An army of fake social media accounts on Twitter and the blogging site Medium have been promoting and defending the controversial hosting of a UN climate summit by the United Arab Emirates.
The president of the Cop28 climate talks is Sultan Al Jaber, who is also the chief executive of the state oil giant Adnoc, which has major net zero-busting expansion plans.
Posts from fake accounts claimed: “The UAE’s commitment to being the perfect host for Cop28 is a testament to its leadership in tackling climate change,” and that Al Jaber is “the ally the climate movement needs”. Others retweeted or reposted UAE government tweets or sought to rebut criticism. One account had an AI-generated profile picture, but text labelling the image as fake had not been cropped out.
The fake accounts were revealed in a Twitter thread by Dr Marc Owen Jones, of Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, who is an expert on social media disinformation and the Middle East. He described it as “a large, multilingual astro-turfing effort” involving at least 100 fake accounts and 30,000 tweets.
Jones said analysis of the tweets from a large sample of the fake account network showed the most popular topic for promotion recently was Cop28. Following Jones’s exposure of the network, some accounts were suspended by Twitter but dozens switched their content to new user names.
Jones said: “It is a network of fake accounts trying to promote UAE foreign policy. They’re focusing on promoting, or greenwashing, Cop28 by defending and deflecting criticism of having Cop28 in the UAE.
“These accounts are pretending to be people that they’re not in order to give the illusion of popular grassroots support for a position – it’s called astro-turfing,” he said. “It’s an act of deception, and examples of newspapers quoting them means that they’ve definitely fooled people into thinking that they’re real people.”
A Cop28 spokesperson said: “These [fake accounts] are generated by outside actors unconnected to Cop28 and are clearly designed to discredit Cop28 and the climate process.” The spokesperson said the Cop28 office had flagged the issue with Twitter, asking for immediate action, and directly reported fake accounts using Twitter’s reporting form.
It is not known who is running the network. Jones said: “Attribution is very difficult. But based on past experience, it’s almost certainly some strategic communications company working on behalf of the UAE. That’s Occam’s razor: the most likely explanation.”
Data from Twitter on the number of accounts suspended between 2018 and 2021 for having links to state-backed information operations ranks the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt as the worst offenders in the world after China.
Al Jaber’s presidency of Cop28 has attracted significant criticism, with the French MEP Manon Aubry recently describing it as “like having a tobacco multinational overseeing the internal work of the World Health Organization”. The former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres called his approach “dangerous” in May.
The Guardian revealed on Wednesday that, despite denials, the oil company had been able to see emails to and from the Cop28 office and was consulted on how to respond to an inquiry from the Guardian. Al Jaber’s team has also been accused of Wikipedia “greenwashing”.
In addition to being the head of Adnoc, Al Jaber chairs Masdar, a renewable energy company. He has previously defended his appointment, and told the Guardian in April that his business ties would prove an asset in ensuring the private sector took the necessary action on the climate crisis.
Jones identified the fake accounts using evidence such as batch creation on the same dates, stock or AI-generated profile pictures, generic formatting, language and posting times, and the absence of any other internet presence.
A first tranche of fake accounts was created in August 2021 and a second, larger tranche in February 2022. The accounts support other UAE policy objectives, including Sudan, technology, food and culture. But Jones said the most popular topic recently was Cop28.
One account, @MahmudViyan, was supposedly a human rights supporter in the UAE. It had a profile picture in which the text “this-person-does-not-exist.com” had failed to be cropped out, identifying the image as coming from a website generating AI photos.
Another account, @FadelYael, supposedly a space scientist living in the UAE, had a profile picture also used by a cosmetic dentistry website. After Jones’s Twitter thread about the account, the user name was deleted and the account and all tweets were moved to a new Twitter handle, @MissAhmadlyn.
Four accounts were supposedly those of female environmental workers from the US who were living in the UAE. Jones described their profile pictures as “impossibly sultry”.
After Jones exposed the fake accounts, dozens switched to new user names and the tweets he highlighted were also deleted. “Whoever created this network is very aware that I tweeted this thread because they’ve now engaged in evasive action,” he said.
A number of the fake profiles also posted blogs on Medium, including “Samantha Ali”, who wrote a post in February titled “Sultan Al Jaber: The Ally the Climate Movement Needs for COP28 UAE”, which said “skeptics should stop griping: Al Jaber is precisely the kind of ally the climate movement needs”.
Other fake accounts commented on this fake post. The profile picture of “Samantha Ali” is a stock photo and the same Medium account previously used the name “Joie Cooper”.
On the same day in February, and using the same image, “Asher Siegel” wrote a post titled “Why Climate Activists Should Give Sultan Al Jaber a Chance”. His profile picture is a stock image described as “handsome Syrian man at the train station”.