Marc Owen Jones, Hamad bin Khalifa University, Qatar
On November 18, 2022, the eve of the Qatar FIFA World Cup, an unusual story began to appear in papers across the globe. Media outlets reported that Qatar’s national football team had bribed Ecuador to lose their opening game 2–1. Despite the absence of any proof, barring a single tweet from a Gulf-based influencer named Amjad Taha, mainstream and highly subscribed news outlets across South America and Europe, including La Patilla (Venezuela), De Telegraaf (Netherlands), Fox Sports Mexico, and El Comercio (Ecuador), reported the story as if it could be true. The story went viral in multiple languages, including Italian, Greek, Spanish, Dutch, and English. Given the extant allegations of corruption that had marred Qatar’s bid, perhaps editors thought that the news was plausible. But it is striking that most journalists did not seem to corroborate the story, nor to discover what many observers of Gulf politics already knew: Taha was a routine source of disinformation in the Gulf.
Taha’s evidence-free claims nonetheless gained some credibility through the thousands of retweets and his blue verification checkmark, which signalled, according to Twitter’s pre-Musk verification method, that he was a real person (which he is) as well as someone “notable” (which is debatable). Taha heads up the London Research Centre, which does not exist. What is important in this context is that many of the retweets that signaled his supposed credibility were augmented by bots—fake accounts designed to automatically retweet content. The fact that this global news story emanated from a single tweet by a disinfluencer (an influencer who routinely spreads disinformation) highlights the power of social media in shaping discursive narratives in general, and around high-profile global events such as the World Cup in particular.
The nexus of Gulf politics and football has become a discursive battleground with global reach, where attempts at soft power and nation branding are vulnerable to small ripples in the information ecosystem. Taha’s tweet was a powerful reminder that Gulf states are among the world’s most influential manipulators of social media for disinformation and propaganda. The mediatization of the Gulf’s growing role in global football has been influenced by regional conflicts, rivalries, and competing visions for the politics of the broader Middle East—battles often waged through social media.
Information Warfare and the Weaponization of Social Media in the Middle East
The 2022 Qatar World Cup, the first ever held in an Arab country, occurred in an “extremely online” era, a post-truth era, and one of the most densely, digitally penetrated information ecosystems in the world. “Extremely online” here is simply the term used to describe the fact that so much content is consumed and disseminated online, particularly for Gulf states that have some of the highest take-ups of digital technology on the planet. The average global user spends seven hours per day on the internet. In the UAE, for example, it is over eight hours. Since 2013, global social media usage time has almost doubled. People in the Middle East and North Africa spend the second largest amount of time on social media, falling closely behind South and Central America. What happens online matters. Journalists face particular challenges in this extremely online environment, and the rise of digital media and “extremely online” culture has contributed to the emergence of a post-truth era in which public opinion is less influenced by objective facts and more by emotion and confirmation bias. New social media platforms have posed a challenge to existing gatekeepers of knowledge, such as large media corporations, and have facilitated the spread of conspiracy theories, hate speech, uninformed analysis, mis/disinformation, and propaganda.
This environment is shaped not just by general loss of truth, but the active weaponization of social media by states and other actors that have turned to social media to spread divisive propaganda designed to sow division and discord among their perceived enemies. Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), an outfit based in St. Petersburg with close connections to the Wagner Group, is perhaps the most notorious example. In 2016, it set up social media accounts to try and influence the US election. While real people with pseudonyms (trolls) were used to operate these accounts, they were also assisted by a network of automated “bot” accounts. Trolls and bots have become a part of the post-truth lexicon, symbolizing the ease with which anonymous actors with unclear intentions can insert themselves in an attempt to manipulate public opinion.
While the trolls and bots of Russia’s IRA have become one of the most widely publicized digital disinformation case studies, they are certainly not the only ones engaging in such cyber warfare. Indeed, digital influence operations—attempts to gain the upper hand in the communicative landscape (the so-called “grey zone”)—are becoming part of most states’ hybrid warfare capabilities. The Middle East, and particularly the Gulf states, are no exception. In fact, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) can be considered digital superpowers—states that use digital technology at a massive scale to try and project influence domestically, regionally, and internationally. As an example, archives released by Twitter of suspended accounts linked to state-backed influence operations show that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the second largest manipulators of Twitter behind China. From launching online smear campaigns against dissidents and giving critics draconian prison sentences, to drowning out criticism with automated accounts spreading pro-government propaganda, digital technology has been co-opted by authoritarian states and networks of malign actors.
The Road to the World Cup was Paved by the Gulf Crisis
Online discursive battles flourish during times of conflict and crisis as adversaries attempt to win the narrative war. At least some part of the online discourse around Qatar 2022 has been shaped by regional conflict and competition, potentially undermining Qatari attempts to use its historic hosting of football’s premiere global event as a soft power tool. For soft power to be effective it needs a supportive environment. Indeed, while hosting mega sporting events or purchasing football clubs can be positive in terms of a nation-branding opportunity, and even sportswashing, political rivals can use such opportunities to harm their adversaries.
The 2017 Gulf crisis, which saw Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt sever relations with Qatar due to allegations that the country supported terrorism (especially through Al Jazeera), created an extremely hostile information environment leading up to the World Cup. As has been highlighted by Majd Abuamer and Yara Nassar in this volume, the crisis drew global attention to the region and the Gulf’s growing role in football politics in Europe. The initiation of the blockade was itself a novel event in the history of social media weaponization. It was a conflict launched alongside a huge information operation involving thousands of fake accounts, which amplified the blockading countries’ demands and attempted to sow social conflict in Qatar. Social media, more than television, radio, or newspapers, became the platform to launch information warfare to ensure maximum reach across multiple demographics.
The narrative wars that emerged as a result of the Gulf crisis highlight the role of the (dis)information supply chains and the “deception order,” defined as an assemblage of actors, including states, individuals, PR companies, and social media firms, that allow or create an environment to facilitie the transmission of misinformation. In many cases, “this group benefits from the commodification of deception and disinformation…it is an industry that exists to create a pseudo-reality, one in which a reality preferred by those with money and power is made.” Such misinformation is not always about falsehoods, but rather selection and prominence.
While the Gulf states had their own reasons for weaponizing social media against one another, the hostile environment became a business opportunity for British and American PR firms and strategic communication organizations. London in particular has acquired a reputation as the “reputation laundering capital of the world.” Here, those with money can buy media influence, either favorable coverage or coverage that damns their rivals. This ease is partly due to the lack of regulations like the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which offers some degree of transparency and accountability for entities engaging in lobbying on behalf of foreign clients. British firms were actively involved in smearing Qatar as a terrorist-supporting state in 2017. Project Associates, a British company contracted by the UAE Supreme Media Council, worked with SCL Social Limited (the parent company of Cambridge Analytica) to create and promote media content on social media that portrayed Qatar in a negative light. Documents submitted by SCL Social Limited/Project Associates under requirements of the US Foreign Agents Registration Act include screenshots of the content promoted by the companies. One included a video posted by an account listed under Saudi American Public Affairs Committee—a firm also engaged in campaigns designed to frame Qatar negatively—which accused Qatar of using North Korean forced labor to build its stadiums, and was based primarily on a Guardian newspaper article from 2014. The contract, which was worth more than $300,000, also involved making anti-Qatar news more prominent in English-language news outlets like the Independent and New Europe. Among the screenshots in the United States Department of Justice filings were also posts from a Twitter and Facebook account set up specifically for the campaign called “Boycott Qatar.”
In October 2017, a BBC report on the 2022 World Cup cited material by a company called Cornerstone Global, a little-known London-based consultancy, casting doubt on Qatar’s ability to host the tournament. In February 2019, The New York Times reported that Cornerstone Global, had pitched a plan to link Qatar to the Muslim Brotherhood, which some regimes consider a terrorist organization, in part by placing articles in British media. Similarly, Sir Lynton Crosby, the election strategist who has helped right-wing parties get elected in the UK and Australia, pitched a 5.5 million GBP campaign to have the Qatar World Cup canceled. The Guardian newspaper saw a pitch from CTF Partners titled “Project Ball” that detailed how the firm would, primarily through hostile media and social media coverage, put pressure on FIFA to cancel the World Cup and award it to another country. Thus, social media and traditional media have a reciprocal quality. While social media often serves to amplify stories from the traditional media, traditional media is increasingly reporting stories that originate in or are about social media. This convergence has an amplification effect that can create a “firehouse” of information. CTF Partners detailed how it would spread negative stories about Qatar in the mainstream media, lobby friendly politicians, journalists, and academics, and run ostensibly grassroots campaigns on social media. By linking the first World Cup in a Muslim-majority country to terrorism, the companies would be playing on extant media biases in the British media, where Islam and Muslims are predominantly framed negatively. It was reportedly also pitched to Khalid Al Hail, the self-styled head of the Qatari opposition, who had hosted a conference in London as part of a reportedly “multi-million-pound marketing campaign” to have Qatar stripped of the World Cup. It is not clear if the CTF proposal was ever activated.
With elements from the deception order trying to secure contracts for negative campaigns related to the Qatar World Cup, it was no surprise that the digital space was flooded with adversarial content. Social media campaigns targeting Qatar and the tournament became especially common. In July 2019, for example, the Arabic hashtag “Qatari pitches kill workers” began trending. Of at least 629 of the unique accounts tweeting the hashtag, around 427 (68%) were bots, and subsequently suspended by Twitter. Again, the campaign reflected attempts to tap into very real and emotive issues around the World Cup, including labor rights. However, the presence of fake accounts promoting the message suggested an attempt to manipulate the conversation. The issue of labor rights, itself an extant and serious human rights concern throughout the Gulf, also became the subject of misinformation. The most widely shared tweet from a British newspaper suggested that 6,500 workers had died in connection to the World Cup; it was quickly debunked, but not before it had established itself as fact in popular discourse.
Given the comparative size of the blockading countries, and their role as the belligerents, it is perhaps not surprising that their known digital information warfare strategies were more evident than Qatar’s. However, campaigns aligned with Qatar were also evident. In 2018, it was revealed that Qatar had run a “black ops” campaign through a New York-based PR company to undermine rival bids for the World Cup. In March 2020, New York-based social media analysis firm Graphika published a report titled “Operation Red Card” that detailed how an Indian PR firm called aRep conducted an influence operation targeting the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Western Europe, and the professional football world with “Anti-Saudi, Anti-UAE and Pro-Qatar” content. The network, which operated mostly on Facebook and was classified as “relatively” tiny in the Graphika study, was shut down on February 29, 2020. It consisted of approximately 122 “assets” and, like several takedowns related to Israel, Egypt, and the UAE, was managed by a commercial marketing firm. The primary tactic of Operation Red Card was the employment of phoney accounts to manage groups and pages to direct users to “off-platform” websites masquerading as news providers. Politically, the campaign “reflected international concerns over issues such as the Gulf states’ military campaign in Yemen and the accompanying humanitarian crisis, the murder of Saudi opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights.” In addition, Operation Red Card network criticized the UAE’s ownership of Manchester City. Qatar also increased the amount of money put into lobbying in Washington as a result of the Gulf crisis, tripling its expenditure on new lobbying contracts as compared to the year before the blockade.
The Post-Truth and Gulf Crisis Nexus
Attempts to influence European audiences on the topics of football, human rights, and Gulf politics became particularly noticeable leading up to Qatar 2022. But these efforts are also the result of Gulf countries’ increasing investment in European and global sports more broadly. The ownership of European football clubs has become a useful reputational platform, and the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are attempting to increase soft power via influence in global sports governance. In 2008, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the UAE bought the British club Manchester City. Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), a company owned by the Qatari government, acquired a 70 percent stake in the French club Paris Saint-Germain in 2011. A Saudi-led consortium, that included the country’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), eventually completed its purchase of Newcastle United Football Club (NUFC) in October 2021.
Such takeovers are not exceptional to the Gulf, but rather a phenomenon of wealth. Rich oligarchs and corporate magnates from all over the world have acquired football teams, such as the American Glazer family, which owns 90 percent of Manchester United, and Roman Abramovich, who owned Chelsea Football Club until recently. For regimes attempting to engage in nation branding, there may be reputational benefits. However, these purchases have inevitably brought European and Gulf politics closer to one another. As Gulf states vie for regional supremacy and influence, an outcome of this has been the phenomenon of a battle of narratives that has played out in European legacy media and social media. For Saudi Arabia, the PIF’s bid for NUFC was examined more closely because it came after MBS’s high-profile violations of human rights, including the murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen, and the jailing of many Saudi women’s rights activists. This scrutiny was accompanied by a social media campaign to try and defend Saudi’s human rights record. In the social media space, legions of questionable accounts attempted to deflect concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record by arguing that the English Premier League’s delay in approving the sale of NUFC was a Qatari ploy. This attempt to influence grassroots NUFC supporters sought to both demote criticism of Saudi Arabia, but also frame the takeover problems as a product of a regional spat in the Gulf as opposed to a more structural issue with governance and human rights in Saudi Arabia.
In the spring of 2020, several NUFC supporters with Saudi-related emojis in their profiles took to Twitter to praise MBS and Saudi Arabia, including one man who donned a Newcastle jersey and ghutra (a traditional headscarf worn by many Gulf men). Among these fans were Emily Sarnes and Georgia Abrewis, who tweeted their approval of the proposed takeover of Newcastle by a Saudi-led consortium, including Saudi’s Public Investment Fund. Emily’s photo was a group photograph of a women’s football squad, all wearing Newcastle jerseys, while Georgia’s was a selfie in her black-and-white striped “magpie” jersey. Bizarrely, both accounts also tweeted a photo of Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s emir, taking a topless selfie. Both Abrewis and Sarnes had used the identical caption: “so ugly.” The photo, not widely known except by those familiar with Gulf politics, is of unclear origin, although Tamim’s phone was targeted in a UAE-led hack in 2017. The episode was bizarre. Why would two women from the northeast of England be tweeting fairly obscure pictures of the Qatari emir in relation to a Saudi-led takeover of a English Premier League football club?
Not long after these posts, Abrewis, whose Twitter username was “NewcastleMBS,” abruptly changed her profile picture to the NUFC emblem and began tweeting only in Arabic. The “so ugly” message and Tamim’s photograph were removed from the accounts, along with all previous tweets. It appeared as if the accounts were stolen and used for the campaign as sock puppets—accounts falsely purporting to be their real user, hijacked to manipulate or deceive audiences. Emily Sarnes, whose Twitter handle was MBSLoved, was quickly suspended by Twitter. Even so, suspicious pro-MBS and pro-NUFC takeover accounts started showing up on Twitter. One account, with the Twitter handle @NUFC_SA, claimed to be a consortium of people who supported the PIF takeover. When I looked into the account’s history, I found that it used to belong to a pharmacy in Saudi Arabia, but that someone had taken it over to spread propaganda. The digital space became a jarring juncture of legitimate NUFC fans and shady accounts doing PR on behalf of the purchase. Within the digital public sphere, it became increasingly difficult to determine what and, indeed, who was real.
Pitched media battles also came to a head when Saudi Arabia was discovered by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to have facilitated beoutQ, a statewide television piracy operation of beIN Sports, a Qatari sports broadcaster that holds the rights to broadcast English Premier League games in the MENA region. After severing relations with Qatar in 2017, Saudi Arabia banned beIN Sports, based on the accusation that the channel supported “terrorism.” The WTO had ruled that beoutQ was a “commercial-scale” operation managed by individuals or entities under the jurisdiction of Saudi Arabia. It also found that the Saudi government did nothing to stop the piracy and even promoted public screenings of beoutQ. Indeed, the report detailed how high-profile figures, such as Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court adviser known for overseeing Saudi offensive information operations, actively promoted beoutQ on his Twitter account.
The Battle of Narratives
A striking aspect of the attempts to influence the world of European and global sports politics has been the emergence of a corollary industry of narrative manipulation. These narratives, fostered directly by the state, by companies working for state entities or by Gulf-owned media firms, attempted to influence and elicit sympathy from foreign audiences. Except for SCL Social and its links to the UAE Supreme Media Council, and as is common with cyber operations and social media manipulation, it is hard to attribute any of these activities to particular individuals or organizations. Nonetheless, the campaigns show attempts to manipulate global audiences with narratives that reflect the domestic or foreign policy objectives of different parties, including corporations and states. Several scholars in this volume (e.g. Curtis Ryan and Sefa Secen) have drawn attention to the polarizing potential of football, especially at a domestic and national identity-based level. However, exploiting the allegiance of football fans globally to grind regional political axes is an interesting and novel dynamic regarding transnational Gulf football politics.
The rise of digital technology and social media, along with an “extremely online” culture, has highlighted the problem of transnational illiberal practices. Digital technology is abused for purposes of propaganda, disinformation, deception, and surveillance to buttress the power of authoritarian states. Football, with its emotive fanbase, global popularity, and capital-heavy investment opportunities, is also a key sphere for competing narratives around which reputations and visions of Gulf regimes are constructed in the international arena. These discursive battlefields, and the global nature of social media, reflect a new and vulnerable front in the information ecosystem—one where realities are being shaped in favor of powerful and/or wealthy, but often secretive and undemocratic forces. Changes in news values—where journalists are encouraged to find “shareable” content, defined broadly as content that either makes you angry or laugh—are also catalysing the virality of disinformation designed to be sensationalist and “shareable.” The global focus on the region due to the World Cup, like the ongoing battles over Gulf ownership of European clubs, was an opportunity for global audiences to be exposed to Gulf-based disinformation.
 Amjad Taha (@amjadt25), “Exclusive: Qatar bribed eight Ecuadorian players $7.4 million to lose the opener (1-0 2nd half). Five Qatari and #Ecadour insiders confirmed this. We hope it’s false. We hope sharing this will affect the outcome. The world should oppose FIFA corruption. @MailSport #WorldCup2022,” Twitter, November 17, 2022, https://web.archive.org/web/20221118010404/https://twitter.com/amjadt25/status/1593271354803032064.
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@amjadt25 , a well-known disinfluencer (spreader of disinformation) tweeted that Qatar bribed #Ecuador $7.4 million dollars to lose 1-0 in their opening game. There is no reason to believe this is true. But the tweet went viral,” Twitter, November 18, 2022, https://twitter.com/marcowenjones/status/1593515158852321280.
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 “Magipie” is the nickname given to NUFC fans
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