Al Jazeera journalists targeted in misogynistic 'Saudi-linked' Twitter smear campaign

Al Jazeera journalists targeted in misogynistic 'Saudi-linked' Twitter smear campaign
Two women journalists have been the targets of an online harassment campaign led by pro-Saudi government Twitter accounts.
4 min read
10 June, 2020
Ghada Oueiss (L) and Ola al-Fares (R) are high-profile Al Jazeera journalists [Twitter]
A misogynistic online harassment campaign, comprising of tens of thousands of tweets intended to smear two Qatar-based journalists, has sparked outrage on social media and prompted calls for action from Twitter's management.

A number of pro-Saudi government Twitter accounts, including verified and high-profile influencers, began on Tuesday to circulate false misogynistic allegations against Al Jazeera presenters Ola Al-Fares and Ghada Oueiss.

At least 25,000 tweets, retweets, and replies were sent containing hashtags over a 24-hour period, intended to smear the two journalists, according to academic and social media disinformation expert Marc Owen Jones.
Jones told The New Arab: "The industrial level of the dog piling is quite breathtaking, tens of thousands of retweets and interactions, all perpetrated by a core group of high profile verified influencer accounts."

He highlighted three accounts for allegedly propagating a large proportion of the tweets, including pro-Saudi influencers Abdul Latif Abdullah Alsheikh and Ibrahim Suleiman, who each have hundreds of thousands of followers.

Jones' analysis showed that between 6 and 9 June, Al-Fares and Oueiss received over 3,000 tweets between them, the vast majority linked to the trolling campaign.

As the harassment reached its peak on Tuesday, Oueiss tweeted to Twitter's administration, asking why Alsheikh had a verified "blue tick" account.

Jones alleged some level of either Saudi state interference or tolerance of the abuse, as well as impunity for the perpetrators, was taking place due to strict censorship enforced in the kingdom.

"The government either wants it to happen or allows it to happen, as these constantly are likely in violation of Saudi law, but there is rarely - if at all - any consequence."

Prominent critics of the Saudi government have spoken out against the trolling campaign, including Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who tweeted that she "stands with" Alfares and Oueiss.
The government either wants it to happen or allows it to happen, as these constantly are likely in violation of Saudi law, but there is rarely - if at all - any consequence
- Marc Owen Jones
Agnes Callamard - who led the UN investigation into Khashoggi's killing which implicated the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - tweeted that online harassment campaigns "should not be tolerated" by Twitter, adding that she was "standing with" Alfares and Oueiss.

Trolls, flies and bots
The Saudi government has been accused of targeting critics via mass online disinformation and trolling campaigns, aided by an army of automated bots and loyal supporters, including journalists and influencers.

Qatar, and many of its affiliated organisations and personalities, have frequently been on the receiving end of such campaigns.

Recently social media was flooded with false claims of a coup in Doha, accompanied by doctored video footage.

Hundreds of people are thought to work at a so-called troll farm in Riyadh as part of an effort led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to target any online critics, according to a 2019 report in The New York Times.

Known as "flies", the troll army orchestrates online pile-ons to drown out criticism or allegations harmful to the kingdom's image.

The US department of justice last year exposed a Saudi government spy scandal at Twitter headquarters, in which employees were allegedly groomed to uncover the identities of some 6,000 online critics, in exchange for expensive gifts and cash rewards.

Three people, comprising of two former Twitter employees and an ex-Saudi official, were charged in November.

Saudi Arabia has led a blockade of several Gulf nations against Qatar since 2017, accusing the state of supporting terrorism, claims which Doha strongly denies.

A Saudi-led bloc issued Qatar with a list of conditions for lifting the blockade, including shutting down Al Jazeera as well as Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's sister outlet.

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