Suspected fake social media accounts are pumping out pro-Qatar World Cup posts, in what experts believe could be a bot farm making a concerted attempt to “drown out” negative comments about the tournament.
Analysts have discovered 69 “inauthentic accounts” on Facebook and Twitter in Bangladesh, with 18 concentrated in a suspected network in the capital of Dhaka. Posts from the suspicious accounts were seen by 19,000 profiles in one month alone.
These accounts were found to be sharing positive posts about the World Cup tournament, with some expressing support for teams which they claimed chose not to protest Qatar’s poor human rights record.
Forty-two real accounts were detected in the same area, which the experts said was “indicative of a bot farm” in which real and fake accounts tend to interact and fuel one another.
Cyabra, which was commissioned by Elon Musk to identify spam and bot accounts on Twitter, examined 13,000 Facebook and Twitter accounts worldwide between 26 October and 12 November 2022. It found that 15 per cent were inauthentic, while 43.8 per cent of all comment scanned during the period were deemed to be written by inauthentic profiles.
The firm determines inauthenticity by tracking “non-human behaviour” on social media, such as interactions with other accounts, posting times – for example, posting for 23 hours a day – creation date, and languages used.
On one Facebook post, which claimed that the Brazilian football team would not take any pro-LGBT+ action during the World Cup, one suspected fake account commented saying it was “proud to be a Brazil supporter”. A further three accounts posted an identical message, with Cyabra saying it was highly possible that these were also sophisticated fake accounts.
Another “inauthentic” account, based in Bangladesh, shared a video of the Brazilian team dancing.
No available evidence suggested the Brazilian team as a whole had in fact taken that stance and some Brazilian players have previously publicly supported LGBT+ rights.
Other accounts flagged by Cyabra as fake shared information about the World Cup teams and excitement in the run-up to the tournament, with one post reading: “Nine days left to Fifa World Cup Qatar” with a heart emoji.
A spokesperson for Cyabra said: “The existence of bot farms is not new but can be incredibly effective in disinformation or ‘drowning the noise’ techniques. One of the tactics we’ve witnessed in the World Cup is not the spread of fake news but rather the amplification of certain narratives and content which we describe as ‘drowning the noise’.”
How bot farms are used to shape public discussion
Social media accounts have been increasingly used to counter or push certain narratives online, with some “bot farms” thought to be backed by foreign governments.
Thousands of Russian accounts were found to be fervently tweeting about Brexit during the referendum vote in 2016 and accused of “targeting potential Brexit supporters who were vulnerable and getting them to vote”.
Then-Prime Minister Theresa May called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop “weaponising information”, while Ciaran Martin, chief executive of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, claimed Russia was using the internet “to undermine the international system”.
There have also been concerns of a surge in fake accounts during general elections in the UK.
After the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, suspected bot accounts were found to be pushing pro-Saudi narratives on social media in an apparent bid to counter allegations that the Saudi state was behind Mr Khashoggi’s killing.
The network of accounts, which was later removed by Twitter, tweeted and retweeted the same pro-Saudi government posts at the same time, including hashtags in support of de facto leader Mohammed Bin Salman.
The World Cup has been shrouded in controversy, with host nation Qatar widely criticised for its poor human rights record.
Particular focus has been given to the country’s alleged oppression of LBGT+ people, with an i investigation finding that officials were using false profiles on dating apps to trap gay men, and in some cases rape them. Just two weeks before the start of the tournament, Qatar’s World Cup ambassador described homosexuality as a “damage in the mind”.
Unions and human rights groups have also raised longstanding concerns about workers rights in Qatar, where more than 6,500 workers are believed to have died since the country won its World Cup bid. Qatar insists that vast improvements have been made and that it now leads the region for workers rights.
Professor Anthony Glees, emeritus professor at the University of Buckingham and founder of its Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, said that “the use of social media had transformed the way in which public opinion can be formed and can be developed to suit particular aims”.
“It makes it possible for the individual to be heard and listened to, it gives traction to individuals, and it links groups of individuals who may be small in one country but globally they appear to be a very large force,” he told i. “It works on the principle that a rolling snowball into an avalanche.”
“It allows views to be propagated, the purpose of which is not necessarily to get people to vote one way or another – though that can be an advantage – but generally to confuse and confound public opinion. Once you have fake news being propagated, it creates uncertainty which can be further exploited by people who seek to undermine and subvert the democratic process. Out of that confusion you have a chance to push your own agenda.”
He added: “It is terrifying because, 50 years ago, public opinion would be formed by elites you could easily identify. You knew who they were: the great universities, high quality MPs, or so on. But through the internet and social media, those traditional opinion-forming elites… have been made obsolete.”
While the bot farm has not been traced back to Qatar, Professor Glees said it would be “perfectly logical for the Qataris to use some of their amazing money to fund a network of experts in Pakistan, Bangladesh or wherever who were churning out the sort of bots that might influence public opinion” to promote their values.
The Qatari Government and Fifa did not respond to a request for comment.