Azrahi, @GiseleKhedouri
Prior to her ‘political/journalistic’ career Liliane was also (39) a Publicist, Chocoholic and Entertainment PR specialist. As Mizrahi she used a photo (40) also used by one of Liliane Khalil’s other alter ego’s – florist Victoria Nasr (45). Liliane was clearly uncertain of the name choice though, and before she settled on Gisele Mizrahi she opted for Gisele Arazi (41). Oh, and before we forget, she had a brief spell as Gisele Khadouri (42), whose profile seems to be related to her Gisele Cohen identity (employee at Union Healthcare) Interestingly enough though, all the names Cohen, Mizrahi, Azari and Khadouri (Kadoorie or Kaduri) are Jewish. We’re not really sure why, though her Middle Eastern incarnations (Khalil /Nasr) are appropriately Arab, and she goes as far as to describe her heritage as Palestinian Arab and Armenian (3). What we are sure of though, and what is a very important point, is that Liliane Khalil knew who Mizrahi was, since she actually viewed Mizrahi’s photo profile.
So just who is Liliane Khalil?
If you’ve reached this point and you’re still wondering who exactly Liliane Khalil is, then you’re in good company. Is she Gisele Cohen? Maybe. Is she Victoria Nasr? Perhaps. Is she Liliane Khalil? Almost certainly not. Is she even a journalist? Possibly, though an extremely unethical one. Where is she from? Is she really the Palestinian Arab Armenian who was born in the USA, educated in London, lived in Cairo, speaks Arabic, Turkish and English? Her pronunciation of the Arabic word for freedom (7urriya) would suggest that she struggles with Arabic, though that is neither here nor there. She also has spoken to people on the phone, that much is sure, though no one has yet admitted to having met her or seen her.
It is perhaps equally intriguing to speculate as to why she suddenly went from supporting the Bahrain protests, to opposing them? Why did she start writing for the Bahrain Independent? If it is as official as they claim (with a US bureau and everything) then it would indicate the writers are being paid. If so by whom? Why has she had so many Twitter accounts? Why claim credit for things written by other people? While it’s dangerous territory to speculate about such things, they are reminiscent of Ghassan Zakkaria’s scathing account of Arab journalists ‘using oil instead of ink’. He was referring to many writers who were paid, often by the House of Saud, to write columns and articles praising them****. Could money then be the reason behind Liliane’s sudden u-turn? Is she being paid by the government of Bahrain? If this ‘paid to write’ theory is merely speculation, and if it’s not her rich husband or a substantial inheritance keeping her in Jimmy Choos (43) , then Liliane Khalil is doing pretty well for a little known journalist. She is certainly more resilient than other, more transient yet equally suspicious Tweeps such as James Wilfred Clancy – a journalist who claimed he was running a private investigation into the Bahrain uprisings yet failed to deliver a report. His account, which lasted only a week but gained nearly a thousand followers, seemed to spout the same repetitive pro-government spiel. Although his approach was far cruder than Liliane’s, his true identity is equally mysterious.
Despite this uncertainty though, we can say the following with some confidence; whoever Liliane Khalil is, she has at least lied about hosting galas, writing articles, and most probably interviewing a large number of people. What’s more, she has really scuppered the rather desperate attempts of the Bahrain Independent to gain credibility – not that it had any in the first place. And as tempting as it is to sit here and critique the Bahrain Independent (RIP), it is perhaps more important to focus on the wider implications of all this, which involve the fundamental issues of trust, truth and ethics. Whether she was a PR mercenary, or just an ambitious amateur using the Arab Spring to make a name for herself, she deceived a great many people. Indeed, the Arab Spring was to Liliane what lightning was to Frankenstein’s Monster (in the film, not the book). While it did not exactly create a monster, it did give birth to a persona that was constructed from the disparate fragments of a number of different people. The extent of the reality behind all of them is unknown, though if the past is anything to go by Liliane Khalil will probably disappear once again, only to re-emerge as a completely new character. Who knows what we’ll get next time, a Turko-Yazidi Hell’s Angel perhaps? A Druze button merchant with a wooden leg and an iphone? Or just a lowly street sweeper? You may laugh, but we wouldn’t put it past Khalil, who once brazenly claimed to have interviewed Amina (44), the gay girl in Damascus. While this is undoubtedly ironic, it pales in comparison to our concluding quote, which is taken from none other than Liliane herself;
Have integrity and honesty in journalism or become a fiction writer. Or a street sweeper.’
This document is a collaborative piece of research undertaken in order to combat the proliferation of online propaganda and disinformation concerning Bahrain. While the ‘case’ in question is not yet fully closed, we hope this expose has been both illuminating and interesting. It was written up by Marc Owen Jones. For info see bottom of page
*Unless Sharansky flew back for the evening
**Khalil also verbally asserted this claim.
****For an interesting and indeed moving account of journalists selling out in the Middle East, read the following page(229)
***** Liliane says that the Bahrain Independent will be back after a face-lift though but as yet, it has not appeared. Incidentally it disappeared at the same time as the blog of SaqeralKhalifa – who has recently been made press attache for the Bahrain Embassy in Washington