Report: Fake Op-Ed Columnists Spread Anti-Qatar Propaganda

Youth ride jet-skis at Katara beach in the Qatari capital Doha on July 1, 2020 as the country moves into the second phase of its four-step plan to lift COVID-19 lockdown. - People in Qatar cautiously returned to beaches as the Gulf nation, which has one of the world's highest …
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The Daily Beast published a report Monday documenting “at least 19 fake personas” that managed to “place more than 90 opinion pieces in 46 different publications” over the past year praising the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) while criticizing its adversaries Qatar, Turkey, and Iran.

The marquee example was a writer named Raphael Badani, a “geopolitical risk consultant and interactive simulation designer” with degrees from George Washington University and Georgetown University whose resume included work for the U.S. Labor Department. 

Badani had an active social media presence and was published by a wide range of outlets including Newsmax, The National Interest, American Thinker, RealClear Markets, and the Washington Examiner but, the Daily Beast found, he is not a real person. Unknown persons created a phony profile for him using stolen photographs and claiming a wide range of false credentials.

Other false personas identified by the Daily Beast were able to publish articles in Asian, Israeli, and Middle Eastern newspapers and websites as well as American outlets. The earliest example profiled in the article was an ersatz “analyst in South Asian regional security” named Lin Nguyen who began posting articles in July of 2019. The network seems to have expanded its efforts first into Middle Eastern publications before pushing on to the United States. 

The creators of the fake writer network created a few “news websites” that ran articles from the phony writers to give them publication credentials before shopping their work to legitimate outlets. A few falsely claimed to have worked for major media organizations like the Associated Press. One even claimed to have written for the Daily Beast (which the Daily Beast denied). They largely used photos of real people copied without their permission to create their author bios and social media profiles, although some profiles used AI software to create new faces altogether.

The Daily Beast noted the fake writer accounts “displayed either a mischievous sense of irony or a complete lack of self-awareness” at times. In one instance, the network used a fake writer to create an article criticizing Qatar for spreading fake news. That article, the work of the early false persona “Lin Nguyen,” was swiftly exposed as a fake and taken down by its publishers at International Policy Digest, but “Lin Nguyen” kept submitting pieces to other outlets A different fake writer was soon publishing at International Policy Digest.

As for the article’s poster boy “Ralph Badani,” his work was either flagged by most of the outlets that published it or removed entirely after the first version of the Daily Beast article was released. Twitter also suspended the Badani account, plus those of 15 other identified fake personals, describing such “platform manipulation” as a violation of its policies.

The Daily Beast spotlighted the way Human Events handled the article it published from a fake persona called “Joyce Toledano.” (Full disclosure: the author of the article you are reading wrote for Human Events for several years, but has no connection with its current incarnation and has not been published by its current management.)

The article was entitled “Qatar Is Destabilizing the Middle East” and contrasted Qatar’s malign pro-extremist influence with the more constructive “soft power” of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an organization including Saudi Arabia and the UAE to which Qatar still nominally belongsThe Saudis, Emiratis, and some other GCC members and allies have been blockading Qatar for the past three years.

Like some other outlets, Human Events left the article up with a note attached, but defended the content of the article: “We have reviewed the substance of this piece, and have not found any factual errors — and we still agree with the thesis of the piece. As such, we are keeping the piece up, and adopting its arguments as a publication.”

Human Events Editor-in-Chief Will Chamberlain responded to the Daily Beast article with a Twitter thread expanding on the site’s editorial assertion that the article in question “holds up, even if we were deceived as to authorship.”

“Indeed, we agree with the underlying argument. Qatar is a bad actor. As such, we’ve adopted the article’s argument as our own. Nowhere in the Daily Beast’s article is any suggestion that the pieces were substantively wrong, or that any of the factual claims were false,” he noted.

“In the future, we’ll dig more deeply into author bios. That said, doing extreme vetting of our authors would deter less established contributors from submitting pieces: and we are focused on the quality of the argument, not the strength of the author’s credentials,” Chamberlain wrote.

The Verge was especially interested in the AI-generated headshots for some of the fake writer personas, noting that it is quite easy to create realistic-looking, computer-generated human faces with current technology, and they provide a faker with protection against image searches that might otherwise expose a false persona during the vetting process.


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