At least 19 fake experts with fake personas have placed more than 90 opinion pieces in 46 publications since July 2019, praising the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and defaming Qatar, Turkey and Iran, according to an investigative report on U.S.-based news website Daily Beast on Tuesday.
One of the fake experts of this network is Raphael Badani, the report said, who as a Newsmax "Insider" columnist has promoted Dubai as an oasis of stability in a turbulent region in a wide range of publications, including the Washington Examiner, Real Clear Markets, American Thinker and the National Interest.
Badani described himself as a "geopolitical risk consultant and interactive simulation designer" and an "international relations senior analyst" for the Department of Labor but in fact, he does not exist.
"His profile photos are stolen from the blog of an unwitting San Diego startup founder. His LinkedIn profile, which described him as a graduate of George Washington and Georgetown (universities), is equally fictitious," said the report penned by journalist Adam Rawnsley.
Immediately upon the publication of the report, "Right-Wing Media Outlets Duped by a Middle East Propaganda Campaign," the Washington Examiner removed its article written by "Badani," leaving only an editor's note: "This op-ed has been removed after an investigation into its provenance and authorship."
On Monday, Twitter suspended Badani's account along with 15 others.
The report found that the Jerusalem Post, Arab News, Al-Arabiya, South China Morning Post, Jewish News Service, Middle East Online, Asia Times, The Post Millennial and many other publications have also used these fake experts in their news coverage.
The personas in the network used a mixture of stolen or AI-generated avatars and fake biographies to make them seem more plausible, according to the investigation.
Marc Owen Jones, a professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, was the first to notice those suspicious accounts. Jones conducts research on various topics, including the role of Twitter Bots and strategies of informational control used by state and non-state actors.
"This vast influence operation highlights the ease with which malicious actors can exploit the identity of real people, dupe international news outlets, and have propaganda of unknown provenance legitimized through reputable media," he told Daily Beast.
"It's not just fake news we need to be wary of, but fake journalists," he added.
On his Twitter account, Jones detailed how he traced the fake news campaign.
The report claimed that one of the common motivators of these fake platforms and experts is slamming the role of Turkey and Qatar in the region.
Both countries have consistently supported the democratic movements in the Middle East and denounced military coups in the new political landscape shaped by the Arab Spring and Syrian war at a time when the crown princes of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as the president of Egypt, who came to power through a deadly military coup, have cultivated good relations with Israel and other Western actors at the expense of the interests of Muslims in the region.
"At Persia Now, The Arab Eye and across dozens of other publications, the fake contributors have adopted similar themes in their opinion pieces," it said.
"They're critical of Qatar and, in particular, its state-funded news outlet Al-Jazeera. They're not big fans of Turkey's role backing one of the factions in Libya's civil war and have called it 'bad news,' aimed at 'constricting the flow of vital energy resources' to Europe, and 'driving a wedge between' and 'dividing NATO,'" it added.
The same fakesters have also targeted Tavakkol Karman, a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Yemen, who was recently appointed to the Oversight Board of Facebook.
Ever since the Facebook nod, she has been unjustly defamed by private and state-run media outlets in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, which gives an idea on the actors behind the fake network.