Skip to main content

Saudi smear campaign targets Al Jazeera journalists

Thousands of Saudi Twitter accounts were involved in a misogynistic campaign against Ola Fares and Ghada Oueiss

Thousands of well known and verified Saudi Twitter accounts have launched a smear campaign against two prominent Al Jazeera journalists, Ola Fares and Ghada Oueiss.

Marc Owen Jones, a social media analyst and professor of Middle East Studies at Doha's Hamad bin Khalifa University, revealed in a thread on Twitter that over 25,000 tweets, retweets and replies were aimed at the journalists within a 24-hour period.

"What we are seeing now is a new modus operandi. This started in earnest in May, when they created a fake story about a coup. The accounts doctored tweets, doctored videos and created entirely artificial content," Jones said to MEE. 

"This tactic has been the same as this recent case, which was premised on a fake tweet."

According to research conducted by Jones, the journalists were an easy target because they are women, and as a result received thousands of misogynistic comments.

"The Twitter accounts had hacked or stolen content from Ghada's phone of her in a bikini in a jacuzzi that allowed them to create a salacious fake backstory," he said.

Ouweiss and Fares examine sensitive issues such as women's rights and the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which, according to Jones, might be the reason why they have been targeted with a smear campaign.

Earlier this year, a Saudi-led disinformation campaign using various accounts and influencers was used to spread information about an alleged coup in Qatar.

A number of influential accounts with large followings were part of the smear campaign, including accounts that shared private images of Oueiss and suggestive accusations of how the journalists got to their positions. 

One influential Saudi Twitter user and author, Ibrahim al-Sulaiman, was involved in the campaign and used the hashtags #غاده_جاكوزي #علا_فارس to criticise the journalists in a series of tweets. 

According to Jones, accounts with Saudi flags in their names tweeted innuendos about Oueiss. One tweet that featured Oueiss' name in a hashtag showed an image of someone overdosing on drugs.

Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur, called on Twitter to take action against the harassment campaign launched at the journalists. 

Fares addressed the issue in a tweet, where she called out Twitter for turning a blind eye to accounts slandering public figures, whereas a number of activists have had their accounts suspended.

Translation: Why does Twitter shut down the accounts of respected activists but on the other hand neglects to take action against the Twitter users who take part in slander against public figures, and spread propaganda, smear campaigns and rumours, lies and fabrications. Why has there been no action taken towards any of these violations? Give us an answer. 

Several Twitter users, including Hatice Cengiz, have come out in support of Fares and Oueiss following the smear campaign. 

Jones, who has written extensively about Saudi disinformation networks, has called for further investigations into “digital predators”.

In April, Twitter deleted thousands of accounts that were used to spread propaganda on behalf of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The social media giant said in a post on its platform that it deleted 5,350 accounts from Saudi Arabia for "amplifying content praising Saudi leadership, and critical of Qatar and Turkish activity in Yemen".

It said the Saudi-linked accounts were being run out of the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, where Twitter's Middle East headquarters is based, as well as Egypt.

Twitter said it took the actions because the accounts violated its policies and represented a targeted attempt to undermine public conversation. However, mass Twitter campaigns have continued to be on the rise.

Earlier this year, scores of social media accounts were created supporting Saudi interests and the takeover of Newcastle United football club.

Newcastle United fans were adding Saudi flags to their Twitter handles, sharing memes of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and, in some cases, making jokes about human rights abuses, in anticipation of a Saudi-led consortium buying out the English football club. 

Many of the Twitter accounts associated with the Newcastle United posts were created only a few days prior, raising concerns that they could be the latest example of pro-Saudi propaganda campaigns involving bot networks