With the latest spurious allegations concerning the alleged hack of his phone by the Saudis, Jeff Bezos brought himself back into an unwelcome and embarrassing spotlight, involving nude pictures of himself cheating on his ex-wife, all seemingly for the sake of destroying the reputation of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. His claim that Mohammed bin Salman taunted him with photos of the supposedly “secret” affair and then somehow used his own phone’s Whatsapp account to hack Bezos’s phone and to expose the nudes, which were then leak to the public remains unsubstantiated despite the mention of undisclosed forensic investigators supposedly responsible for these latest disclosures to the soap opera.
The story about the alleged hack broke exactly a year ago, after Jeff Bezos and his wife filed for divorce in January 2019. Soon after, the National Enquirer publicized pictures of Bezos’ affair with his girlfriend, including “intimate texts and photos.” Bezos accused the Enquirer of extortion & blackmail. Bezos, backed by his security chief, accused Saudis of having taken part in a hack that led to the leak of these photos. The Saudis denied having anything to do with that. Soon after, information came out that Bezos’ girlfriend gave the photos and texts to her brother, who leaked them to the media.
Bezos had further alleged that the owner of the Enquirer had a business relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, but after the revelation came out concerning his girlfriend & her brother’s involvement in the leak, did not appear to pursue this matter further. The story died down despite Bezos’ personal op-eds with accusations, but in January 2020 Bezos doubled down on his initial allegations. He produced a poorly sourced UN report produced by Agnes Callamard, and an equally questionable forensics report by investigators he paid for, claiming that there was a hack and that the hack came from the Crown Prince’s account. Increasing evidence point in other directions.
For instance, US prosecutors tasked with investigating the alleged leak/hack say they have evidence that the girlfriend and her brother are the culprits. Bezos is yet to explain what connection, if any, there is between the Crown Prince and Bezos’ girlfriend. Was she in possession of Mohammed bin Salman’s phone? Did he first hack the account and then have her leak it to the press in exchange for a princely sum of money? The increasingly embarrassing situation went from bed to worse in terms of optics for Bezos himself when a number of cyberexperts started questioning the conclusions in the forensics report, stating that Bezos has not actually established a technical link between Mohammed bin Salman’s account and Bezos’ phone.
At issue now is Bezos’ central claim—that his phone was hacked at all. Whether Bezos will spin these developments into a conspiracy theory—in which his girlfriend was in on it with Mohammed bin Salman, seduced Bezos to get into his good graces and ruin his marriage and personal life, and then, after the Crown Prince hacked Bezos phone, took the resulting leak and shared it with a tabloid—remains unclear. Increasingly, however, pressure is mounting on Bezos to back his claims, as his allegations appear increasingly fantastical yet persistent.
These accusations raise several inconvenient questions that neither Bezos, nor the mainstream media which parroted his side of the story without doing the basics of any ethical journalist—which is to say, demanding evidence of these scandalous claim—bother to address.
For instance, why did Jeff Bezos keep silent about the Crown Prince’s alleged knowledge and “taunts”, allegedly made BEFORE the hack, all this time? Why did he not say anything even at the time when he first reported the incident?
Further, he does not explain how Mohammed bin Salman would even know about this clandestine liaison. Did he have a gaggle of spies follow the Amazon founder around? Or was Bezos always so careless with his online activity that the Saudis could have hacked him long before and been tracking him for some time?
Which raises yet another natural question: how is it that Jeff Bezos, the founder of a gigantic company with millions of accounts, could have failed to secure his own personal data? And can any of his customers trust him with their own privacy? Supposedly bad blood between Bezos and the Saudis is related to a business dispute over his interest in building Amazon in KSA, but failing to address Saudi concerns over Amazon’s handling of Saudi customers’ data. If so, Bezos’ behavior is fraught with irony.
The next question any reasonable person could/should ask is why would the heir to the throne of a major Middle Eastern country use his own personal account to engage in any sort of illicit and unethical activity, much less something blatantly criminal as a hack of one of the wealthiest individuals in the world? Is there no one Mohammed bin Salman could hire, even if that is something he was contemplating for unknowable reasons? Why would he make himself so vulnerable, especially considering the many other character attacks he’s been facing since early on in his tenure?
Finally, even IF there is technical evidence linking Mohammed bin Salman’s Whatsapp account to the hack, how do we know that the Crown Prince’s phone was not hacked or spoofed, which is more than likely? For all it’s worth, Bezos himself probably had interacted with the Crown Prince over that account and could have easily leaked it elsewhere. But why would Bezos be involved in a set-up that discredited him in light of his own personal drama unfolding before the world’s eyes?
Rather than speculating on Bezos’ motivations, I invite the readers to examine his actions, which indicate that this story is about far more than just Bezos’ personal issues with the Saudis (if any of these rumors are even true).
Shortly following the break out of the media storm over the renewed allegations, Bezos tweeted a picture of himself from Jamal Khashoggi’s memorial with the hashtag “Jamal”. Who else attended that memorial? Jamal Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancé, known for her support of Turkey’s authoritarian president Erdogan, and none other than the UN rapporteur Agnes Callamard, a fierce defender of Qassem Soleimani against US strikes, and the allegedly impartial UN official responsible for the UN investigation of the Saudi role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Discrediting her claims to objectivity, the very same Callamard has now sided with Bezos demanding an international investigation into the hacking allegations against Mohammed bin Salman, despite the lack of evidence. What a coincidence!
Bezos was also pictured with the founder and executive director of CAIR, Nihad Awad, at the memorial. CAIR is an unindicted co-conspirator in investigations concerning money laundering to Muslim Brotherhood-backed terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, and has extensive links to the Brotherhood.
By tweeting this image shortly after the renewed claims, Bezos admits the following:
He has a political agenda in going after the Saudi Crown Prince, beyond any business dispute
The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, is not objective but rather openly sides with the ex-Saudi spook cum turncoat cum Qatari agent Jamal Khashoggi—despite the Washington Post’s own admission that the Qatar Foundation International fed Khashoggi the articles he used to attack the Crown Prince in the pieces basically rewritten to the level of readability by his editor Karen Attiah. The Washington Post, if it has benefited financially from this arrangement, may itself be implicated as an unregistered foreign agent in violation of US laws, and Bezos is openly hinting at that. Karen Attiah, after all, also took part in the memorial.
Finally, Bezos’s accusations against Mohammed bin Salman are directly tied to Qatar and the Khashoggi matter. This thinly veiled message affirms that Bezos, Callamard, and others are deeply involved with state actors who are fueling the ongoing political campaign to discredit, smear, and ultimately oust the Crown Prince.
What could be Bezos’ political calculus in this unseemly scenario, where he is publicly making himself into a laughingstock at least as much as he is turning Mohammed bin Salman into fodder for supposedly reputable national publications, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (who published all of this uncritically)? Furthermore, why is he returning to the apparently debunked story after a year and subjecting himself to potential embarrassment and discreditation, likely knowing fully well that there is no “there, there”?
There is no mystery. The strategy by Mohammed bin Salman’s enemies, from the very beginning of the Khashoggi affair, has been to make it appear that the Khashoggi death is not an isolated incident; rather, the claim has been that Mohammed bin Salman has a strategy of surveilling, hacking, physically intimidating, and even trying to abduct dissidents, critics, and opponents of his policies. Since Khashoggi’s death, both the NY Times and WaPo, known for taking conspiracy theories and baseless allegations from the Qatar-funded Arabic and English language media and giving them legitimacy without ever providing counterpoints or raising doubt about these claims, have printed numerous articles giving space to known leftist, pan-Arabist and pro-Muslim Brotherhood critics of the Crown Prince and his Vision2030 reform plan, who reside in Canada, the UK, and the US and who have all claimed that they had been threatened, harassed, or surveilled by Saudi intelligence in the wake of Khashoggi.
Prior to Khashoggi’s death, however, these individuals resorted to broader statements claiming that Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for a crackdown on dissent (read: antagonistic activism) inside the Kingdom. The Khashoggi affair gave an opening to opportunists to push for creating an image of Mohammed bin Salman as an irredeemable villain who will never stop shutting down anyone who stands up to him. Bezos has clearly aligned himself with other agents of this strategy, and despite past evidence showing that other parties were responsible for the embarrassing leak of his “dick pics” (technical term), jumped in full throttle into this morass.
The calculus here is not so much to “prove” that Mohammed bin Salman is personally guilty of this cyberattack, which may ultimately prove impossible even if any evidence exists, but to embarrass him (again) to such an extent that his own family will decide that he deserves no more chances to fix his reputation in light of this ongoing PR/information warfare nightmare, and should be removed from a public role or at least from his current position.
As for the timing, if Bezos, as it increasingly appears to be the case, is in cahoots with foreign regimes and possibly elements of domestic intelligence agencies who have an ax to grind with Mohammed bin Salman, the recycling of the old conspiracy theory is nothing new. It follows a pattern of other such thinly veiled character attacks on the Crown Prince, and likely came from the same Qatari playbook. The aim is to weaponize the media and to cause a public fracas, at any cost. Furthermore, the thought is that that the public is heavily dependent on Amazon for services, and therefore anything will go. By contrast, the Western public does not perceive itself as being dependent on Saudi Arabia or its Crown Prince, and presumably has no loyalties to him, even if he is unjustly accused of crimes he did not commit. Timing, however, is of interest here.
The Iran-Qatar connection fueling Qatar’s interest in continuous attacks on Mohammed bin Salman
January 2020 started with the killing of the head of IRGC’s Al Quds Brigade Qassem Soleimani, which appeared to be a blow to the Iranian regime’s hegemonic ambitions, especially as it struggles to contain internal protests and faces uprisings against its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon. Responding to this event, Iran caused a self-inflicted PR disaster when it shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane with 176 civilians on board—and lied about it for three days. Following this fiasco, Qatar offered $3B to Iran to cover the costs of paying the families of the victims. There may have been some awkwardness to the exchange, as the US used the Al Udeid base in Qatar for the operation, and yet the Qatari officials traveled to Iran immediately thereafter to offer condolences on the death of Soleimani.
Qatar’s public siding with a US adversary did not go unnoticed. Indeed, it constituted yet another political example of Qatar openly supporting Iran’s aggressive action in the region. Qatar’s past silence during the oil tanker crises resulted in an intelligence report indicating that Doha was in cahoots with Tehran and covered for Iran, rather than share information that could have prevented these attacks. Analysis of Qatar’s long-term relationship with Iran and its reaction to any steps by the US and others that would have had any negative impact on the regime indicates that Qatar may have even facilitated the attacks on ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia in September, widely attributed to Iran.
Increased scrutiny over these geopolitical concerns are a massive headache to Doha, which had spent millions on lobbying efforts in the United States and Europe, and has developed a sophisticated media apparatus to cultivate an image of a pro-Western, friendly country open for business. After a series of missteps involving its close ally Iran, Qatar may have been desperate to distract from its own US government ire-raising role in these events, and sought to redirect the negative scrutiny and public outrage onto a favored scapegoat for all sorts of scandals, the Crown Prince, who was made vulnerable due to Qatar’s prior character assassination campaigns as well as the Saudi government’s complete lack of PR acumen. Bezos, who may have personal issues with Mohammed bin Salman, had already proven his usefulness against him through the consistent role the Washington Post has played in not letting the Khashoggi affair die down.
Indeed, Bezos himself made that issue highly personal by attending Khashoggi’s memorial alongside Callamard, Attiah, and Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancé. On the one hand, here was an opportunity to give Iran time to recover from bad publicity long enough to be able to focus on strategy and shutting down protests—when the Western world is busy gossiping about the hapless Crown Prince, they are not paying attention to the violent crackdown and torture of protesters, and killing of journalists in Iraq and Lebanon; on the other hand, it was another opportunity to resurrect the ghost of Khashoggi, putting more salt on the wounds of Western perception of Saudis.
But why would anyone side with Qatar, especially someone as wealthy as Bezos, who needs not depend on Qatari largesse? And why have other media outlets, presumably with no business grievances with the Kingdom, and portions of Western intelligence agencies, be lending a hand to these dubious operations, which have turned the US media into a battleground for authoritarian foreign regimes and unregistered agents of influence?
With Bezos, those who are fueling this witch hunt have likely appealed to his vindictive motives following the business dispute with Saudi Arabia. Bezos has a reputation going back years before Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent to his position. And aside from the Crown Prince, Bezos has engaged in public spats with other corporate leaders not so long ago. Motive, meet opportunity. The media did not need to be “sold”, as it has been aligned with Qatar’s agenda in the West since after the imposition of the boycott against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, and the ensuing Qatari campaign to win friends and to destroy Saudi Arabia’s image in the West.
How the Media Circus around Bezos’ Unfounded Claims Carries Water for Foreign Regimes
The Strange Case of Cybersecurity “Expert” and Khashoggi Ally Iyad El-Baghdadi
A Palestinian born critic of Saudi Arabia Iyad El-Baghdadi, in a lengthy soft-ball interview with the Deutsche Welle on the subject of the hack, writes: “…Then, Bezos in February of 2019 wrote a Medium post saying that he had just experienced a blackmail attempt and hinted very strongly that Saudi Arabia was probably involved. We immediately put two and two together. Number one: We know that MbS has a problem with Bezos, that was very clear because the propaganda output of his regime was really aggressive against him. What we also know is that they had an ongoing business relationship. And we know that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder came in the middle of that. So we published our findings online and two days later we were contacted by the head of security for Bezos (editor’s note: Gavin de Becker, a longtime security consultant hired by Bezos), who said: ‘You guys are onto something and we have certain information we want to share with you as well.’”
El-Baghdadi claims to have “worked” with Bezos’ security team on investigating the incident. El-Baghdadi admits to having worked with Jamal Khashoggi in the past on his “MENA democracy” initiative. Khashoggi had been building an anti-Saudi think tank and engaging in cyberoperations against Saudi online activists when he was killed. El-Baghdadi’s distaste for the Saudi government is not explicitly explained, nor is his fellowship with Khashoggi ever fully presented, but both have had a history of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood ideology and resented Saudi outreach to Israel. El-Baghdadi, for instance, wrote of “two Israels”, with one of which “no peace” is possible, claiming that there are no Israeli centrists or peace partners, only “colonial masters”, and calling for “resistance”. Khashoggi was both opposed to normalization with Israel and wrote against Jews. What is interesting here is that El-Baghdadi was hired by Bezos’ security chief after the hack, but his role appears limited to propaganda, as he had no access to the technical information regarding any allegedly cyberattacks on Bezos and he admitted as much. His reputation of being affiliated with Khashoggi and attacking Saudi Arabia should, but somehow does not, discredit his professional conclusions of what must have transpired, even though they are based not on technical forensic evidence, but on ideological conclusions. El-Baghdadi believes that Mohammed bin Salman was personally responsible for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi based on Khashoggi’s personal criticism of the Crown Prince and his policies.
El-Baghdadi even states that Bezos’ security team and he started to “coordinate things”, without explaining what it is they coordinated—and the DW reporters do not challenge him on this issue. What is public knowledge, however, is that in the same year after Bezos’ alleged hack, El-Baghdadi, speaking to Qatar’s mouthpiece, Al Jazeera, claimed that he was in the “crosshairs” of the Saudi government, that he is a pro-”democracy” activist (does that mean he is calling for a violent internal coup against a popular heir to the throne?) despite having no connection to the Kingdom or its people, and many months after Khashoggi’s death (May 2019), and felt “in danger”. He apparently came to that realization after starting to work with Bezos’ team in February 2019, after the scandal regarding Bezos’ hack had already waned in the public eye. Did Bezos put him up to that?
Or did Bezos hire El-Baghdadi to make these statements, that would not only keep the Khashoggi story alive well past its due date, but would appear to substantiate his own concerns about Saudi Arabi? If Qatar was supportive of this apparent collusion, El-Baghdadi’s claims would further the idea being propagated that Khashoggi was neither an isolated case nor an issue arising from “rogue operatives”, but rather part of a strategic and brutal crackdown against Mohammed bin Salman’s critics. This would further distract from the emerging information that Khashoggi himself was no white fluffy kitten, but an experienced intelligence operative who had sold out to Qatar, and was weaponized against Riyadh. The story was soon picked up without any criticism by various Western publications, including The Daily Beast, which claimed that the activist was “forced into hiding”—although he continued to tweet and speak to the media.
To return to the interview, DW, despite this suspicious background that undermined the story, did not in any way push back, but rather gave El-Baghdadi plenty of space to attack Mohammed bin Salman, repeat unproven claims that the Crown Prince massacred Khashoggi in the Consulate, and link all of that to the Bezos hack as revenge for the Washington Post’s coverage of the Khashoggi affair. Of course, once again, DW never asks about any possible collusion between the Washington Post and the Qatar Foundation International, nor whether El-Baghdadi benefited financially in any way from his relationship with all these actors.
Even when El-Baghdadi makes clear the case of his personal collusion with the Bezos team in describing the extent of their professional collaboration, and even after admitting that there is no evidence that the phone was compromised at the time Bezos alleged or earlier, the reporter lets the activist continue as an expert witness on this subject, without questioning any aspect of his story or motives. Thus, DW, by failing to do its job and remain skeptical of such sweeping claim, legitimized someone with a clear political agenda, gave him a platform, and introduced him to the public eye, not as a political actor, but as a victim who is the “good guy” in this confusing chain of events. DW relinquished its role as a neutral observer and objective medium of information and sided with Bezos and Team Khashoggi.
What makes this situation still more sinister is that, like the BBC, DW receives public funding from the German government. In other words, Germany, as a state, is essentially taking part in this situation and siding with Bezos, El-Baghdadi, and promoting unsubstantiated claims about Khashoggi’s death. Aside from Qatar, then, European governments and their media tools, are playing an interventionist political role in this campaign.
Agnes Callamard, meanwhile, appears to be backing an El-Baghdadi-like activist in UK, who is funded by unknown forces (possibly Qatar, some pro-MB foundations, or Bezos), Ghanem Almasarir, who hails from the Kingdom, but shares El-Baghdadi’s virulently anti-Saudi views. Almasarir now came out to allege that he, too, was being electronically surveilled by Saudi intelligence, allegedly hacked through the use of the same Israeli malware that was supposedly used to spy on Khashoggi and El-Baghdadi, and now has been allowed by the UK to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for these alleged activities. Even if the case ultimately is thrown out, it is clear that he will get the attention he wishes, and the indelible damage to Saudi Arabia as a country, and Mohammed bin Salman personally, will have been done.
In yet another recent incident, the FBI—which since Robert Mueller’s time has had CAIR and other Islamist organizations involved in sensitivity trainings— supposedly foiled an attempted abduction of a young Saudi YouTuber, Abdulrahman Almutairi, by the Saudis. The Daily Beast report is almost entirely based on Almutairi’s own story, in which he claims that Mohammed bin Salman sent a hit team for him in the airport to kidnap him because he had criticized the Crown Prince. The likelihood of such a plot against such an unknown person is extremely low.
But what is obvious is that The Daily Beast and other publications are eager to report such sensationalist accounts, without verifying details, because they confirm the inherent bias against the Crown Prince and in favor of the “dissidents”, young people without jobs, funded by unknown organizations, and living abroad, whose sole raison d’etre seems to be making low quality podcasts and videos trash-talking Mohammed bin Salman. All these individuals are supposedly of such importance to the Crown Prince that he would risk a major scandal with the United Stated government in an attempt to illegally recover them and bring them back home rather than ignore their yammerings. The readers are invited to believe this version of the events on the ground that “reputable journalists” wrote it up.
In the case of Almutairi, if they media had so much as checked his social media account, they would have discovered a self-revealed history of mental health issues (Almutairi has written about being bipolar), discussing his hospital stays and mandatory medication for his condition. A cursory review would also disclose that he was studying on a Saudi government scholarship and KSA was also paying his medical bills. Due to his frequently erratic behavior, the government finally cut off his tuition. Almutairi complained about it on Instagram (screenshot); in short, he was a mentally unstable, disgruntled individual, who ended up calling the FBI on his own father, accusing him of working with the Saudi government to abduct him. (It is possible that his father came to visit to persuade him to return home for continued medical treatment.) In other words, he is less than a credible source, yet the media did not look into any of these details, thus essentially misinforming the public and creating the impression that Almutairi’s story was exactly what it appeared to be. These media outlets used a mentally ill individual to push their agenda, without disclosing the facts, shamefully exposing him to the kind of public attention that could aggravate his condition.
It seems that Bezos and Callamard are working together to identify anyone who may be persuaded to make similar claims against Saudis to bolster Bezos’ own credibility, but also in order to discredit the Crown Prince.
The Clown Choir Whitewashed Qatar’s Hacking but Echoes Baseless Claims Against the Saudis
The rest of the so-called “mainstream media” has hardly been any more professional nor has demonstrated any journalistic integrity over this matter.
The Philadelphia Inquirer covered this story with the following headline (thinly veiled as an opinion piece): “Saudi Arabia murdered a journalist and hacked Jeff Bezos. Trump sent them U.S. troops”. The rest of the piece is very much along the same vein, embracing unproven or discredited and openly biased assertions, without even an attempt to present a counterpoint that could shed light on the otherwise outrageous scenario being presented. Given the increasing public distrust in the media and the disappearing skill of distinguishing between opinion & fact, even if such an article is categorized as an “opinion” piece, at best it will feed into existing perceptions, at worst some may take it as information, rather than a personal position.
The NY Post, in its initial coverage, took Bezos allegations as “evidence“ rather than claims.
The Washington Post, not surprisingly, has followed its owner’s line with fierce loyalty. It has published multiple stories on this issue, all of them equally one-sided, and despite the paucity of technical evidence, reaffirms that these allegations “implicate” Mohammed bin Salman in the hack.
The Daily Beast coverage runs was about the same.
The NY Times makes an effort at appearing objective by covering what the “UN experts” have said about the hack, but does not question their expertise nor their conclusion nor the fact that the same experts had previously produced a one-sided report on Khashoggi lacking in facts or evidence.
Vanity Fair amps up the drama by using a conclusive description of the “MBS-Bezos” hack as a potential “ticking time bomb”.
AP News follows the lead claiming, again, with very little backing or follow-up investigation, that the Saudi Crown Prince’s phone is linked to the alleged hack.
NBC News once again focuses on the UN experts, and their completely unproven (and likely unprovable claim) that the alleged hack was aimed at influencing Washington Post coverage of Saudi Arabia. It is hard to take seriously such an allegation, given that the chickens have already flown the coop and the incriminating information against Bezos has already been published; he has divorced and lost half his fortune. How could he possibly be influenced by that incident to change all of the coverage about KSA?
The Hill takes fearmongering to the next level, with the writers claiming that now everyone who is critical of KSA could be endanger of being hacked.
MarketWatch echoes the mass media hysteria.
Ditto for Axios.
PBS also takes Jeff Bezos’ claims as proven fact. If only the media had stuck to following the late Jim Lehrer’s rules for ethical journalism, perhaps the issue of public trust would not have been quite so evasive.
And on and on it goes.
In short, once again, the scions of journalism have beclowned themselves with premature, one-sided coverage based on a high profile figure’s sensationalist claims, and have failed to follow-up with their own investigation on any of these comments or even to wait for other experts to weigh in. In the fray to be the first to “break” the “news” that Bezos claimed something that has already been largely discredited, these outlets once again put their own credibility at question.
Why would they take such a risk? There are several observations to be made of this baseless kerfuffle.
First, these same outlets reacted in exactly the same way to the initial reports of Khashoggi’s disappearance and death. They based their reports on leaks and claims made by the foreign media (Turkish intelligence affiliates known for their outright disinformation), and in some cases had to publish retractions of debunked histories concerning the case. They had failed to inform the public of essential facts concerning Khashoggi’s past, and to this day, many of these outlets, particularly the Washington Post, refer to Khashoggi as a “dissident” and “journalist” without disclosing his relationship to intelligence, to Qatar, and to the fact that others were basically writing his columns for him. These outlets have worked to shape a narrative about Khashoggi, just as they are currently working to shape a narrative about Jeff Bezos’ phone, and have not allowed facts to get in the way of spinning these tales. At no point have any of these outlets set their own reporters to investigate the situation on the ground in Turkey after Khashoggi’s disappearance. Adopting a Turkish intelligence agency’s narrative is not merely lazy, unethical journalism, but rather turns the US press into agents for foreign governments and their intelligence agendas.
Second, in both cases, the outlets have used very similar language to describe the stories. For instance, many have used sensational and personal language to describe the Crown Prince, referencing the “bone saw”, or describing him as “dark”. Similarly, now, the same outlets are peddling the Bezos narrative almost word for word, and rely on the same UN “experts” for “analysis”. After the Saudi Embassy denied the accusations, not one probed further or contacted the Saudis for a more detailed comment on the allegations. Just as the slogan of the “MeToo” movement has become “believe all women” (with questionable results), the slogan of the current craze around the Saudis appears to be “believe all attackers/dissidents/anyone with a grievance”. Investigative rigor of pursuing all perspectives has gone out the window, perhaps because the agenda is not to inform the public, but to shape the narrative, and also to give a particular portion of the readership what they are inclined to believe and want to hear. Would these outlets make a successful American businessman a villain of a story that also involves a controversial Saudi prince, whose reputation they themselves had already undermined with previous reporting? Doing so would amount to an admission of incompetence or malice against Mohammed bin Salman in previous reporting.
Finally, it is Qatar rather than Saudi Arabia that has a reputation for hacking critics. An Arab journalist details the cyberattack on him following his investigation into Qatar’s policies, one of 1,500 celebrities reportedly hacked by the agents of the country. Elliott Broidy, a former Republican Party apparatchik who has gained his own renown for allegedly plotting policies to counter Qatar’s influence in the US with an Emirati operative, unsuccessfully sued Doha for the alleged hack and leak of his email, which revealed embarrassing personal and professional information, leading to his resignation from his post. However, while his legal attempt at holding Qatar and its agents accountable for the hack has thus far failed, his efforts at disclosing the various parties involved in illicit Qatari schemes found their way into the press. Even the NY Times was forced to acknowledge that hacking has become a strategic method of promoting its agenda and intimidating potential critics, as well as a pathway to espionage for Qatar.
And those who have followed Qatar’s increasingly aggressive interference in the West and foreign affairs, as David Reaboi has, have noted that even as Qatar openly engaged in aggressive and criminal activity, the US media has become a “megaphone for foreign agitprop”. The above-mentioned outlets all continued to support the pro-Qatar, anti-Saudi narrative, even after Qatar’s hacking scandal broke, revealing that it was not merely a coincidence, but pecuniary and political motives, that drove some in the media to align with a country openly using its intelligence to meddle and spy in the US, and hack US citizens.
Given the ironic role these outlets have played whitewashing Qatar’s hacks at the time, the contrast with the coverage of the allegations concerning Mohammed bin Salman is striking. What gives this different treatment, where in the first instance, over a thousand reputable critics came forward as witnesses against Qatar’s hacking, and where various well known entities were implicated in the recruitment of agents for the leak and distribution of Broidy’s kompromat, and where in the second instance there is little more than Bezos’ personal vendetta backed by weak poorly sourced reports by his political allies?
How did Mohammed bin Salman Arouse the Media and Intelligence Agencies’ Ire?
Why are the campaigners against the Crown Prince so relentless in their hounding?
David Reaboi outlines some of the ignoble role the media has played in this gruesome saga, not as an impartial arbiter of some moral standards, nor as an objective pursuer of truths, but rather as nothing more than crude tools employed by various autocratic foreign regimes in pursuit of their anti-Saudi foreign policy.
However, there is more to the story (and a long litany of Mohammed bin Salman’s enemies) than just the media.
No sooner had Mohammed bin Salman burst onto the political scene than controversy and media speculation about the heir to the throne began. That event coincided with the announcement of the boycott against Qatar following Doha’s rejection of the thirteen demands put forth by the members of the Anti-Terrorism Quartet (KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain) and which included the calls to shut down Al Jazeera, an appeal to move away from Iran, the push to drop support for various terrorist groups and the funding of Muslim Brotherhood, and a warning against further meddling in the politics of various MENA states. Simultaneously dealing with the Qatar crisis, the Crown Prince was also handling the ongoing war in Yemen, an aggressive push for domestic reform, and the necessary move to consolidate power, which included a corruption probe against some Royal Family members and their associates with a reputation for involvement in dubious financial and political schemes.
Not too long after, the rumors began.
Some were focused on Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged personal hypocrisy, including the supposedly shocking allegations that the Prince who went after some people for corruption himself had purchased an expensive yacht, chateaux, and a painting. Some of these rumors were so poorly sourced that the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal were forced to withdraw these stories. New rumors started flying with the corruption probe, each more incredible than the next. The rumors began with a story in an obscure Arabic language Qatari-backed publication in London, quickly moved to the known pro-Qatar vehicle the Middle East Eye, and from there, in various forms and with details increasingly vague and unverifiable, migrated to The Guardian, NY Times, and other major publications.
The story, which sounded dubious from the start, concerned some official under investigation for corruption allegedly being tortured to death. His personal details and circumstances of his supposed demise increasingly disappeared as the story moved up in ranks. No New York Times or other journalist ever bothered following-up on the story and either collaborating or dismissing these allegations, and nothing ever came of it due to the lack of detail. However, the story circulated for months firmly embedding itself in the public mind, even as details faded over time, perhaps deliberately so.
The spread of similarly emotionally appealing but vague and unsupported stories attacking Mohammed bin Salman’s character were published with increased frequency as his first visit to the United States drew closer. By the time he arrived for a three week series of meetings, the media war, mostly consisting of subtle attacks on his image as a reformer popular with young people and with a mindset for a blossoming relationship with the West, appeared to be at its apogee. Most of these allegations smacked of an old Soviet-style smear campaign. Thanks to the widespread network of Qatari and Qatar-funded media, character assassination was back in vogue
The Aim of the Attacks is to Discredit the Crown Prince and to Demoralize His Supporters
Character assassination can be broadly defined as the “malicious and unjustified harming of a person’s good reputation”. It can, but not always does, fall under the legal category of “defamation of character”; however, the smear techniques used to destroy one’s reputation are not always false, nor necessarily carry legal culpability. In international relations, various forms of character assassination have been used as part of information warfare strategy to smear, demoralize, and, ultimately, to disarm their opponents. Information warfare is not a simple concept to define. According to some sources, information warfare involves information collection, transport, protection, and manipulation with the aim of gaining a competitive advantage over one’s adversary, whether in the military, intelligence, political, or business context. Other elements may include information disturbance, degradation, and denial. Another way of looking at it is as a combination of electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, and psy-ops (psychological operations).
Information warfare utilizes cyberspace, advanced computing, mobile networks, unmanned systems, and social media to gather intelligence, disrupt the operational capabilities of the other adversary, and to engage in a variety of tasks to advance the mission of the governmental or non-state actors.
Character assassination is an element of information warfare that can be pursued through a variety of disinformation tactics and is generally considered a type of psy-ops. More recently, however, traditional means of character assassination, has also relied on various types of cyberwarfare, such as hacking to advance the agenda of destroying the reputation of the target. In the course of the past two years, all of these methods had been used with the clear aim of bringing about the downfall of the Crown Prince, or at least weakening his relationships with Western countries and portions of the Arab world. The death of the former Saudi government spokesman and intelligence officer Jamal Khashoggi sparked a spike in attacks on the Crown Prince, which bordered on obsessive. For months, not a day passed without some supposedly objective Western outlet characterizing him in highly negative terms and by contrast, falsely painting Khashoggi to be an innocent journalist, whose only crime was his criticism of the monarchy and who met his end at Mohammed bin Salman’s hands for that reason.
The attacks were soon interspersed with negative publicity related to a group of women’s rights activists, both men and women, who were detained and eventually put on trial after being accused of working with foreign entities against Saudi Arabia. Indeed, journalists and political operations seemed to merge into one as increasingly negative stories about Saudi Arabia, regardless of how irrelevant, superficial, or one-sided continued to proliferate. Most journalists somehow managed to tie in literally anything that happened in US politics or in the region to Jamal Khashoggi and to the Crown Prince—whether it was the war in Yemen or the story of runaway Saudi girls who have had conflicts with their strict families. Mohammed bin Salman’s face was brought to every publication and was made to embody some abstract evil, while the incorrect narrative about Khashoggi’s death, often based entirely on leaks from Turkish newspapers affiliated with the local intelligence agencies, took on increasingly gruesome and often contradictory iterations.
The result of this coordinated series of attacks included the withdrawal of various lobbyists and business partners from work with Saudi Arabia, two Congressional resolutions holding Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for Khashoggi’s death, a joint Congressional resolution pushing for US withdrawal from Yemen (which was vetoed by President Trump), and negative coverage of Saudi Arabia even following terrorist attacks and acts of war committed against its people and infrastructure by Iran and its proxies. The character assassins who went after the Crown Prince were successful in creating negative impressions of his person because, they took advantage of three factors: 1.) the bitter political climate in the US, 2.) the information vacuum left by the Saudis themselves, and 3.) unsuspecting Western audiences who were overwhelmed with one-sided stories from a multitude of seemingly respectable outlets. The non-stop coverage permeated every conceivable type of institutions, and while the Khashoggi-related discussions waxed and waned, the attacks on the Crown Prince himself never fully abated.
The media played a significant role in facilitating these attacks.
Who are the Forces Behind the Media and Political Campaigns to Punish or Oust the Crown Prince?
The media has allowed Turkish leaks to drive the narrative, showing little concern for truth or justice, and willingly publishing even the wildest stories, taking little responsibility when these tidbits from Erdogan’s table changed momentarily. Essentially, the leading Western Press, as Lee Smith writes, has become a tool of political operatives and foreign and domestic intelligence agencies with an agenda—to take down Mohammed bin Salman, and to replace him with members of the reactionary faction that was at the helm prior to his surprising rise to power. Ironically, the same people who blame the Saudi government for its alleged support for Saudi members of Al Qaeda who perpetrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks are gunning to remove the very person who pushed that faction from power. Is their agenda modernization and, however gradual, liberalization and reform of Saudi Arabia, or are they merely concerned with access to their old and well-known players?
The Old Guard, with its connections to the Western intelligence agencies, was at the forefront of assorted leaks and fabrications that plagued the early months of investigations into Khashoggi’s death and subverted the assessment of the security situation. Turkish President Erdogan immediately took advantage of the events to push his own narrative, claiming to have a secret tape tying the Crown Prince to the murder; however, the tape itself was never fully released and to this day, nothing concrete is known about what actually happened. It was obvious that at the time that Turkey, which was pushing for a pathway into Syria and which was enduring increasing tensions with the United States, was using this opportunity to extort Saudi Arabia and the United States, with bad optics if nothing else, in exchange for significant leeway to pursue its own agenda.
Mohammed bin Salman’s corruption probe may have recovered some money for the country and temporarily stopped some Islamist sympathizers and funders from their destabilizing activities inside the country and plots against the Crown Prince, but he, without a doubt, has further angered those who already had grievances against him, whether as a result of competing claims to power, different political priorities, old family grudges, or condescension towards a young prince who surpassed many older pretenders with his quick rise to prominence. Alwaleed bin Talal, the son of the Soviet-sympathizing “Red Prince”, who is known for funding interfaith efforts in the West but also for his financial schemes, was a backer and promoter of Jamal Khashoggi, as was Turki al-Faisal, the former Chief of Intelligence, who has strong contacts with Western intelligence agencies, especially the US, UK, and Germany. Turki al-Faisal was not imprisoned during the probe, but Alwaleed was placed under arrest. The famous former Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan, whose daughter is the new Saudi Ambassador to the United States and whose son is the Ambassador to the UK, is alleged to be under a travel ban. He, too, was a Washington insider, who once was a press favorite and feed information to US intelligence agencies.
The backers of former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef—who was surrounded by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, such as the Governor of Mekka (Turki al-Faisal’s half-brother, Khalid al-Faisal)—are using the grievances of those implicated in the corruption probe who lost their money, freedom, and/or dignity to undermine the Crown Prince, going so far as to align with Turkish, Qatari, Muslim Brotherhood, and Western intelligence actors with an interest in weakening, extorting, or displacing the Crown Prince with someone more pliable, such as bin Nayef or another familiar candidate.
All these actors knew they could not act directly in a palace coup against Mohammed bin Salman as he has managed to consolidate the support of the National Guard and other security agencies, but the intelligence apparatus within the country could—and given what happened with Khashoggi—very likely was infiltrated by those looking to subvert his agenda—and who, via the likes of Turki and Bandar—could have worked with their old Western contacts and counterparts to pursue that common goal. None of that is spoken of in public in Saudi Arabia, particularly to foreigners—and yet, without understanding the extent of penetration of Western institutions by the enemies of the Crown Prince, we cannot begin to understand the seriousness of the unfolding situation. Essentially, we have portions of Western intelligence agencies working against the security interests of the United States in having a stable, liberalizing, economically prosperous Saudi Arabia with a leading role in the Middle East. The supposedly independent and private media has been disinforming the public, and taking part in political operations that impact the events both in the United States and abroad. And now it appears that the business community, or at least some individuals such as Jeff Bezos, can also be coopted by these foreign and domestic interests, in pursuit of the same goals, even if their own grievances and agendas are entirely personal.
According to many Saudis social media giants inflict unequal crackdowns, shadow bans and account suspensions, for those who praise the Crown Prince while anti-Saudi bots and accounts are allowed to replicate and spread propaganda. We are already seeing the impact of such alliances in the Silicon Valley and the tech world, as much as on K Street and in intelligence agencies. These institutions may not need to be paid off by Qatar or Turkey, but they may have domestic political agendas that are in line with the anti-Saudi forces, and although they may not agree on long-term goals, they can certainly be more immediate allies.
Qatar and Muslim Brotherhood activists had a ball with their own media in smearing the Crown Prince, who stood in the way of Qatar’s sponsorship of terrorist groups and Islamists in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and even in the United States, and who expelled Muslim Brotherhood ideologues from their positions in the mosques inside KSA. Iran lobbyists and former Obama officials, who were threatened by Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the nuclear deal and Iran’s assorted regional proxies, too, had a hand in promoting the anti-Crown Prince narrative, which soon became an expertly organized and coordinated media and political campaign, with the same type of language describing Mohammed bin Salman appearing in multiple, otherwise divergent outlets and channels.
It helped that the PR campaign concerning his role was superficial and it took only a rumor to besmirch a pristine image. The Crown Prince was described only in terms of his own image as a young dynamic reformist leader, but his substantive accomplishments inside the Kingdom have not been explored in depth, particularly in the period leading up to Khashoggi’s demise. Whatever positive impression he made on the Western public was easily destroyed by the very first scandal and rumors.
The media was a willing partner to all of these interests in part and parcel because they, too, viewed the Crown Prince as a disruptive force that threatened a comfortable status quo. Many of the media were connect to the “Old Guard” and benefited both financially and in terms of social status from those relationships. Mohammed bin Salman’s focus on internal reforms and reduction of media related expenditures upstaged their access, their influence, and supposed expertise on Saudi Arabia, which consisted ultimately of the leaked crumbs of information from the country’s intelligence officials. Ultimately, none of the smear attacks against Mohammed bin Salman were about human rights, Saudi Arabia’s role, or anything other than bringing down a political leader that stood in the way of power and influence.
Qatar’s economic and political interests in distancing US from KSA and becoming the primary investor and counterpart played their part, for sure. Muslim Brotherhood saw this as an opportunity to promote their own ideology, particularly if their adversary was weakened and his credibility suffered. The lack of interest in the human side of the Saudi story was transparent and obvious: there was no real attempt by the Western scolds to engage with the Saudis and provide opportunities for professional networking or to volunteer their skills in a variety of productive ways, any of which could have had practical utility towards making Vision 2030 easier to achieve. Many Westerners did not necessarily share in all of Qatar’s, Turkey’s, the Old Guard’s, or Obama’s political agendas, were nevertheless otherwise threatened by the possibility of Saudi Arabia rising, developing its own industries, and assuming independent leadership in the region.
For that reason, even the defense sector that benefited the most from deals with Saudi Arabia, did not lean on Congress particularly hard to ensure that the relationship endured, but just enough to get these deals to pass. Universities, tech companies, and assorted would be cultural and business counterparts that ultimately abandoned Saudi Arabia, may not have had a specific anti-Saudi agenda to begin with, but ultimately yielded to the increasingly radical left movement in US institutions and its partnership with both Sunni and Shi’a Islamists.
At the end of the day, Mohammed bin Salman found himself isolated not because he did anything worse than any other leader in the region, or the world, but because he is not a convenient presence for anyone who does not wish to see Saudi Arabia to become a powerful and modern country, or who is opposed to the reforms—cultural, and religious, as much as political and economics. Thus assorted radicals, Islamists, leftists, self-interested Iran stooges, and corrupt media and institutional apparatchiks made a strange alliance, all focused not on building bridges or overcoming any specific issues or making either Saudi Arabia or the West better places, but rather on bringing down the one person who stood in their way to full control of institutions, narratives, minds, and self-enrichment. Islamists, in the past, had colluded with the media and assorted social institutions and felt comfortable in that alliance.
Mohammed bin Salman ruined the party—and what better way to pay him back for these political operatives who imagined themselves to be central to journalism and the gatekeepers of truth and morality than by humiliating him where he should have been reaping success and destroying every potential for anything positive? They took advantage of existing vulnerabilities in Arab culture & media and in Western polarization and increasing lack of critical thinking, and sold everyone a dark fairy tale that too many people with too many interests were all too ready to swallow. Ultimately, the only way to overcome these issues, to repair the Crown Prince’s reputation in the West, and to expose this unholy alliance seeking to undermine him, is by working to shift the perspective of the West towards KSA from viewing it as a “necessary evil” or an inconvenient ally to understanding that there is a lot of good will, and genuine interest, in deepening cooperation and collaboration.
Eventually, even the internally focused Crown Prince started to wise up and take measures to protect his own reputation from these attacks.
What are the Options for Shutting Down These Attacks and to Prevent Further Reputational Damage?
As Dr. Najat Al Saeed explains, Mohammed bin Salman, in his recent visit to the UAE, inaugurated a joint KSA-UAE Committee to Combat Character Assassination. The idea is to counter psychological/information warfare against the leaders of these countries by various forces. However, so far, there is no evidence that the Committee has been able to produce anything of value. The response from the Embassy to this latest attack has been extremely mild and did not yet shut down this meritless discussion. If anything, it invited further leaks by Bezos. For now, Bezos is acting like he has nothing to fear. He has calculated the risk of engaging in likely defamatory tactics, and having seen how paralyzed the Saudis get in the wake of such extremely bad publicity, decided that he is better off taking his chances, since the Kingdom will not wish to dignify his below-the-belt tactics with a substantive strategic response.
If Mohammed bin Salman wishes to put an end to this resource-draining, distracting, and needless damaging bullying smear campaign, he should pursue an active, forward-looking strategy aimed at both preventing and shutting down these disinformation campaigns at the root, before they take on a life of their own. The strategy should include at least four major prongs:
Legal—it should be legally costly to engage in any sort of deliberate defamation, especially where the allegations are likely to be proven false. Bezos’ ill intent and the extent of reputational damage may be the easiest elements to prove here; even if there is ultimately a settlement of some sort, KSA should make it clear that there will be a legal pushback and that Bezos himself will be embarrassed and lose credibility in the process.
PR—Saudis should not be waiting for the events to resolve
themselves. Left to their own devices, the Crown Prince’s enemies will continue
searching for new, additional angles of attack. Saudis should identify strong
spokespeople not afraid of engaging in deliberative and strategic
confrontations, and have them respond to these attacks, attend panel
discussions, make frequent appearances on TV, and be fairly assertive in
combating these allegations before the public. Such spokespeople should be well
prepared to keep calm, and to understand the Western mentality. At the same
time, they should not forget about the positive aspects of public outreach and
communication, and be able to engage with the public itself, to explain the
situation, to introduce the people to the country in a positive way that makes
it easy to examine its position, and to focus on relevant issues, not just what
feels like “fun” to the insiders (i.e. talk about Saudi accomplishments in
hosting Western-style events, which have no bearing on these attacks or most
Furthermore, the media has to be held accountable for failure to do due diligence, but more importantly based on emerging evidence of collusion by various outlets in support of foreign interests and with clear agendas to convey false narratives and to inflict reputational damage on Mohammed bin Salman as a person, and on the Kingdom. Recently, CNN was forced to settle with an American high school student Nick Sandmann, after painting him in a false light and demonizing him for his alleged role in the March of the Living. The standard of proof of defamation by the media is substantially higher for a public figure, but nevertheless not impossible to meet, at least to the extent of sending a strong message that such campaigns are damaging to the public confidence in journalism and destructive to the United States, as much as to Saudi Arabia.
The media has been able to use a few cases of disgruntled activists to play on public sympathies and proclivity for bleeding heart Americans and anti-Saudi bigots to favor anyone who appears to be acting in pursuit of “democracy”. But if the events of the Arab Spring have taught anyone anything, it is to be skeptical of the claims made by such “do-gooders” and to vet carefully both the claimants and their agendas. Saudis can play an invaluable role as partners to the United States in educating the public about fallacious arguments, deceptive organizations, and doublespeak narratives. That means, however, that they can no longer afford the luxury of isolating themselves and refusing to take an active social role.
Cybersecurity—Saudis should invest into this sector, first by hiring the best in the business from the West, and second by having them train young Saudis (including the top echelons of the government) in secure communications and best practices. For the instant crisis, they should hire independent forensics experts to examine the accounts in question and not rely on Bezos to make their case for them. As far as Bezos is concerned, truth doesn’t matter. The Saudis are already a step behind, but finding out exactly what happened will help them immensely.
Information Warfare—the Saudis should understand that they
cannot ignore the crisis into dissolving as after over two years of the
tensions with Qatar, Turkey, Muslim Brotherhood, assorted infiltrators of the
Western intelligence agencies, and others, it is obvious that they are invested
in having the Saudis in general, and Mohammed bin Salman specifically, fail.
They should, therefore, invest into media mechanisms that could win public
hearts and minds, as well as identify the vulnerabilities of their enemies’ and
hit at them.
For instance, Amazon’s poor information security is an opportunity for some great billboards in Times Square outlining how Bezos’ poor practices endanger millions of users, and also to develop Saudi or Saudi & Western joint ventures, alternatives to Amazon that are better, more responsive to individual needs, and are more secure. Amazon is a great service, but is not beyond competition and is certainly not too big to fail if its founder is more invested in fighting wars on behalf of foreign regimes than in ensuring cyber security for his customers.
Most importantly, the Saudis should remind the public that the burden is on the accuser—in this case, Jeff Bezos—to prove his claims. Allegations should not be given the weight of evidence to be used as weapons to discredit, smear, and destroy reputations even of individuals in positions of wealth and power, such as Mohammed bin Salman. His position in life does not nullify his basic human right to be treated with justice and not to have his life destroyed by rumors, hearsay, and malicious campaigns.
Conspiracy Theories, Fake News and Disinformation: Why There’s So Much of It and What We Can Do About it
In March 2019, under the aegis of the United States Department of State, a group of researchers released a report called “Weapons of Mass Distraction: Foreign State-Sponsored Disinformation in the Digital Age.” The report mostly focused on foreign states’ propaganda, disinformation and fake news. Taking into account the upcoming US elections, the report can provide practical recommendations for policymakers and stakeholders.
The report begins with a horrific story broadcasted on the Russian state-owned “Channel One” in 2014. The story covered how Ukrainian soldiers crucified a child in front of its mother’s eyes. Later, this story was proved to be fake, and there was neither a killed child, nor shocked mother. Still, the story went viral. It had reached a much broader audience on social mediathan it did on television.
The authors refer to that story as “an example of Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign.” The authors of the report continued to state that “in subsequent years, similar tactics would again be unleashed by the Kremlin on other foreign adversaries, including the United States during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.”
Undoubtedly, the fake story did a lot of damage to the reputation of Channel One and other state-funded media. It is clear why authors begin with that story — it was poorly done, obviously faked and quickly exposed. However, it showed how effective and powerful social media could be (despite all of the reputation risks). There is also an important point highlighted in the report, particularly that “the use of modern-day disinformation does not start and end with Russia. A growing number of states, in the pursuit of geopolitical ends, are leveraging digital tools and social media networks to spread narratives, distortions, and falsehoods to shape public perceptions and undermine trust in the truth.” We are used to research, dedicated to propaganda and fake news issues, that establishes only Russia is responsible for disinformation and fake news. This report, on the other hand, addresses propaganda and disinformation as a comprehensive problem.
In the introduction, the authors claim that disinformation is a problem that consists of two major factors: technology giants and their impact and the psychological element of how people consume information on the Internet. Technology giants have disrupted disinformation and propaganda, and the proliferation of social media platforms made the information ecosystem vulnerable to foreign, state-sponsored actors. “The intent [of bad foreign actors] is to manipulate popular opinion to sway policy or inhibit action by creating division and blurring the truth among the target population.”
Another important aspect of disinformation highlighted in the report is the abuse of fundamental human biases and behaviour. The report states that “people are not rational consumers of information. They seek swift, reassuring answers and messages that give them a sense of identity and belonging.” The statement is proved by the research showing that, on average, a false story reaches 1 500 people six times more quickly than a factual account. And indeed, conspiracy stories have become something usual these days. We see it has become even more widespread during the current pandemic — 5G towers, Bill Gates and “evil Chinese scientists” who supposedly invented the coronavirus became scapegoats. And there are a lot more paranoid conspiracy stories spreading on the Internet.
What is the solution? Authors do not blame any country, tech giants or the behavior of people. Rather the opposite, they suggest that the solution should be complex: “the problem of disinformation is therefore not one that can be solved through any single solution, whether psychological or technological. An effective response to this challenge requires understanding the converging factors of technology, media, and human behaviours.”
Define the Problem First
What is the difference between fake news and disinformation? How does disinformation differ from misinformation? It is a rather rare occasion that reports give a whole chapter dedicated to terminology. And the report “The Weapons of Mass Distraction” definitely provides readers with a vast theoretical background. Authors admit that there are a lot of definitions, and it is difficult to ascribe the exact parameters to disinformation. However, it states that “misinformation is generally understood as the inadvertent sharing of false information that is not intended to cause harm, just as disinformation is widely defined as the purposeful dissemination of false information.”
As it was mentioned in the beginning, authors do not attach labels and do not focus on one side of the problem. A considerable part of the report is dedicated to psychological factors of disinformation. The section helps readers understand behavioural patterns of how humans consume information, why it is easy to fall for a conspiracy theory, and how to use this information to prevent the spread of disinformation.
The findings are surprising. There are several cognitive biases that make disinformation easy to flourish. And the bad news is that there is little we can do about it.
First of all, confirmation bias and selective exposure lead people to prefer information that confirms their preexisting beliefs make information consistent with one’s preexisting beliefs more persuasive. Moreover, confirmation bias and selective exposure work together with other naïve realism that “leads individuals to believe that their perception of reality is the only accurate view and that those who disagree are simply uninformed or irrational.”
In reality, these cognitive biases are widely used by tech giants. That doesn’t mean that there is a conspiracy theory behind it. That means that it is easy for big tech companies to sell their products using so-called “filter bubbles.” Such a bubble is an algorithm that selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user, such as location, past click-behaviour and search history. Filter bubbles work well on such websites like YouTube. A Wall Street Journal investigation found that YouTube’s recommendations often lead users to channels that feature conspiracy theories, partisan viewpoints and misleading videos, even when those users haven’t shown interest in such content.
These days, the most popular way to counter misinformation is fact-checking and debunking the false information. In the report, the researchers presented some evidence that the methods we are used to employing, may not be that effective. “Their analysis determined that users are more active in sharing unverified rumours than they are in later sharing that these rumours were either debunked or verified. The veracity of information, therefore, appears to matter little. A related study found that even after individuals were informed that a story had been misrepresented, more than a third still shared the story.”
The other research finding is that “participants who perceived the media and the word “news” negatively were less likely than others to identify a fake headline and less able to distinguish news from opinion or advertising.” Obviously, there is a reason for that. It’s a lack of trust. The public has low trust towards journalists as a source of information about the coronavirus, says the latest research. Additionally, according to the American Press Institute, only 43 per cent of people said they could easily distinguish factual news from opinion in online-only news or social media. Thus, the majority of people can hardly distinguish news from opinions in a time when trust towards journalism is at its historical minimum. It is therefore no surprise that people perceive news that negatively.
This can have implications for news validation. The report states it can differ from country to country. “Tagging social media posts as “verified” may work well in environments where trust in news media is relatively high (such as Spain or Germany), but this approach may be counterproductive in countries where trust in news media is much lower (like Greece).“
A vast research basis also reveals the following essential findings. First, increasing online communities’ exposure to different viewpoints is rather counterproductive. The research presented in the report found that conservative people become more conservative and liberals become more liberal.
Second, the phenomenon called belief perseverance, which is the inability of people to change their minds even after being shown new information, means that facts can matter little in the face of strong social and emotional dynamics.
Third, developing critical thinking skills and increasing media literacy may also be counterproductive or have minimal use. Research shows us that “many consumers of disinformation already perceive themselves as critical thinkers who are challenging the status quo.” Moreover, even debunking false messages cannot be that effective. Showing corrective information did not always reduce the participant’s belief in misinformation. Besides, “consumers of fake news were presented with a fact-check, they almost never read it.”
What can be done here? Authors provide the reader with a roadmap for countering misleading information. Although the roadmap, which is also based on researches, can have very limited use, according to the report.
The main idea is to be proactive. While debunking false messages, developing critical thinking, and other tools have minimal potential, some psychological interventions can help in building resilience against disinformation. Authors compare disinformation and misinformation as a disease, and they propose we need a vaccine that builds resilience to a virus. This strategy means that people should be warned “that they may be exposed to information that challenges their beliefs, before presenting a weakened example of the (mis)information and refuting it.”
Another aspect of the roadmap is showing different perspectives, “which allows people to understand and overcome the cognitive biases that may render them adversarial toward opposing ideas.” According to the authors, this approach should focus less on the content of one’s thoughts and more on their structure. The fact that certain factors can make humans susceptible to disinformation can also be used as part of the solution.
What About the Tech Giants?
The authors admit that social media platforms should be playing a central role to neutralize online disinformation. Despite the fact that tech giants demonstrated their willingness to address disinformation, their incentives are not always prioritized to limit disinformation. Moreover, their incentives are aligned with spreading more of it because of its business model. “Users are more likely to click on or share sensational and inaccurate content; increasing clicks and shares translates into greater advertising revenue. The short-term incentives, therefore, are for the platforms to increase, rather than decrease, the amount of disinformation their users see.”
The technological section of the report is split into three parts dedicated to three tech companies — Facebook, Twitter and Google. While the report focuses on what companies have already done to counter disinformation, we will highlight only the recommendations and challenges that still remain.
Despite all the incentives that have been implemented by Facebook in recent years, the social media platform still remains vulnerable for disinformation. The main vulnerability is behind its messaging apps. WhatsApp has been a great source of disinformation during the Rohingya crisis in 2018 and during the Brazilian presidential elections in the same year. The second vulnerability lies in third-party fact-checking services staffed by human operators. Human operators are struggling to handle the volume of the content: “fake news can easily go viral in the time between its creation and when fact-checkers are able to manually dispute the content and adjust its news feed ranking.”
Despite all the vulnerabilities, including a colossal bot network, Twitter became more influential in countering the threat using such technologies like AI. The question of how proactive the company will be countering the threat still remains. Yet, Twitter now uses best practices, according to the report.
With its video-sharing platform YouTube and ad platform, YouTube might be the most vulnerable platform. The website, with its personalized recommendation algorithm (filter bubbles), has faced strong criticism for reinforcing the viewers’ belief that the conspiracy is, in fact, real. However, YouTube announced in 2019 that it would adjust its algorithms to reduce recommendations of misleading content.
However, it is not just the tech giants who should take responsibility for disinformation. According to the report, it’s countries who should bear the ultimate responsibility for “defending their nations against this kind of disinformation.” Yet, since the situation is still in private hands, what can the government do here?
For example, they could play a more significant role in engaging in regulating social media companies. According to the report, it doesn’t mean total control of social media companies. However, authors admit that this solution may have some implications for possible restriction of freedom of speech and outright censorship, and there is no easy and straightforward way to solve this complex problem.
What can we do about it? According to the report, technology will change, but the problem will not be solved within the next decade. And the fact is, we should learn how to live with the disinformation. At the same time, public policies should focus on mitigating disastrous consequences while maintaining civil liberties, freedom of expression and privacy.
The report provides readers with quite a balanced approach to the problem. While other research projects attach labels on countries or technologies, the authors of the report “Weapons of Mass Distraction” admit the solution will not be easy. It is a complex problem that will require a complex solution.
From our partner RIAC
Engaging with Local Stakeholders to Improve Maritime Security and Governance
Illicit activity in the maritime domain takes place within a complex cultural, physical, and political environment. When dialogue is initiated with a diverse range of stakeholders, policy recommendations can take into account region-specific limitations and opportunities. As noted in the Stable Seas: Sulu and Celebes Seas maritime security report, sectors like fisheries, coastal welfare, and maritime security are intrinsically linked, making engagement with a diverse range of local stakeholders a necessity. This collaborative approach is essential to devising efficient and sustainable solutions to maritime challenges. Engagement with local stakeholders helps policymakers discover where in these self-reinforcing cycles additional legislation or enforcement would have the greatest positive impact. Political restrictions against pursuing foreign fishing trawlers in Bangladesh, for example, have allowed the trawlers to target recovering populations of hilsa while local artisanal fishers suffer. In the context of the Philippines, the Stable Seas program and the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation recently conducted a workshop that highlighted the importance of consistent stakeholder engagement, resulting in a policy brief entitled A Pathway to Policy Change: Improving Philippine Fisheries, Blue Economy, and Maritime Law Enforcement in the Sulu and Celebes Seas.
Consistent communication with local stakeholders on regional anomalies allows policymakers to modify initiatives to adjust for the physical, cultural, and political context of a maritime issue. The physical environment affects how, where, and why illicit actors operate in the maritime domain. Knowledge held by local stakeholders about uninhabited coastlines, local currents, and the locations of important coastal communities helps policymakers find recognizable patterns in the locations and frequency of maritime incidents. The 36,289 km of coastline in the Philippine archipelago means that almost 60 percent of the country’s municipalities and cities border the sea. The extensive coastline and high levels of maritime traffic make monitoring coastal waters and achieving maritime domain awareness difficult for maritime law enforcement agencies. A Pathway to Policy Change outlines several recommendations by regional experts on ways to improve maritime domain awareness despite limitations imposed by a complex physical environment. The experts deemed collaboration with local government and land-based authorities an important part of addressing the problem. By engaging with stakeholders working in close proximity to maritime areas, policymakers can take into account their detailed knowledge of local environmental factors when determining the method and motive behind illicit activity.
Culture shapes how governments respond to non-traditional maritime threats. Competition and rivalry between maritime law enforcement agencies can occur within government structures. A clearer understanding of cultural pressures exerted on community members can help policymakers develop the correct response. Strong ties have been identified between ethnic groups and insurgency recruiting grounds in Mindanao. The Tausug, for instance, tend to fight for the MNLF while the MILF mostly recruits from the Maguindanaons and the Maranao. Without guidance from local stakeholders familiar with cultural norms, correlations could be left unnoticed or the motivations for joining insurgency movements could be misconstrued as being based solely on extremist or separatist ideology. Local stakeholders can offer alternative explanations for behavioral patterns that policymakers need to make accommodations for.
Local stakeholder engagement allows policymakers to work on initiatives that can accommodate limitations imposed by the political environment. Collaboration with local stakeholders can provide information on what government resources, in terms of manpower, capital, and equipment, are available for use. Stakeholders also provide important insights into complex political frameworks that can make straightforward policy implementation difficult. Understanding where resource competition and overlapping jurisdiction exist enables policymakers to formulate more effective initiatives. Despite strong legislation regulating IUU fishing in the Philippines, local stakeholders have pointed out that overlapping jurisdictions have created exploitable gaps in law enforcement. In A Pathway to Policy Change, local experts suggested that the government should lay down an executive order to unify mandates in the fisheries sector to address the issue. Similarly, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) is highlighted as a region that heavily influences maritime security in the Sulu and Celebes seas. Working with government officials to understand how policy initiatives need to adjust for the region’s semi-autonomous status ensures maritime issues are properly addressed. BARMM, for instance, issues fishing permits for its own waters in addition to government permits, which can cause inconsistencies. Working alongside local stakeholders allows policymakers to create initiatives that take into account special circumstances within the political system.
Private Sector Engagement
Extending engagement with local stakeholders to the private sector is particularly important during both the policy research and implementation processes. Encouraging private stakeholders to actively help counter illicit activity can help policymakers create a more sustainable and efficient solution to security threats. As A Pathway to Policy Change highlights, private companies already have a strong incentive from a business perspective to involve themselves in environmental and social issues. Governments can encourage further involvement of private stakeholders like blue economy businesses and fishers by offering tax breaks and financial compensation for using sustainable business practices and for helping law enforcement agencies gather information on illicit activity. Offering financial rewards to members of the Bantay Dagat program in the Philippines, for example, would encourage more fishers to participate. Governments can also double down on educational programs to raise awareness of important issues threatening local economic stability. By communicating consistently with local stakeholders, policymakers can both more accurately identify maritime security needs and more comprehensively address them.
The unique physical, cultural, and political context in which maritime issues take place makes the knowledge of local stakeholders an invaluable asset. While many important types of information can be collected without working closely with stakeholders, there are also innumerable important aspects of any given context which cannot be quantified and analyzed from afar. Engagement with stakeholders provides a nuanced understanding of more localized and ephemerial factors that affect regional maritime security. Engaging with local stakeholders allows policymakers to capitalize on opportunities and circumvent limitations created by the political, cultural, and physical environment surrounding maritime issues in order to create sustainable, long-term solutions.
Turkey Faced With Revolt Among Its Syrian Proxies Over Libyan Incursion
Relations between Turkey and Syrian armed groups that used to be considered cordial due to massive support provided by the Turkish authorities to the Syrian opposition are rapidly deteriorating over Turkey’s incursion into the Libyan conflict, according to sources among the Syrian militants fighting in Libya.
Last month, over 2,000 fighters defected from Sultan Murad Division, one of the key armed factions serving the Turkish interests in Syria. The group’s members chose to quit after they were ordered to go to Libya to fight on the side of the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). This marks a drastic shift in the attitude of the Syrian fighters towards participation in the Libyan conflict: just a few months ago there was no shortage of mercenaries willing to fly to Libya via Turkey for a lucrative compensation of $2,000 – 5,000 and a promise of Turkish citizenship offered by Ankara.
Both promises turned out to be an exaggeration, if not a complete lie. The militants who traveled to Libya got neither the money nor the citizenship and other perks that were promised to them, revealed a fighter of Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction Zein Ahmad. Moreover, he pointed out that after the fighters arrived in Libya they were immediately dispatched to Tripoli, an arena of regular clashes between GNA forces and units of the Libyan National Army despite Turkish promises of tasking them with maintaining security at oil facilities.
Data gathered by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights shows that around 9,000 members of Turkey-backed Syrian armed factions are currently fighting in Libya, while another 3,500 men are undergoing training in Syria and Turkey preparing for departure. Among them are former members of terror groups such as Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, as confirmed by reports of capture of a 23-years-old HTS fighter Ibrahim Muhammad Darwish by the LNA forces. Another example is an ISIS terrorist also captured by the LNA who confessed that he was flown in from Syria via Turkey.
By sending the Syrian fighters to Libya Ankara intended to recycle and repurpose these groups for establishing its influence without the risks and consequences of a large-scale military operation involving major expenses and casualties among Turkish military personnel. However, the recent developments on the ground show that this goal was not fully achieved.
The Syrian fighters sustain heavy casualties due to the lack of training and weaponry. Total count of losses among the Turkey-backed groups reached hundreds and continue to grow as GNA and LNA clash with intermittent success. Until Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan curbs his ambition, destructive nature of involvement of the Syrian armed groups in Libya may result in the downfall of Turkey’s influence over the Syrian opposition.
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