Qatar’s election committee has issued a list of guidelines for all candidates in a bid to crack down on devious cyberattacks, just weeks ahead of the much-anticipated vote.
The move aims to raise awareness on the dangers of cyber crimes following a string of online disinformation campaigns by parties attempting to manipulate discourse as the Gulf state gears up for its first legislative vote.
The committee’s guidebook provides insight on early signs of disinformation that could arise and suggests ways to maintain control to ensure a smooth voting process, local Arabic daily Al Raya reported.
The guidelines also urge communication channels for candidates be prepared, including their personal accounts on social media, to prevent any cyberattack or fake news from spreading.
In case of any abrupt incident, the guidebook recommends each candidate has a secure response plan to counter any potential cyberattacks, offering a number of questions to determine to what extent the campaign is or isn’t prepared to handle such an assault.
The committee also stressed that all members onboard technical teams for candidates should be trustworthy and well-qualified to manage online campaigns with a clear and well-defined non-disclosure and confidentiality agreement.
Terms and conditions related to avoiding competition should also be followed, it added.
A dive into latest cyber-attacks
A recent Doha News investigation found how hashtags that trended in Qatar in recent months have involved thousands of dubious accounts and suspected bots designed to disseminate and amplify information critical of the Gulf state.
The data, which examines nearly 100,000 tweets, identified several highly active users that produced thousands of tweets featuring specific hashtags in an unusual period of time, all of which attempt to promote alleged public dissatisfaction towards Qatar’s government.
Among the most recent of hashtags is “#Qatar_Revolts” which attempts to exaggerate a small-scale demonstration launched by a tribe protesting against the “exclusion” of Qataris that have been deemed ineligible to vote, as per current law.
However, such attacks are not new.
Qatar has been debunking sinister manipulation campaigns targeting the country online, which have increased since the blockade of June 2017. This is especially true on Twitter, which remains relatively easy to manipulate.
An analysis of around 18,000 tweets involving 8,500 Twitter accounts on the hashtag “Qatar’s Elections for the Shura Council” revealed that significant manipulation had taken place, Marc Owen Jones, Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies and Digital Analytics Expert, wrote for Doha News.
The sample, which included tweets in a span of 7 days, showed that the most influential accounts on the hashtags were either unattributed accounts representing opposition, or those ostensibly based in the UAE.
These sock puppet accounts can be identified usually by the fact they all tweet using the same Twitter application. Usually, it is more common for accounts in the region engaged in manipulation to tweet from a web browser, rather than from the Android or iOS application.
Attempts to manipulate trends around the Shura elections predate the most recent trends.
On 2 August “boycott Qatar’s shura elections” was trending. However, the trend was created mostly by spambots, accounts based in the UAE, and in one case, a pro-normalisation account that has previously spread disinformation about Qatar. In this case, the account was claiming that women could not vote in the Shura Council elections.
“As a small country, Qatar’s Twitter lacks complete control over its Twitter sovereignty. In other words, it is easy for countries to manipulate trends and to dominate the online narratives,” Owens writes.
“As this case shows, fake accounts that formerly belonged to real people can be used to promote accounts that have a particular narrative. These fake accounts can contribute to those accounts being the most influential on certain trends,” he added.
All you need to know about the elections
To be eligible for nomination, candidates must be originally Qatari and aged 30 and above by the closing date of the nomination. They must also be fluent in reading and writing in Arabic.
If the first requirements were met, nominees then need to be registered in their electoral district and must then continue to maintain good reputation and conduct while keeping their criminal record clean.
Those who hold ministerial and military positions – state, judicial bodies, ministers of state, Central Municipal Council – cannot nominate themselves.
Candidates working at ministries or other government entities whose names are included in the final lists of candidates are given unpaid leave throughout the elections if they do not have a sufficient leave balance.
Meanwhile, all registered voters across all electoral districts will be called to cast their votes for the much awaited elections on 2 October, authorities revealed.
The elected Shura Council will then have legislative authority and will be able to approve general state policies and their budgets. It will also exercise control over the executive, except for bodies defining defence, security, economic, and investment policy.
Qatari citizens will be able to vote for a total of 30 members out of the 45 in a general ballot, with Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani selecting the remaining 15.
How will the drafting process work with the government?
All members of the Council have the right to propose legislative bills, and all proposal must be referred to a relevant committee to be analysed.
This committee will then submit any and all recommendations to the Council which will decide on whether it agrees with the amendments. This will then be submitted as a draft to the government which will study the text and provide an opinion before returning the feedback to the Council.
The Shura Council has the right to forward proposals relative to public matters to the government. However, if the government is unable to comply with such aspirations, it must give its reasons to the Council.
The law states a Council member shall not be reprimanded for opinions and statements expressed before the rest of the members and the committees, while maintaining objective interests for the country without exploiting their position.