Behind every fake female bot account on social media is probably a man seeking to catfish another man.

An army of Twitter sockpuppet accounts with pretty profile pictures, often of females, are helping to drive propaganda messages across the Middle East, according to Dr Marc Owen Jones, who focuses on information strategies by regional states.

Speaking to TRT World, Jones believes that the use of female sockpuppet accounts is designed to "attract men," and more importantly, aimed at having a "disarming effect" on online users.

"It's possible that young people are more likely to trust and engage an attractive young woman," adds Jones, an Assistant Professor at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar.

The impact of such accounts cannot be underestimated in a region that is obsessed with social media.

While social media use varies from country to country in the Middle East, a snapshot into usage can give an idea of how important the space has become for regional governments keen to shape the views of their citizens.

By and large social media usage across the Middle East is a predominantly male-dominated sphere. With high levels of unemployment, men are a key demographic that states are seeking to influence.

More than 87 percent of the population in Libya has a Facebook account; in Egypt, almost 46 percent; Tunisia 68 percent and Saudi Arabia 73 percent.

While Twitter penetration has fallen significantly across the Middle East since 2013, a turning point in the evolution of the so-called Arab Spring, it is still a place where more than 55 percent of Saudis, 52 percent of Emiratis, 30 percent of Qataris still have an account.

In places like Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia, there have been sharp declines in Twitter activity from less than a decade ago as people have grown weary of the platform or governments have clamped down on outspoken critics.

Last year Twitter announced that it had taken down more than 2,541 accounts called the "El Fagr network," which was being run out of Egypt.

The clampdown on sock puppets accounts was part of what it called "state-backed information operations" in the Middle East, which were run from multiple locations.

The networks Jones has been looking at have a clear "clear anti-Erdogan, anti-Muslim Brotherhood, and pro-authoritarian agenda."

The modus operandi of many of these accounts follows several simple steps. In between mundane content about nature or other touristy content, the fake accounts will disseminate key content against the enemies of their respective state and in favour of the ruling elite.

The messaging says Jones, has a clear anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim Brotherhood line. Many of the fake accounts single out the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and seek to "revel" in the country's economic misfortunes. 

"These accounts muddy the waters of legitimate debate, amplify alternative viewpoints that may not have any organic traction, and allow specific actors to insert their desired policy outcomes in the public domain - but in a manner that is deceptive and misleading," says Jones.

So which regional country is most likely behind such propaganda networks? While it's difficult to be conclusive owing to the nature of the fake account Jones says that "Overall the network seems very aligned with UAE foreign policy. The accounts, despite being from across the Arab world, praise the UAE frequently.”

Towards the end of last year, the Turkish president and the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed met in Ankara in a bid to improve relations between the two countries. That meeting between the leaders also led to a decrease in social media attacks towards Ankara, says Jones.

In their book on "Computational Propaganda: Political Parties, Politicians, and Political Manipulation on Social Media," the authors argued that social media spaces have become "vessels for control" in many countries.

"In some countries, this problem is exacerbated because companies such as Facebook have effectively become monopoly platforms for public life," the authors argued.

While in democratic societies, social media misinformation is a "computational propaganda either through broad efforts at opinion manipulation or targeted experiments on particular segments of the public," in less free societies like in the Middle East, "social media platforms are a primary means of social control."

The distinction might be academic, but the strategies allude to the varying levels of brittleness and paranoia experienced in the latter approach.

As bots evolve and Artificial Intelligence programmes improve, the ability of "accounts to fool humans will increase," says Jones. Measuring the impact these accounts have, however, is a tricky business.

"We can examine who they interact with, levels of engagement, but these are only superficial indications of influence," says Jones adding that, "we don't know the impact they have in closed spaces such as WhatsApp, nor do we know how much they impact casual viewers and readers."

"It's only a matter of time before the level of sophistication will be able to create truly fake profiles," he adds.

Source: TRT World