Saud al-Qahtani, is no stranger to controversy. Nicknamed Dalim by some, he is the Advisor to the Saudi Royal court and General Supervisor of the Center for Studies and Information Affairs. He was recently in the news claiming that Saudi had unearthed thousands of fake, pro-Qatar Twitter accounts, despite providing no evidence in the former instance. Now he appears to be using social media trends and polls as a means of insinuating popular Qatari opposition to Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s ruler.
While his profile states that his opinions reflect only his personal point of view, it’s still the point of view of an advisor who specialises in information. Perhaps it should be surprising, given his expertise, that his recent Twitter activity has reached Trump-levels of antagonism. كوففيف. His latest Tweets have ranged from potential reveals about Saudi’s role in the assassination of Talal Al Rashid in 2003 (something he denies), to obtusely encouraging peaceful anti-regime protests in Qatar.
Also, it’s just his personal opinion…
Yet this post concerns al-Qahtani’s apparent and worrying use of Twitter as a barometer and litmus test of public opinion in Qatar. Specifically, al-Qahtani appears to be suggesting that what’s trending on Twitter in Qatar reflects public opinion there, and, more importantly, that public opinion in Qatar is against the current Qatari regime. On 21st August al Qahtani tweeted the following:
‘The top trend in Qatar now is #LeaveTamim
(Slogan of the Arab Spring)
The second highest trend is Abdullah is the future of Qatar
(the name of his highness Shaykh Abdullah bin Ali)
The first trend is fairly self explanatory, it means Go Tamim (Go as in Leave, not Go as in Tamim you da man). It would certainly fit the anti-Qatar rhetoric to make people believe that Qataris are dissatisfied with Tamim, and wish for regime change. After all, this suits the Saudi-led coalition. Also, it is extremely noble of al Qahtani to care about the democratic will of the Qatari people, and to encourage peaceful protest. But, as we know, that’s just personal point of view…
The number 2 trend in ‘Qatar’ that al-Qahtani mentions, is ‘Abdullah is the future of Qatar’. As al-Qahtani clarifies, the Abdullah here refers to Abdullah bin Ali al Thani. Shaykh Abdullah was put under scrutiny recently after he visited Saudi, reportedly in a personal capacity. He has now become somewhat of a cause celebre, with some asking whether he is being groomed as a potential new leader to replace Tamim. One Saudi news account on Twitter that al-Qahtani retweeted claim that Abdullah’s son was ‘captured’ by the government of Qatar and forced to take an oath of allegiance to Tamim and share it on social media. Another commentator posited ‘are they worried about his father’s (Abdullah) popularity’. Bloomber reported:
Al Bayan, a Dubai-owned daily, described Sheikh Abdullah on its front page as “the voice of reason to whom the hearts of Qataris have opened.”
Clearly this rhetoric is designed to drive a wedge within the al-Thani family.
If we assume that al-Qahtani was not simply bemused by Qataris overt outpouring of their dislike of Tamin on Twitter, we can assume al-Qahtani is engaging in an aggressive form of subtweeting. His following tweets, which I should remind everyone, are simply a reflection of al-Qahtani’s personal opinion, seem to suggest that he believes these trends reflect the will of the Qatari people. He proceeds to make some veiled threats about Qatar’s treatment of any potential insurrection.
Al Qahtani then tweets and retweets some other things that corroborate this result. The top tweet below states, ‘Qatar (Gaddafi of the Gulf) should know that any attempt to repress a peaceful movement of the brotherly Qatari people by foreign forces shall be punished severely, it is a war crime’.
He also retweets the results of a dodgy, Al Jazeera style-poll set up by a Twitter user to see what Qataris wanted with regards to their royal family. The results in the poll indicate that the majority who voted want Tamim to go.
Again, this would contribute to the idea that Tamim is an autocrat whose continued rule is very much against the will of the Qatari people. We don’t actually know who voted in this, although it is perhaps more likely to be non-Qataris if the following analysis are to go by.
While both trends #LeaveTamim (#ارحل_تميم ) and #AbdullahIsTheFutureOfQatar (#عبدالله_مستقبل_قطر) are clearly selected by al-Qahtani because they seem to fit some sort of narrative about the Qatari regime suppressing the genuine wishes of the Qatari people, an analysis of around 40,000 tweets suggests most of the accounts operating on the hashtags are located in Saudi. On the Leave Tamim hashtag, which brought back 10,600 tweets from unique accounts, approx 5,300 accounts had the ‘location’ field on Twitter filled in. Without cleaning up the data you can see in the below chart that the largest segment is ‘the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’, with most of the other significant chunks being cities or areas in Saudi or the UAE (e.g. Riyadh etc). Again, without tidying up the data, if we filter the results for Saudi and Qatar (in Arabic) highlights the following:
Number of unique accounts in sample located as Saudi: 1576
Number of unique accounts in sample located as Qatar: 141
While we must always take with a pinch of salt user input fields of location on Twitter, that same rule applies equally to all accounts, whether in Qatar or Saudi, so in theory the potential error would be the same across all fields. It is also important to note that Al Qahtani does not mention anything of the fact that a lot of the tweets, particularly those located in Qatar, are expressing support for Tamim, not a desire for him to leave.
So, important points to summarise:
- The trends in Qatar mentioned by Saud Al Qahtani that lend potential legitimacy to Qatari a desire for Tamim to go appear to be created mostly by Twitter accounts where people input their location as somewhere in Saudi.
- Twitter trends in Qatar can obviously be gamed in such a way as to be influenced by those not in Qatar
- Al Qahtani using Twitter trends as a veiled attempt to claim that Qataris oppose Tamim are underscored by his other tweets that issue veiled threats to the Qatari government about opposing the will of the people
- It could be that population discrepancies mean a smaller number of hashtags are required by Qataris to create a local trend (without knowing too much about Twitter’s trending algorithm hard to know for sure)
- Saud’s tweets are simply a reflection of his personal opinion
Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if sectarianism itself was more dominant in one place than an other, at least online? Are some countries/cities more sectarian than others? Is sectarianism a localised phenomenon, despite what we might see in the news? If we knew this, we could then highlight where to prioritize tackling it.
In order to do this, I conducted an preliminary experiment. Firstly, I would require some way of trying to determine where a piece of sectarian discourse came from. I decided to locate sectarian tweets, as often Twitter accounts come with information about location.
I thought I’d approach ‘anti-Shia’ sectarianism, as the terminology is familiar, and more prevalent (See Alexandra Seigel’s work). I will be doing the same with ‘anti-Sunni’ Tweets too. (I should add, for the record, that I find the terms somewhat grotesque, as the nature of sectarianism cannot be reduced to a binary). Hopefully though, locating the geographic prevalence of specific discourses challenges the problems of essentialising sectarianism as a monolithic and ubiquitous muslim-wide global issue.
Anyway, to test/experiment with this method, I extracted approximately 10,000 tweets that ranged over a four day period (8th – 12th May 2017). These tweets contained at least one of the following, commonly used derogatory terms referring to Shia.
Twitter Search Rule: “ابناء المتعة” OR “روافض” OR “رافضة” OR “اولاد المتعة” OR “مجوسي” OR “المجوسي” OR “صفوي”
The terms largely relate to religious-sectarianism, such as Rafida, Awlad/Ibna al-Muta’, Majusi and Safavid (although this one could be more contested). The archiver, theoretically, takes an ‘almost’ random sample of Tweets from Twitter (see Wang et al for sampling info).
To determine the location of the Tweeter, I did not use the geodata (as this is rarely used by ppl), but information input by the user themselves on their Twitter account. Of course there is no way of knowing if this is accurate or not, but for the sake of this analysis, we must assume a significant amount are true. After filtering out erroneous names, such as people who claim to live in Hogwarts, we were left with around 4500 usable tweets from the original 10,000 tweet sample. I then ran these tweets into Tableau, filtering out duplicate entries (i.e. multiple tweets from the same account). This resulted in about 3,640 unique tweets from unique accounts.
Using Tableau, I first created a cloropeth map that shows the prevalence of sectarian tweets across the region. In the below map, red means a higher prevalence. As you can see, Saudi Arabia and Egypt appear the reddest, and are the places with the highest number of sectarian tweets in this sample.
Yet the above map suggests Egypt and Saudi are alike in terms of tweets. However, the below diagram gives a breakdown of the numbers of tweets, while the surface area of each block represents the proportion of Tweets emanating from each country. As we can see, Saudi Arabia takes the crown with 1,656 Tweets. It is followed by Egypt (420), Kuwait (111), Iraq (71), UAE (56), Yemen (50), Syria (38), Bahrain (36) and Qatar (25) and then Lebanon. (It is worth noting that all countries returned positive hits).
These figures haven’t been controlled for population, or Twitter penetration, the latter of which is difficult to determine (furthermore, figures from the Arab Social Media reports are perhaps distorted by a large number of bots). Nonetheless, if we are to use these figures from the Arab Social Media Report 2017, we can see that in Egypt that for every 3089 Twitter users, there is one sectarian tweet. In Saudi, there is one sectarian Tweet for 1570 Twitter Users. For Kuwait, as another example, there is one sectarian tweet for every 4504 Twitter users. Thus crudely speaking, the results do not balance out when considering Twitter users, meaning that according to this data, the country with the larger amount of tweets are still the ‘more sectarian’.
Where possible, I added latitude and longitude points for location input by users. This allowed me to create a map that shows a more detailed breakdown of Twitter users. As you can see from the below map, Arabic, anti-Shia sectarian Tweets are focused on the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, with the majority occurring in Saudi, specifically Riyadh, Jeddah, and clusters along the Eastern Province. Northern Egypt is also particularly interesting with regards to the amount of discourse.
Indeed, it would appear from this map, that sectarian discourses online radiate outwards from the middle of Saudi. Of course Riyadh and Jeddah are Saudi’s most populace cities, so it may not be significant in this regard, yet it is interesting to see that Saudi appears to be the centre of this discourse. Also, the rhetoric is almost non-existent across the rest of North Africa and Sudan. It is also not very common in Oman.
The data then, could suggest a number of things:
Online anti-Shia sectarianism are most prevalent in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Such discourses originated in the Gulf and have traveled abroad
Such discourses are much less common outside the Arabian Peninsula, where there are mixed populations with different histories of national struggle
Of course some potential caveats:
Lexically speaking, the terms used for this study may just be a preferred choice used by those Arabic speakers in the peninsula. Sectarianism in other languages other than Arabic would be interesting to explore in a similar way. Similarly, Arabs in others parts of the ME may use different terms, although I am not sure this is the case.
As yet it’s not sure whether long term analysis would yield similar results. Short term, similar sized samples I have done on individual words or phrases leading up to this blog have returned identical results. Inevitably, a longer sample would mostly likely return more and more sectarian tweets from every country outside the Gulf. As these would also likely increase across every country, the proportionality of sectarian tweets would still likely stay the same.
Similar ways of finding other platforms to analyse would be useful, e.g. Instagram and FB. (Although not sure if people would be inclined to be less or more sectarian on different platforms).
To be clear this is not stating sectarianism does not occur everywhere, just maybe that it is more common in some places than others.
On 9th December, the Ministry of the Interior announced that they would be launching an investigation into the brutal arrest of a young man in the village of Diraz. This announcement came after a video of the incident was distributed on Twitter and Facebook the day before. The video in question shows police hitting and slapping a young boy who is clearly subdued and under control.
Although continued police brutality (despite the government’s vociferous claims of reform) is hardly surprising, it is odd that the MOI should announce an investigation into the Diraz incident almost 3 months after the video first surfaced. Indeed, video evidence of the incident in question was first uploaded on 20th September.
Not viral? No ‘justice’
So why has it taken 3 months for the MOI to announce an investigation? Was whoever runs the MOI Twitter account absent the day the video was first posted? Given that the original video has about 66,000 hits, you’d think the police would be among those who had seen it (what with it being their job to investigate crime etc). In all fairness, I guess the police are more reluctant to investigate crime when they are the ones carrying it out. Maybe 66,000 hits isn’t enough to warrant an investigation? I mean, a video that showed police beating a man in Bani Jamrah got 86,000 hits, and the MOI described this as a ‘ viral video’. Maybe 80,000 is the cutoff point for defining something as viral/worthy of announcing an investigation into. Usually the MOI respond on Twitter to these ‘viral videos’ pretty soon after they occur. The usual format is to announce an investigation and then to say nothing more about it. Indeed, Fig 1 at the bottom of this post that documents incidents involving police criminality that the MOI have pledged to investigate.
No news is bad news
Despite their eagerness to appear that they are paying attention to issues of police accountability, the MOI are not very good at updating the public as to the status of the investigations. As of yet, details of the names, nationalities and ranks of those policemen under investigation have been obscured. It is, of course, possible that the MOI don’t know who the policemen in question are. Perhaps they are waiting for a leaked copy of the names to go viral on Twitter before making an announcement? The MOI’s reluctance to update the public on the statuses of these investigations is disturbing. After all, how do we know they are really doing any investigating at all? What makes it more frustrating is that the MOI have themselves acknowledged the need to keep the public informed.
The MOI has referred the case to the public prosecutor. The policemen’s first hearing will be on November 21 2012 and the public will be kept informed on the progress of the case.
In addition to the MOI’s refusal to update the public on the statuses of these investigation, it is ridiculous that they only announce investigations into a select number of cases. For example, they announced an investigation into an incident where a policeman was filmed throwing a Molotov cocktail. There are at least 12 videos showing policemen throwing Molotov cocktails, yet the MOI only announced an investigation into one of them. (Given that many happened in 2012, I guess the government didn’t want to make a mockery of the police ‘reforms’). Again, this is just an example. Police have also been filmed throwing steel rods, yet no investigation was announced into this.
Over the past year, there have been countless videos that portray the brutality of Bahrain’s security services. In this regard, social media is providing new opportunities to hold those in power accountable. However, if the Bahraini police investigated every incident of documented police criminality, they would have no time to conduct their security crackdown. It would also look bad if the MOI’s website and Twitter account were peppered with announcements of investigations into police brutality, especially when the government are trying to convince a skeptical world that they are carrying out reform.
As it stands, video evidence of police abuse might at least elicit a response from the MOI. Indeed, at least evidence like this prevents the MOI from becoming judge, jury and executioner in instances of their own misconduct, as was recently the case with Aqeel Mohsen, who was shot in the face by the police after he was in a car that tried to run the police over. Although the MOI’s version of events is possible, lack of video evidence means that their side of the story will undoubtedly go unchallenged.
Why bother with the BS?
The MOI’s announcements of investigations in police criminality are mere attempts to convince the public that they are committed to transparency and accountability. Indeed, if they were truly committed to either of these things, the public might actually be given more information and credible updates about these investigations. What is interesting about this latest announcement is simply the incompetence with which it was executed – a poorly (and I’ll wager hastily) written tweet announcing an investigation into an incident that actually occurred about 3 months ago. Of course the MOI are not known for their communication ability, remember when it took them about four attempts to determine the nationality of someone who was killed by a police patrol car.
Given that no policemen, government officials or members of the security forces appear to be serving prison time for the egregious abuses carried out by the state last year, why should anyone find any truth in the MOI’s vague announcements of investigations into abuses? Even if these investigations exist, they are undoubtedly flawed. Let’s not forget, the MOI failed to hold anyone accountable for 45 civilian deaths last year, itself a testament to the quality of the institution’s investigative abilities.
Fig 1 (for pdf click here> MOItable)
Eminem once posed the question ‘Guess who’s back?’. The answer was of course, the Real Slim Shady. While it has so far been impossible to determine whether Liliane Khalil was slim or not, she was certainly shady. That’s assuming that she was actually a she. Anyway, it appears that Liliane Khalil is back on Twitter and Linkedin, this time under the guise of @HabibaDalal and Gisele Nasr.
For those who need a recap, Liliane Khalil was exposed last year for being a hoax journalist. She used Twitter, blogs and social media to spread pro-regime propaganda messages, apparently on behalf of Task Consultancy, a Bahrain based company who received government funds to do PR work on their behalf . Task Consultancy have denied these allegations, claiming that they never tendered for any PR, despite the fact that the award appears on the government’s website.
Some of Liliane’s notable claims included interviewing King Hamad, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Dr. al-Baradei and Natan Sharansky. She also claimed to have written several articles for Reuters. When challenged about these things in a phone interview, she either made up elaborate stories, said the interviewees didn’t turn up, or claimed she was drunk. Despite being invited to appear on both Al-Jazeera and France24 she never went ahead with it.
Liliane also operated accounts under other names, such as Gisele Cohen, Victoria Nasr, and Susan Hadad (to name but a mere few). These other accounts, which go back 2 years, don’t solely focus on spreading anti-Iranian propaganda. They are all linked, yet some seem to focus on marketing specific products. Gisele Cohen appears to be in the medical business.
With regards to the ‘new’ accounts Habiba Dalal and Gisele Nasr, the trend seems to remain the same. The Gisele Nasr Linkedin account is a name based on two of Liliane’s previous personas (Victoria Nasr and Gisele Cohen). Despite the name and a new photo, the account appears to be the same as its ‘Gisele Cohen’ predecessor. The email address is the same, as are the educational qualifications. Apart from this new profile ‘makeover’, there doesn’t seem to be too much account activity on the Linkedin side of things. Oddly enough though, the profile picture looks a bit like an older, less photoshopped version of Lia Boustany – Liliane Khalil’s fake sister.
The Habiba Dalal account links to Liliane Khalil’s account on Topsy (or here). Her first tweet was in October 2011, and after changing her bio a few times, it appears she has settled on the following:
I am a journalist following the Iran threat, the Arab Spring and US foreign policy in the Middle East. | New York
As with Liliane Khalil, she tweets and retweets a lot of articles regarding the rising Iranian threat. A number of her tweets concern Bahrain, including high praise for Rob Sobhani’s Huffington Post piece ‘Iran’s Target: Bahrain’. She also retweeted something from another stock-photo-using, suspicious account called @Chelseadraws. This tweet concerned the links between Hezbollah and al-Wefaq, a connection many al-Watan reading hardliners continue to hammer home.
For a new account that adds no value to any discussion, Habiba Dalal’s has a surprising number of followers. About 1,128. Whether these were bought or remain from Liliane’s old account is hard to determine, though in terms of ‘following’, some of the usual suspects are there, including the anonymous author and former undercover CIA-Revolutionary Guard double agent Reza Kahlili. Indeed, Liliane Khalil’s expose on the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights’ links with Iran was posted on Reza Kahlili’s website. Incidentally, the article is still there despite the fact Liliane Khalil has zero credibility.
Habiba/Liliane is also followed by Reem Zain and Evie Varthi. Evie Varthi wrote for BahranViews, a pro-regime blog that is believed to be run by the aforementioned, alleged former employer of Liliane, Task Consultancy. Reem Zain is the managing director of Task Consultancy, and was Liliane’s publicist in the days following her expose.
Liliane’s determination to keep tweeting about Iran is impressive. However, there are a large number of anonymous account such as hers, each tweeting vitriol against Iran, al-wefaq and hezbollah. While there are real people who genuinely believe in these links, it’s hard to believe that many of these accounts are not just sock puppets set up by PR companies to distort the online public sphere with propaganda. In an investigation published by the Independent, London based PR firm BGR Gabara claimed they had planned to orchestrate an “online social media campaign” by Kazakh children to protest against the fact Sting cancelled his gig there. Interestingly, the Independent reported that BGR Gabara also work for the Bahrain government. That’s another one to add to the growing list of PR companies employed by the country. You’d think all that PR money could be better spent.
While these fake accounts are arguably crude and ineffectual, it is hard to determine their true extent. Many people even question the authenticity of the likes of Reza Kahlili. It’s easy to see why, since he does not ever reveal his true identity. In TV appearances he wears a handkerchief and uses a voice decoder. Establishing someone’s credibility is difficult when you cannot verify their identity, yet establishing someone’s credibility becomes crucial when they make such dramatic claims. I personally learned after the Liliane Khalil expose that it was important to put a name to the story. Obviously I’m not doing what Reza Kahlili does, and trying to claim that Iran has thousands of suitcase nukes, but the principle is still the same. With regards to this anonymity, one of Habiba Dalal’s previous bios reads
I am a journalist following [r]evolutions in societies, governments + citizen journalism. Working anonymously due to the nature of my job.
Well, Habiba Dalal is no longer anonymous, because she’s Liliane Khalil, and Liliane Khalil wasn’t even real. Wait, I guess that makes her anonymous?
I have no love for the Iranian regime, yet I have even less love for companies or institutions manipulating people’s beliefs by distorting the information available in the public sphere. This proliferation of propaganda, in its myriad of forms, attempts to subvert rational debate by appealing to a person’s visceral fears. Subtler accounts might attempt to influence the public sphere by imbuing it with information that may seem credible, but is ultimately a plant (black propaganda). Other potentially concerning aspects of these fake accounts are evident when they are used to attempt to influence political society. For example, a twitition (twitter petition) that went round last year claimed to be a proposal listing the demands of Bahrain’s Youth for the upcoming National Dialogue. Over a thousand people signed it, though who knows what number of them were anonymous sock accounts. The following day the National Unity Gathering ( Bahrain’s new pro-gov leaning political party) used the petition as a basis for determining what youth wanted. I believe this could be termed as a #civilsocietyfail . An absurdly dystopian/1984 type analysis would suggest that such practices might become common in the future. Just imagine if Twitter’s new censorship policy led to a crackdown on all legitimate tweeps, resulting in regime-paid companies dominating cyberspace with newspeak, propaganda, and complete bollocks. Haha, now it’s my turn to be sensationalist!
Moving swiftly on…
Paradoxically, these fake accounts undermine the rhetoric of legitimate loyalists in the online world, as the prevalence of dubious accounts leads people to associate regime supporters with paid PR. It’s hardly surprising though considering the Bahrain government’s unquenchable thirst for Public Relations . Even at this very moment I am being accosted by someone who is almost certainly a black propaganda sock account. A very very unsubtle one at that…
Of course Mohammed Abdul Nabi is not alone. There are plenty of other suspicious and/or anonymous accounts. I’m sure many people would enjoy seeing who is behind @SallyfromSaar , @gloriahere , @ChelseaDraws etc. However, until that glorious day comes, let’s just content ourselves by observing their unscrupulous and incestuous meta-orgie of mutual congratulation and retweeting.
Further Liliane Khalil reading