After oil exec named COP28 president, fake accounts rally to his defence
Disinformation expert says network of bots supporting UAE oil exec heading up UN climate conference
A disinformation expert says a network of fake accounts are defending the United Nations' decision to host this year's COP28 climate talks in the oil-rich country, and to appoint UAE oil company CEO Sultan al-Jaber as the conference's president.
Marc Owen Jones — a professor of Middle East studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar who researches disinformation and digital media — says he first noticed the deception campaign after the controversial news of Jaber's appointment made headlines.
"Suddenly, all these accounts appeared and started tweeting in defence of him," Jones, author of Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "I thought that was quite suspicious."
Jones says he has identified a network of about 100 fake accounts and 30,000 tweets, all posting similar messages in defence of the UAE, Jaber and COP28.
COP28 did not respond to a request for comment from CBC before deadline, but a spokesperson told the Guardian the accounts "are generated by outside actors unconnected to COP28 and are clearly designed to discredit COP28 and the climate process."
The COP28 office has reported the accounts to Twitter, the spokesperson said.
AI-generated photos and identical messages
The 2023 UN Climate Change Conference — also known as the 28th Conference of the Parties, or COP28 — kicks off in Dubai in late November, with Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, at the helm.
The UN's choice of host country and conference president have drawn criticism from environmental groups and political leaders. But if you're on social media, you might get the impression that Jaber and the UAE have a lot of grassroots support.
Accounts from supposed scientists, activists and regular people are calling Jaber "the ally the climate movement needs," and posting messages saying: "UAE's call for international co-operation and its commitment to being a perfect host for #COP28 is a testament to its leadership in tackling climate change."
So how does Jones know these posts aren't by real people?
"There's a number of signs, right? So one of the most obvious ones is that they're all tweeting the same stuff," Jones said.
Some accounts will tag real organizations — like NASA, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch — in their bios to give the appearance of legitimacy.
"But crucially, they're using stolen photographs from, like, stock photos or models," Jones said. "Some are using AI-generated photos and some are stealing photos of other people's social media accounts."
He added that some of the artificial intelligence-generated images look suspiciously similar to each other, and sport "ridiculously sultry expressions."
In one case, an account used an image from the aptly named AI image-generating website This Person Does Not Exist, with the site's URL watermark visible in the image.
What's more, he says, they're all part of a large network of accounts that were all created at the same time.
"These series of things coming together mean that they're probably fake or almost certainly fake," Jones said.
The other main clue accounts are fake? As soon as Jones posted a Twitter thread exposing them, they all started changing their names and bios.
"Why would the hundred accounts that I identified as bots suddenly change their names and change their identity almost overnight?" he said.
"I've seen this happen before, and it's a good indicator that, again, we're seeing a large-scale manipulation take place."
Some of the accounts have been removed all together.
COP28 defends Jaber
Jones says he has no way of identifying who is behind the army of bots, but his No. 1 guess is that it's a PR firm working for the UAE.
"You have to go with Occam's razor," he said. "Sometimes the simplest possible explanation is probably the most likely."
The UAE did not respond to a request for comment.
COP28, meanwhile, is standing by Jaber's appointment.
"We need a mindset of delivery. For the first time, Dr. Sultan [al-Jaber] is asking: What are the specific targets that are going to get us to achieve the goals of Paris by 2030?" COP28 director general Majid Al Suwaidi told Reuters.
"I've been in these negotiations for years.... We've never really engaged the private sector to ask them how they can work with us to do that. At COP28, we're doing that."
The big picture
Jones says the accounts defending COP28 and Jaber aren't disseminating disinformation in the strictest sense, as they are spreading opinions rather than demonstrably false information.
Still, he says it's a deceptive — and dangerous — practice.
"They're lying about who they actually are. And why would you do that unless you're trying to hide who the messenger is? So that's why I say it's deception, because it's trying to basically obscure the origins of the campaign by creating the illusion of public opinion that doesn't actually exist," Jones said.
He's already seen unwitting social media users interact with the accounts as if they were the real deal. And in a few cases, he's seen the tweets embedded in legitimate news stories.
Jones says recent advancements in the field of generative AI make it easier than ever to fool people with fake pictures and even AI-generated text.
"This kind of technology, this kind of deception, is being used to undermine democracy, manipulate elections, and basically hack people's beliefs," he said. "So I'm pretty worried, to be honest."
With files from Reuters. Interview with Marc Owen Jones produced by Talia Kliot.