Researchers call them the “American blondes” -– bright-eyed environmentalists tweeting passionately in support of the UAE and its handling of the forthcoming COP28 climate summit. The only problem? They are not real.
Ben, Brianna, Emma, Caitlin and Chloe exude a refreshing optimism about the role of the Gulf state and its COP28 chief, oil executive Sultan Al Jaber, in promoting climate action.
Their sultry profile shots look like drawings from a fantasy novel — apparently concocted using an AI-powered picture generator. Their names, locations and environmental credentials do not appear together elsewhere online.
Analysts consulted by AFP identified these and dozens of other Twitter accounts as being involved in coordinated activity, labelling the tactic as a form of “astroturfing” — a false grassroots campaign to influence public opinion.
The “blonde” accounts, for example, were created within hours of each other in August 2022, according to a digital analysis by Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD), a coalition of non-government groups.
It said the accounts posted clusters of similar messages nearly simultaneously, including retweets of posts from the United Arab Emirates embassy in Washington.
Summit organisers did not respond to AFP requests for comment. The Guardian newspaper cited an unnamed spokesman as saying the fake accounts were “generated by outside actors unconnected to COP28 and are clearly designed to discredit COP28 and the climate process.”
US and EU lawmakers as well as campaigners have called for Jaber to step down. They say his position as head of the state-owned oil company ADNOC means a conflict of interest for someone chairing discussions about ending planet-warming carbon emissions.
Jaber has the support of COP parties including US climate envoy John Kerry. He has called for rapid development of renewable energy and acknowledged last week that “the phase-down of fossil fuels is inevitable.”
*- ‘Greenwashing’ -*
The Twitter campaign sought to portray Jaber as committed and capable of fixing the climate crisis.
When Romain Ioualalen, a campaigner from Oil Change International, tweeted about the risk that COP28 hosted by the Emirates “slows down the transition away from fossil fuels”, he received several responses from some of the accounts identified as fakes by researchers.
Dubai-based “lawyer” Caitlin hailed Jaber’s leadership at COP28 as a “game-changer” while “ecologist” Emma praised his “passion for climate action”.
When the Centre for Climate Reporting (CCR) said last month that Jaber’s team was “greenwashing” Wikipedia by editing pages to play down his role as the head of ADNOC, it drew a similar response from 15 pro-UAE accounts.
They all claimed to be young non-Emiratis with an interest in climate change and human rights and many voiced support for Jaber, CCR’s director Lawrence Carter told AFP.
One account flagged by researchers was identifiable as fake from the profile picture: it bore a watermark with the address of an online face-generator. Reverse-image searches revealed photos on other accounts were taken from stock-image sites.
Diogo Pacheco, a computer scientist at the University of Exeter, told AFP after examining a number of the accounts that they looked “inauthentic,” noting that some had changed their screen names or biographies after being flagged.
“It would be very unusual for authentic users to create and use these kinds of fake profile pictures or stock photos,” said Katharina Kleinen von Koenigsloew, a professor of communication science at Hamburg University.
CAAD detailed a “coordinated effort” involving at least 28 accounts promoting the Gulf nation with “suspicious patterns” of tweeting.
*- ‘Extensive disinformation’ -*
Digital disinformation analyst Marc Owen Jones shared with AFP a list of 93 accounts he identified as involved in the “astroturfing” effort, some created over two years ago.
They largely focused on boosting the UAE’s COP28 account while amplifying other official accounts and tagging several of its foreign embassies, he said.
“Usually in these operations it’s a PR company” pushing the messages, said Jones, from Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, a rival nation to the UAE.
“But getting a smoking gun is really hard,” he said.
Before last year’s takeover of Twitter by billionaire Elon Musk, the platform announced it had removed accounts linked to “state-backed information operations” in Middle East countries including the UAE.
Referring to the COP28-related accounts, Jamie Henn, director of the campaign group Fossil Free Media, told AFP that in over a decade following UN climate talks he had “never seen such an extensive disinformation campaign”.