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Tentacles of Emirates plot attempt to ensnare Wikipedia

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By HaeB and Andreas Kolbe

Agency's leaked emails provide rare glimpse into use of Wikipedia in a "smear campaign" financed by the ruler of the United Arab Emirates

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Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed

An investigative article in The New Yorker, titled "The Dirty Secrets of a Smear Campaign", describes how "Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, paid a Swiss private intelligence firm millions of dollars to taint perceived enemies". Most of the lengthy article (whose audio version runs 1 hour and 13 minutes) isn't about Wikipedia, but there are several paragraphs about how the firm ("Alp Services", founded by an investigator named Mario Brero) used it for their purposes alongside many other interesting tools (such as illegitimately obtaining phone call records or tax records of their targets, and planting stories in various news outlets).

The first part is about an American oil trader named Hazim Nada, founder of a company called Lord Energy:

On January 5, 2018, Sylvain Besson, a journalist who had written a book purporting to tie [Hazim Nada's father] Youssef Nada to a supposed Islamist conspiracy, published an article, in the Geneva newspaper Le Temps, claiming that Lord Energy was a cover for a Muslim Brotherhood cell. “The children of the historical leaders of the organization have recycled themselves in oil and gas,” Besson wrote. A new item in Africa Intelligence hinted darkly that Lord Energy employees had “been active in the political-religious sphere.” Headlines sprang up on Web sites, such as Medium, that had little editorial oversight: “Lord Energy: The Mysterious Company Linking Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood”; “Compliance: Muslim Brotherhood Trading Company Lord Energy Linked to Crédit Suisse.” A Wikipedia entry for Lord Energy [probably fr:Lord Energy, created by a single-purpose account (SPA) in June 2018] suddenly included descriptions of alleged ties to terrorism.

This outside view from the victim's perspective is later matched to what the reporter learned from leaked/hacked internal emails of "Alp Services":

In February, 2018, [Brero] asked for more money to expand his operation against Nada, and proposed “to alert compliance databases and watchdogs, which are used by banks and multinationals, for example about Lord Energy’s real activities and links to terrorism.” His “objective,” he explained, was to block the company’s “bank accounts and business.” [...]

Alp quickly put the Emiratis’ money to work. An Alp employee named Raihane Hassaine e-mailed drafts of damning Wikipedia entries. On an invoice dated May 31, 2018, the company paid Nina May, a freelance writer in London, six hundred and twenty-five pounds for five online articles, published under pseudonyms and based on notes supplied by Alp, that attacked Lord Energy for links to terrorism and extremism. (Hassaine did not respond to requests for comment. May told me that she had worked for Alp in the past but had signed a nondisclosure agreement.)

And:

Alp operatives bragged to the Emiratis that they had successfully thwarted Nada’s efforts to correct the disparaging Lord Energy entry on Wikipedia. “We requested the assistance of friendly moderators who countered the repeated attacks,” Brero wrote in an “urgent update” to the Emiratis in June, 2018. “The objective remains to paralyze the company.” To pressure others to shun Lord Energy, Alp added dubious allegations about the company to the Wikipedia entries for Credit Suisse [presumably corresponding to this July 2019 edit by a SPA, subsequently removed in January 2021] and for an Algerian oil monopoly [possibly Sonatrach, referring to these edits - which were removed on English Wikipedia after the publication of the New Yorker article].

And regarding another target:

Brero’s campaign sometimes involved secret retaliation. In a 2018 report, a U.N. panel of human-rights experts concluded that the U.A.E. may have committed war crimes in its military intervention in Yemen. The Emiratis commissioned Brero to investigate the panel’s members, especially its chairman, Kamel Jendoubi, a widely admired French Tunisian human-rights advocate. [...] “Today, in both Google French and Google English, the reputation of Kamel Jendoubi is excellent,” Brero noted in a November, 2018, pitch to the Emiratis. “On both first pages, there is not a single critical article.” Within six months, Brero promised, Jendoubi’s image could be “reshaped” with “negative elements.” The cost: a hundred and fifty thousand euros.

Rumors spread through Arab news outlets and European Web publications that Jendoubi was a tool of Qatar, a failed businessman, and tied to extremists. A French-language article posted on Medium suggested that he might be “an opportunist disguised as a human-rights hero.” An article in English asked, “Is UN-expert Kamel Jendoubi too close to Qatar?” Alp created or altered Wikipedia entries about Jendoubi, in various languages, by citing claims from unreliable, reactionary, or pro-government news outlets in Egypt and Tunisia.
Jendoubi told me that he’d been perplexed by the flurry of slander that followed the war-crimes report. “Wikipedia is a monster!” he told me. He had managed to clean up the French entry, but the English-language page still stymied him. He said, “You speak English—can you help?”

On fr:Kamel Jendoubi, a "Controverses" section was added by a SPA in January 2019, and expanded by another SPA in August 2019. Most of it was deleted in April/May 2021, by an account with only one earlier edit, and then by an experienced editor. Around the same time, the English Wikipedia's article Kamel Jendoubi likewise saw an attempt by an IP editor to remove similar information, which was reverted as "Likely censorship of content"; although a July 2022 edit that provided a more detailed rationale for a more limited removal was successful.

The New Yorker article was published in April. Its findings were put into a much wider context earlier this month when various European news media collaborating in the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) network reported on the results of an investigation dubbed "Abu Dhabi Secrets", revealing that

[...] Alp Services has been contracted by the UAE government to spy on citizens of 18 countries in Europe and beyond. Alp Services has sent to the UAE intelligence services the names of more than 1000 individuals and 400 organizations in 18 European countries, labelling them as part of the Muslim Brotherhood network in Europe.

This investigation was based on a stash of "78,000 confidential documents obtained by the French online newspaper Mediapart", according to Middle East Eye, which summarized the modus operandi of the campaign as follows:

Alp Services - and Brero - were paid tens of thousands of euros per individual targeted, according to Le Soir. The Swiss group then produced reports on the identified individuals.

[...]
Once the information was sent over to Emirati intelligence services, agents were able to target the individuals further through press campaigns, forums published about them, the creation of fake profiles and the modification of Wikipedia pages.

Many or most of the news reports emanating from the collective EIC investigation don't seem to have focused on the Wikipedia angle. Still, the Spanish publication Infolibre reveals some further details, quoting from messages where Alp's paid Wikipedia editors report about their efforts to their Emirati clients, in particular edits (presumably including these) on the English and Spanish Wikipedia to connect Mohammed Zouaydi (known as the "Al Qaeda's financier") to the Muslim Brotherhood. On the Spanish Wikipedia, they claim to have entered "an intense battle with pro-Muslim Brotherhood elements who wanted to censor information about the Brotherhood and its links to Al Qaeda" (translated back from Spanish).

At the French Wikipedia's "Projet Antipub", editors are currently looking into various other articles and accounts that may be connected to the campaign. – H

Ruwiki

The Telegraph reports (non-paywalled) on the founding of Ruwiki (see previous Signpost coverage):

Wikipedia's top editor in Russia has quit the online encyclopaedia to launch a rival service sympathetic to Vladimir Putin.

Vladimir Medeyko, the long-serving leader of Wikipedia editors in the country, has copied the website's existing 1.9 million Russian articles into a new Kremlin-approved version.

The creation of the new service, called Ruwiki, was announced by a State Duma deputy from Putin's political party.

It comes as the Russian leader steps up efforts to censor coverage of the war in Ukraine, amid growing signs of discontent at home. [...]

According to The Telegraph, Ruwiki lacks specific content compared to the Wikipedia version:

The Ruwiki entry for Ukraine makes no mention of Russia's invasion or the international support for Kyiv's resistance.

The service has also chosen not to replicate articles on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s attempted coup against Putin.

In related news, on July 5 between around 2 am and 4 am Moscow time, access to Wikipedia and other "Western internet services" including Google was temporarily disrupted as Russian authorities tested the country's "Sovereign Internet system", as reported in a Twitter thread by Access Now staff member Natalia Krapiva. – AK, H

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Also, the wiki-link to "Stephen Harrison" at the bottom of the article actually leads to a disambiguation page... Oltrepier (talk) 09:32, 17 July 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Usually, the publication script removes the draft templates automatically when it's run. I am not sure why it would have failed here. This is the automatic preparation edit (it does look like the draft template got removed in this oldid, but I don't know, maybe it was still being messed up). The "short WP:LEAD-like introduction" thing is just my own stupidity, though. jp×g 18:39, 17 July 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]
On a side note, thank you for covering the latest news about Ruwiki! As I mentioned here, it also seems like volunteers currently are not allowed to create or even edit content on that platform, as Medeyko is going to hire "professional editors", anyway... Oltrepier (talk) 09:39, 17 July 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Thanks, yes, unfortunately a lot of the reports are paywalled (the sentence Many or most of the news reports emanating from the collective EIC investigation don't seem to have focused on the Wikipedia angle was hedging on this because while I did click on lots of them and checked that neither the headline nor the teaser before the paywall mentioned Wikipedia, I'm not going to buy a yearly subscription solely to check that for the rest of the article too).
On (also scroll down to a second, separate section about Alp Services there) folks have found a bit more, including [1] and [2] which apparently mentions edits to Robert Eringer.
Regards, HaeB (talk) 13:53, 17 July 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]





       

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