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Coronavirus brings a disinformation surge about Qatar

Coronavirus brings a disinformation surge about Qatar

An article on disinformation titled Coronavirus brings a disinformation surge about Qatar, originally published by Coda Story is republished here as an eye-opener on how the world pandemic is currently made, as it were, good use of in the MENA’s Gulf region.

  • Text by Burhan Wazir
  • Photo by bphoto/AFP via Getty Images
  •  

A weaponized hashtag and fake Twitter accounts seek to blame the small Gulf nation for the spread of COVID-19

The ongoing blockade of Qatar by its neighbors is being further intensified by a new round of disinformation blaming the Gulf country for the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, Noura Almoteari — a Saudi Arabia-based journalist — posted on Twitter, saying that Qatar has known about the existence of COVID-19 since 2015. Earlier this month, she accused Doha of paying billions to China “to grow the virus.” She also coined the Twitter hashtag “Qatar is corona,” which has now been used hundreds of times on the platform. Almoteari stated that the country was spreading the virus in order to damage both the UAE’s upcoming Expo 2020 and Saudi Arabia’s future plans to diversify into a post-oil economy.

In addition to this, Qatar has come under attack from Twitter bot accounts that blame the country for the coronavirus outbreak. In January and February, numerous fake Twitter profiles advanced the theory that Qatar was responsible for spreading the virus to Argentina. The accounts have since been suspended.

The land, sea and air blockade of Qatar began in June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic links with the gas-rich country, after years of rancor over Doha’s foreign policy.

The blockading quartet issued a list of demands, which seemed designed to turn Qatar into a client state. The orders included that Doha cut all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements, and that it shutterits media operations, including the broadcaster Al Jazeera. 

In the years since the blockade was launched, Qatar has faced repeated accusations from Saudi Arabia and the UAE of supporting terrorism. Armies of Twitter accounts and carefully orchestrated disinformation campaigns have become a prominent and ongoing feature of this diplomatic quarrel.

“The coronavirus campaign against Qatar began online as early as January, long before the current corona outbreak,” said Marc Owen Jones, assistant professor of Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, in a phone interview with Coda Story. 

“There were definitely some early disinformation campaigns on Twitter, which were basically saying that Qatar was responsible for the coronavirus, and that it had played a role in spreading it. People are trying to preempt the crisis and exploit it politically.” Subscribe to Coda’s Coronavirus Crisis newsletter

The disinformation campaign has also targeted Qatar’s labor camps — institutions common in Gulf nations, which house thousands of low-paid migrant workers. One Saudi newspaper has published a number of stories about the outbreak of COVID-19 affecting “hundreds” of people in the industrial areas outside Doha, where many of Qatar’s 1.9 million migrant workers live.

Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health says the total number of reported coronavirus cases in the country currently stands at 481. 

“I would say this is a continuation of the verbal barrage of misinformation and disinformation that is part of the Qatar blockade,” said Dr Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow with the Middle East & North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. “In this current iteration, it accuses the Qataris of spreading the virus. This will continue for quite a degree of time, and these sorts of campaigns are a reflection of how deep seated the tensions are.”

Vakil said the disinformation about Qatar echoed how other countries are trying to internationalize the cause of COVID-19. In recent days, China has sought to blame the U.S.; earlier this month, Bahrain accused Iran of “biological aggression” by covering up the spread of the coronavirus.

“While it is interesting these bots are blaming Qataris, I think it is part of a nationalist impulse that is not just unique to the Gulf in using an external crisis to whip up support,” Vakil added.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, author of “Qatar and the Gulf Crisis,” believes that the outpouring of digital disinformation about Qatar on Twitter must at least have the tacit approval of authorities in countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where social media is closely monitored. 

“The fact that such comments have been made by high-profile individuals in Saudi Arabia and the UAE without facing any official censure suggests that their messaging carries the implicit approval of authorities, who are in other circumstances extremely quick to police and respond harshly to commentaries that they do not agree with,” he said.

Burhan Wazir is the Managing Editor of Coda Story’s Authoritarian Tech and Disinformation channels. He’s an award-winning journalist and editor, based in London, who previously worked at The Observer, The Times and Al Jazeera. He lived in the Middle East from 2008-2016.

Get in touch via burhan@codastory.com

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COVID-19 creates a responsibility for global media

COVID-19 creates a responsibility for global media

The Peninsula of Qatar informs that COVID-19 creates a responsibility for global media citing a QF professor.
COVID-19 creates a responsibility for global media

COVID 19 pandemic has created a responsibility for global media, but they’re not meeting it, according to Dr Marc Owen Jones, Assistant Professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at QF (Qatar Foundation) member Hamad Bin Khalifa University
He argues on why worldwide news coverage of COVID-19 risks adding to public panic.
 “I would say the global media is being absolutely irresponsible. They haven’t struck a very good balance between not trivializing issue, but also over-sensationalizing it. Everywhere you look, there seems to be this polarity of opinions: it’s either that COVID 19  isn’t so bad and it’s just like flu versus the constant coverage of COVID 19 -related issues, constant reports and numbers about how many new cases there are and where they are. I think this just inflames tensions about the issue,” he said in an email interview with media persons. 
“I was asked to write a piece recently, and the whole underpinning of this piece was that people are interested in stories. They drive a lot of clicks for advertising revenue, so media corporations that rely on advertising business models basically make money from clicks. And COVID 19 gets a lot of clicks. COVID 19, as well as being a virus, is actually going viral, so I think there is a big problem there,” he added. 
According to Dr Jones, it’s important to be transparent about any public health issue. The problem is that, often, the reporting of deaths happens as breaking news in big, garish headlines and is top of the news bill every day; that has certainly been the case in recent weeks and months. It’s not so much the reporting of figures that is the issue; it’s the constant reporting of new deaths every day in a way that occupies headlines. 
“I think this exaggerates the dangers and the impact of coronavirus in people’s heads. There are countless other illnesses or conditions or social issues that result in more deaths, but these are not reported on every day,” he said.  
 It is difficult to determine what is a reliable source of news, said Dr Jones. “It is not always easy. I don’t like to say you should rely on established news media, but in times like this, I do think it’s important to stick with something reputable, Don’t just retweet something you see on social media. Be very clear about whether the news you are reading has some sort of pedigree: is it linked to a well-known news site? Is it quoting, for example, a health official from a public ministry? That is always a good barometer to follow,” he added.  
Referring to overwhelming information spreading on COVID 19, Dr Jones said that ‘Infodemic’ is a very important term.
“We are getting a lot of information from a plurality of sources – too much information. This prevents people from being able to synthesize and process all this information, and what tends to stick in people’s heads is the more dramatic or sensational coverage. Too much exposure to news is more likely to promote a sense of panic, and I think it’s actually healthy to isolate yourself from this infodemic,” he said. 
According to Dr Jones, there is clearly an impact of relentless coverage of COVID -19 on people’s behaviors, and that it is not constructive.
He also said that COVID- 19 has occupied news coverage more than other issues for several reasons.   “The absence of anything else substantial in the current news cycle is also perpetuating this. It is a global issue, not a parochial issue affecting one country, so it will be reflected in country’s media. And it captures the imagination. People click on it because they find it fascinating and viscerally scary. And it’s been weaponized, which is contributing to this large media storm around the issue,” said Dr Jones. 
 He also insisted that there needs to be more responsibility in news coverage.
 Dr Jones said that media should perhaps have an updated set of best practices and recommendations, endorsed by the World Health Organization and public health officials, in a standing location on their web page. “This can be done in an understated way and a way that suggests this is about reporting and not sensationalizing,” he said.  
“The media has a responsibility to do this because, at the moment, the role they’re playing is to promote panic. Constant breaking news and red ticker tape on many news websites is not helping, and neither is the way coronavirus dominates headlines. The constant repetition of stories about deaths and new cases in bold front-page headlines is a problem,” he added.