Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 June 2019

Fake news spread by British website and social media bots

UAE targeted by rash of accounts set up to spread bogus reports over recent months

Web-based apps can help you keep a record of who owes you what. Getty Images
Web-based apps can help you keep a record of who owes you what. Getty Images

A fake news operation has spread hundreds of fabricated reports after establishing a bogus website named Manchester Weekly that is backed by dozens of social media accounts set up to woo prominent politicians, researchers and journalists.

An investigation by The National has found no trace of the Manchester Weekly publication in the city nor of a person who claims to be its political editor, Carmelo Cruz. The Twitter account under Cruz name was created in 2015 and has been extremely active since last year, gaining prominence from retweets, likes and co-ordinated responses from automated accounts. These are then picked up by prominent political activists based in England and elsewhere.

It is one of at least nine social media accounts that circulate conspiracy theories and made-up documents that primarily target the United Arab Emirates. In total there is a wider confederation of more than 20 accounts on Twitter that promote the same links. The Manchester Weekly title operates from the Wordpress and Medium blogsite platforms and has a YouTube channel.

On Wednesday Cruz published a false UN statement that condemned the UAE for involvement in a deadly incident in Somalia.

The UN did in fact publish a statement after a meeting on Somalia on January 2 but it was related to displaced people in Mogadishu and did not even mention the UAE.

The bogus UN report was then picked up by other accounts that retweeted its revelations as news.

The Manchester Weekly Medium site has also been peddling a conspiracy theory surrounding the fictitious assassination of journalist who it claimed was investigating the establishment of a spy base by former CIA chiefs in the UAE.

Cruz distributed the report on his own timeline.

Trinity Mirror Plc, the owner of the city’s Manchester Weekly News, said the sites were not associated with it and declined to comment on the nature of its output. Sam Walton, a local activist, claimed not to have heard of it despite the site covering his work and Cruz sending him material. It has also published articles from organisations like the Washington Post without attribution.

The Cruz Twitter account responded when it was challenged over its news credentials by a Gulf-based reporter for the Associated Press, Jon Gambrell, last year. After the exchange, the Manchester Weekly changed its title from Manchester Weekly Times.

Many of the social media users of the account are similar to the accounts that have been exposed in the inquiries into Russian web robots or Bots. These automatons are used to generate links to stories and provide a distribution boost that is not available from genuine users.

The accounts are made to look real, sometimes using authentic identities but more often assuming names or cropping photographs to provide portrait images than cannot be traced through reverse image searches. Despite extensive Google and other searches there is no trace of a journalist called Carmelo Cruz from Strasbourg, France. However with almost 11,000 followers and 2,700 tweets in just a few months, he has an outsized presence on social media.

Kyle Orton, a researcher at the London think tank the Henry Jackson Society, has been forced to report bots targeting his work in the past. He said the tactics used by state-sponsored campaigns are similar across the board. “They try to get people who are more established or credible to buy into their material. That following then raises the price of criticising them,” he said. “And to promote their work they tend to swarm their output at the target, coming all at once on one theme.”

Many of those who actively engage the Cruz account are equally hard to trace. Some share characteristics such as they were created around the same time in 2012 but were not active until the end of last year. One of the most prominent is that of Burak Akan, a self-professed Turkish journalist who has also been active in targeting the UAE with agitprop.

One of that account's favourite sources is another bot-like site, @emirofarab, which also makes wild allegations related to the UAE.

Some accounts make professional claims that cannot be verified, such as a Juan Catheline, who claims to be a human rights lawyer. His appearances before the courts could not be confirmed.

A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service told The National that the account holder was not a current employee, despite its claim the owner was based in London. The account also engages with a London-based activist group that has registered its domain using a bogus address and is believed to be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. Another favourite is a London-based organisation that is running an anti-UAE campaign at the UN.

Another account involved in the network that was created in 2012 but only became active after June last year, when the Arab Quartet decided to boycott Qatar over its links to extremism, is @JaberAlReports, which claims to be the work of a Mariam Al Jaber, a journalist.

When it was first launched the Cruz Twitter account fired off a series of attacks on the international trade union bodies that were accusing Qatar of systematic labour abuse in projects related to its World Cup 2022 bid. It is a theme that some of other accounts in the network also highlighted. At the height of the long-running dispute, the International Trade Union Confederation denounced an organised campaign of disinformation against its leaders. “This campaign has included the dissemination of fake videos and other materials, setting up of fake social media accounts and various other techniques aimed at the ITUC and at individual people,” it said.

Another account in the network @GordonLayman1 has added the address of prominent British politicians including the Conservative MP Matthew Offord and Oona King, a Labour member of the House of Lords.

With more than 13,000 tweets, the account of Kendrick Miller gives a strong impression of general journalistic interest but then both claims to be both a Washington-based reporter and to live in Brooklyn, New York. It salts the Manchester Weekly and Carmelo Cruz material among many other tweets. Yet until November the account concentrated solely on commercial sales of jewellery and other material, suggesting its ownership was transferred.

Writers, journalists and researchers that have fallen into the web of the network include David B Roberts, Clayton Swisher, David Haigh and Lotte Leich, a director of Human Rights Watch.

Updated: January 5, 2018 05:52 AM