How fake COP28 supporters use stolen photos and coordinated messaging to mislead
A disinformation expert, Marc Owen Jones, has uncovered a network of fake Twitter accounts defending the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) decision to host the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) climate negotiations.
These accounts also support the appointment of Sultan al-Jaber, CEO of the UAE’s national oil company, as the conference’s president. Jones, a professor of Middle Eastern studies, discovered approximately 100 fake accounts and 30,000 tweets, all sharing similar messages.
The revelation raises concerns about the manipulation of public opinion and the use of disinformation campaigns to shape narratives.
Network of fake accounts exposed
Following the controversial appointment of Sultan al-Jaber as COP28 president, Marc Owen Jones noted a sudden influx of Twitter accounts defending him. This aroused suspicion in him, prompting him to investigate further.
Jones found a network of around 100 fake accounts posting almost identical messages in support of the United Arab Emirates, al-Jaber and COP28.
Jones said that analysis of tweets from a large sample of the network of fake accounts showed that the most popular topic for promotion recently was Cop28. After Jones exposed the network, some accounts were suspended by Twitter but dozens converted their content to new usernames.
Same content, stolen photos
Jones identified several indicators that fake people were not operating these accounts. First, they all shared the same content, suggesting a coordinated effort.
“Many use stolen photos – either stock photos or those found on the web. They have fully fleshed out bios, including location (usually somewhere in the UAE). Another common tactic is to tag real accounts like @amnesty in the bio to give an air of credibility and plausibility.”
Some accounts added hashtags from legitimate organizations like NASA, Amnesty International, or Human Rights Watch to their bios to enhance their perceived credibility. However, upon closer inspection, it became apparent that these accounts used stolen stock photos, models, or even other people’s social media profiles.
Suspiciously sultry expressions on some AI-generated profile images raised additional questions about their authenticity. In one case, an account used an image from an AI imaging website named “This person does not exist”, watermarked with the display URL.
He further added “For example. Yael Fadel is a space scientist from Cyprus who erm, has tagged @NASA in her bio. I can only assume she works for NASA (hey guys can you confirm?). When she’s not posing as a stock photo model used by orthodontists, she’s subtweeting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Furthermore, these accounts were part of a large network that had been created simultaneously, further indicating their artificial nature. When Jones exposed the network on Twitter, the accounts quickly changed their names and biographies, a common behavior seen during large-scale manipulation campaigns. Since then, some accounts have been removed entirely.
Jones added, “It is a network of fake accounts trying to promote Emirati foreign policy. They focus on promoting or polishing COP28 by defending and deflecting criticism of COP28’s presence in the UAE.”
He continued, “These accounts assume the identity of real people to create the illusion of widespread support for a particular position; this deceptive tactic is known as propaganda grass.” “It is an act of deception, and the examples of newspapers quoting them imply that they have certainly deceived people into believing they are real people.”
Discrediting campaign by fake accounts
While COP28 remained silent, a spokesperson told The Guardian that the accounts had no affiliation with the conference and were likely intended to discredit COP28 and the climate process.
A Cop28 spokesperson stated: “Third parties unrelated to Cop28 created these fake accounts with the clear intention of discrediting Cop28 and Operation Weather.” The spokesperson said the Cop28 office had reported the issue with Twitter, requested immediate action, and directly reported the fake accounts using Twitter’s reporting form.
“Attribution is very difficult,” Jones said. But based on past experience, it is almost certainly a strategic communications company acting on behalf of the UAE. This is the most likely explanation.
While Jones cannot definitively identify the mastermind behind the ring of fake accounts, he suspects the involvement of a public relations (PR) firm working on behalf of the United Arab Emirates. Based on the principle of Occam’s razor, he believes that a public relations firm is the simplest and most likely explanation. However, the UAE has not provided any comment or clarification regarding these allegations.
COP28 Stands Firm on Al-Jaber’s Appointment
Despite the controversy, COP28 endorses the appointment of Sultan al-Jaber as president. COP28 Director General Majid Al Suwaidi stressed the need for a delivery mindset and highlighted the intention to engage the private sector to achieve climate goals. Al Suwaidi suggested that this approach is a departure from previous negotiations, indicating a new strategy for engaging with the private sector.
While the accounts defending COP28 and al-Jaber may not be spreading false information per se, Jones argues that their deceptive practices remain concerning and potentially dangerous. By concealing their true identities, these accounts attempt to manipulate public opinion and create an illusion of popular support that does not really exist.
Jones cautions that recent advances in generative AI technology make it easier than ever to fool people with made-up images and text. The deceptive nature of such practices extends beyond discussions of climate change, as this technology has the potential to undermine democracy, rig elections, and erode people’s trust in information.
Dr. Jones identified the fake accounts using clues like payments created on same dates, AI-generated profile photos, general formatting, language and posting times, and the absence of any other online presence.
In August 2021, someone created a first set of fake accounts, followed by a second, larger set in February 2022. The accounts support other Emirati policy goals, including Sudan, technology, food and culture. But Jones said the most popular topic recently is Cop28.
Among them is an account, @MahmudViyan, that one account was supposedly pro-human rights in the UAE. He had a profile picture that failed to crop the text “this-person-does-not-exist.com,” identifying the image as coming from a site that generates AI images. And when “Emirates 71” searched for him, it was found that the account had been suspended.
After Jones exposed the fake accounts, dozens of users changed their usernames and also deleted the tweets he highlighted. He said, “Everyone who created this network is fully aware that I tweeted this topic because they have now engaged in equivocation.”
Several bloggers on Medium have also posted fake profiles, including Samantha Ali, author of a February post titled “Sultan Al Jaber: Empowering the Climate Movement for COP28 UAE.” In the post, she expressed the view that “skeptics should no longer be in control: Al Jaber is precisely the ally the climate movement needs.”
Other fake accounts have commented on this fake post. The profile photo of “Samantha Ali” is a stock photo and the same Medium account previously used by the name “Joie Cooper”.
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