How a ‘fake news’ controversy in Qatar exposed real Middle East tensions

The government of Qatar claims it has been the victim of cyberattack after inflammatory statements were attributed to the Arab nation’s ruler. But the “fake news” is resonating because it exposed all too real tensions roiling nominal Middle Eastern allies.

The episode began earlier this week after Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s ruling monarch, met with a group of military cadets. The Qatar News Agency (QNA) followed with an unremarkable summary of it. But soon, an altered version of the press article went out over the wire, in which he was quoted making several divisive statements.

The altered story suggested that Tamim had discussed growing tension in the Qatar-U.S. relations under Trump, while voicing support of Hamas and Hezbollah, two regional terrorist groups.

The Qatari government also stated that a government Twitter account had been hacked as well. The hacked account had said Qatar was in the process of withdrawing its ambassadors from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

In the false QNA dispatch, the Emir was quoted as saying “There is no wisdom in harboring hostility towards Iran.”

The Qatari government attributed the altered news summary and tweets to unknown hackers. Qatar has also launched an investigation into the incident.

David Weinberg, an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, said the decision of Saudi and Emirati media outlets to “push the story” after it had been discredited is telling. The Saudis and UAE went even further, however, blocking access to the website of Al-Jazeera, which was running stories debunking the altered stories and tweets. On Thursday Bahrain and Egypt also blocked access to Al-Jazeera. Egypt also banned access to other media sites including Mada Masr, one of Egypt’s few independent media organizations.

“That is indicative of the frustration with Qatar’s irresponsible conduct in recent years,” Weinberg said.

That “irresponsible conduct” Weinberg referred to includes…

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