A Songbird for the Emir

[ Part 1: Flipping the Bird Site ]

The small Persian Gulf state of Qatar is one of the richest in the world per capita. It is also the fourth largest shareholder of Elon Musk’s Twitter. What does the Emir hope to gain from this deal?

Peninsular Power

In the mid-1990s Qatar’s ruling al-Thani family wanted to end dependence on Saudi Arabia, the only country that shares a land border with Qatar.

Al Jazeera was established in 1996 as a means of exerting soft power. The Emir of Qatar guaranteed that he would fund the broadcaster for its first five years, enabling it to become the first independent news network in the Middle East.

William Cohen, Lt. Col. Michael Chura, and Emir Hamad bin Khalifa at the Pentagon, June 1997. From Defense.gov via Wikimedia Commons.

Al-Jazeera’s independence meant it was free to cover stories that traditional, state-run news agencies wouldn’t touch. It was easy to find content by airing dissident voices from around the region, criticizing policies of states like Saudi Arabia, and stirring controversy. Critics of the network noted that Qatar was rarely the target of Al-Jazeera’s broadcasts despite its own human rights abuses. Nevertheless Al-Jazeera was immensely popular and by 1999 was the region’s first 24 hour news channel.

Al Jazeera advanced Qatari interests and foreign policy goals throughout the region. AJ as intelligence gathering and propaganda outfit.

Al-Jazeera and the Arab Spring

Along with western social media websites AJ is credited as one of the most important propaganda outlets of the Arab Spring.

AJ broadcast anti government and other social criticism to Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and more. They promoted specific ideological lines as well, supporting groups which opposed Saudi interests such as the Muslim Brotherhood:

Yet Al Jazeera’s opaque loyalties and motives are as closely scrutinized as its reporting. It is accused of tailoring its coverage to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza against their Lebanese and Palestinian rivals. Its reporter in Tunisia became a leading partisan in the uprising there. And critics speculate that the network bowed to the diplomatic interests of the Qatari emir, its patron, by initially playing down the protests in Egypt.

From the New York Times.

Qatar’s role in boosting the Arab Spring brings us to the tensions between Riyadh and upstart Doha, which the Saudis see as part of their cold war with Iran.

From Foreign Policy, “What Wikileaks Tells Us About Al Jazeera.” 19 September 2011.

Al-Jazeera’s propaganda in favor of the Arab Spring and its support for anti-Saudi forces in Syria and Libya made it dangerous. In the 2017-2021 diplomatic crisis Qatar was blockaded by the Saudis, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain: one of their demands was the silencing of Al-Jazeera. In the end the blockade failed to achieve its goals, the Gulf states normalized relations, and together shifted to new priorities:

Among these are the war in Ukraine and its subsequent economic impact. As well as continuing unity between OPEC, the subsequent unity over managing oil prices and output has been a mutual concern for GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] member states too.

Concerns over regional and global security, particularly after the US’ botched withdrawal in Afghanistan in 2021 and renewed Saudi Iranian tensions have been another factor, particularly as the GCC has often accused Tehran of ongoing involvement in various countries’ political affairs and conflicts, such as Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey writing for Anadolu Agency.

Qatari Influence in America

Al Jazeera’s influence has not been limited to the Arabic speaking world. The network became a prized source for high quality reporting among western media companies and in 2006 it expanded into Al-Jazeera English.

AJE’s function was to counter the hegemonic power of western news agencies: “AJE claimed that the flow of information runs from North to the South, meaning from rich countries to poor countries and that AJE’s goal is to balance the flow.” Ultimately that is achieved by projecting Qatari news media outward and making Al-Jazeera as prestigious and credible as CNN, BBC, and other global operators.

As of 2022 AJE has 21 bureaus around the world in addition to the 42 bureaus of AJ Arabic.

Al-Jazeera announced a new platform, Rightly, in February 2021. From Al-Bawaba.

Al-Jazeera Media Network did not stop its expansion with AJE. Most relevant to our current story is the launch of Rightly in 2021. Rightly was an America-based news outlet for conservatives who “felt left out of mainstream media.” The natural audience for this in 2021 was, of course, the MAGA right-wingers.

Rightly just shut down a few months ago and I doubt it’s because the Qatari royal family has lost interest in soft power. The stated reason is that AJMN wanted to maintain its reputation for professionalism and nonpartisanship — necessary components of its strategy to penetrate media markets and promote dissident views. Rightly did not wind down because of a fragmented audience or Islamophobic audiences, it shut down to protect the AJ brand.

Rightly 2.0

Elon’s Twitter takeover has resolved some of the challenges to Qatari soft power on the American right wing. The conservative social media landscape was fragmented after the Capitol Riot and the purges of QAnon and MAGA accounts on Twitter. Elon has opened the door for these people to return from their various hideouts. He has also started exposing internal documents that vindicate their persecution complexes. Yes, Twitter really was run by a woke liberal mafia! They really did censor you! And now 75% of the censors are fired, the bird is freed!

Elon pandering to right-wing culture warriors. From Twitter.

The Twitter that Elon runs is now the premiere gathering place for conservatives who “feel left out of mainstream media.” As we have seen with Saudi Twitter it is very easy to control social media narratives using bots and filters. Was the Emir of Qatar expecting Rightly 2.0 when he invested in Musk’s takeover?

Since the company went private it has not been easy to find out what Twitter’s shareholders have been discussing. We do know that Elon visited Doha, the capital of Qatar in December 2022. Obviously, it was to take in the finals of the FIFA World Cup.

Equally obvious is that this doubled as a business trip. While attending the football match Elon was photographed meeting with the CEO of the Qatar Investment Authority, Mansoor bin Ebrahim Al-Mahmoud.

From Business Insider, 21 December 2022.

Around five hours after the match, Musk tweeted his famously binding poll asking whether he should resign as CEO of Twitter. On 20 December the final results were 57% “Yes” to 43% “No” and Musk said he would find his replacement. However an independent poll conducted by HarrisX showed that 61% of Twitter users favored Musk as CEO. Elon’s response was to suggest that bots had rigged the vote against him.

He never did say whose bots they were.

Blowing Uncle Sam’s Cover

Two days after his meeting with al-Mahmoud Elon released the eighth batch of the “Twitter Files.” Previous releases of internal documents were made to expose the old management’s close relationship to the United States Government (USG). These included acts of partisan censorship and moderation which were very upsetting to the Truth Social and Gab crowds. Twitter Files 8 contained something much more relevant to our current subject.

Al Jazeera reported on the files the day of their publication. The files described how US Central Command (CENTCOM) operated “priority accounts” which “promoted information in support of US military narratives, including criticism of Iran, support for the US and Saudi Arabia-backed war in Yemen, and claims about the superior accuracy of US drone strikes”. The accounts used false profile pictures and names to disguise themselves as civilians from the Middle East.

From The Intercept, “Twitter aided the Pentagon in its covert online propaganda campaign.”

The Twitter Files show that these operations were known to management for at least two years between 2020 and 2022 and that no action was taken against them. There is documentary evidence that the company saw these operations as sloppy and easy to expose, implying the depth of Twitter’s cooperation with the Department of Defense:

For example, Twitter lawyer Jim Baker mused in a July 2020 email, about an upcoming DoD meeting, that the Pentagon used ‘poor tradecraft’ in setting up its network, and were seeking strategies for not exposing the accounts that are ‘linked to each other or to DoD or the USG’.

From Al Jazeera.

With Elon at the helm Twitter appears to be reversing tack on this relationship with DoD. Exposing American influence operations enables rival bot and troll armies to fill the gap. USG critics can now point to the Twitter Files as proof that the Pentagon stages massive false protest movements on social media. This has long been an accusation leveled against the social media site by America’s enemy states, that Twitter facilitates fake-grassroots democratic movements which provide cover for a coup, a “Color Revolution.” The exact same thing that had opponents of the Arab Spring railing against Twitter.

From U.S. Cyber Command.

At the same time that American bots are being compromised there are Saudi and Qatari accounts ready to advance their own narratives. Could Twitter’s new owners hope to wrest control of this information weapon away from the Pentagon?

[ Featured image from The Irish Sun, “Elon Musk makes surprise appearance at World Cup final in Qatar and watches game with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.” ]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s