Phony Protests Against #Qatar Raise the Spectre of Staged Activism in Europe

| July 24, 2018


For years, the spectre of fake protesters paid off by some murky outside force has haunted Europe. Last year, as hundreds of thousands of people spilled into Bucharest’s streets in the largest protests in the Romanian capital since the fall of communism in 1989, pro-government television made the wild accusation that George Soros was paying the protesters—and even their dogs— to be there.


Unlike in the U.S., however, where there have been a number of embarrassing incidents of genuinely staged activism—a public hearing over whether to build a new gas-fired power plant taken over by actors hired to play concerned citizens and recite short speeches provided to them by the company involved, Trump employing people to clap for him when he announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2015—Europe had yet to see a high-profile example of this type of astroturfing.


That all changed this week. Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, was in London for a three-day visit to deepen the extensive trade ties between the two nations, address Parliament and meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May. Saudi and Emirati newspapers highlighted the “barrage of protests” the emir was greeted with, complete with vans emblazoned with anti-Qatar slogans driving around London.


It quickly came out, however, that the protests were staged as part of an elaborate scheme to give the impression that the British public was strongly against the emir’s visit. A casting agency offered extras £20 to “fill space outside Downing Street” while the emir met with May, emphasizing that the casting call was not for a film or TV production, but rather an anti-Qatar event.


Nor did whoever was arranging the protests rely solely on the casting agency’s services. Social media users reported that some demonstrators admitted having been bused-in from Birmingham and paid £50 for a day’s work standing near Parliament holding anti-Qatar signs, while others were Russians who were seemingly unaware of what they were protesting against.


Journalists and Qatari officials quickly suggested that the emirate’s Gulf neighbours were behind the fabricated protests. While no conclusive proof has come out yet, it’s a logical assumption given that analysis indicates that on the same day, Saudi Twitter bots sent thousands of tweets out with the #OpposeQatarVisit hashtag.


The volley of tweets is only the latest development in a bitter quarrel between the Gulf states, which has seen a coalition led by Saudi Arabia blockade Qatar both physically and economically for over a year. While Qatar has proved surprisingly resilient to the blockade and has even taken it as an opportunity to modernise and diversify its economy, the feud has splintered families and upended the lives of Qatari students studying abroad in neighbouring countries. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) condemned this disruption in its recent decision ordering the UAE to immediately reunite Qatari families and allow students to continue their education.


Despite the ICJ’s attempt to diffuse tensions, the rivalry between the Gulf states has become so acute that Saudi Arabia is fast tracking plans to build a 60-kilometer long canal along its border with Qatar, effectively turning the Qatari peninsula into an island. To add insult to injury, the canal zone will also include a Saudi military base and a nuclear waste dump.


Whether or not these increasingly creative efforts to disparage Qatar extended to the ham-fisted attempt to cast a shadow over the emir’s trip to London, the scandal is highly concerning as it suggests that the ‘rent-a-crowd’ phenomenon which has come to plague the United States over the past few years has now spread to Europe. Entire companies have sprung up in the U.S. to serve this apparently lucrative market—such as Crowds on Demand, which promises that it can organize a sham protest within 24 hours and boasts of past achievements such as staging a phony “demonstration of support with diverse crowds” for a foreign leader giving a speech at the UN.


Services such as those offered by Crowds on Demand are generally meticulously planned out and crafted to expertly manipulate public opinion—the clumsy way the anti-Qatar campaign was organised is the exception rather than the rule. Actors are instructed to “be enthusiastic, but not so zealous as to risk arrest”, and come armed with posters and carefully-honed slogans to chant. The pseudo-protesters are locked into ironclad non-disclosure agreements, and often paid under the table so that there’s no record of the relationship.


Part of the insidiousness of these “rent-a-crowd” campaigns is that they give fodder to allegations, no matter how ridiculous or how thoroughly debunked, that other protests are also frauds staffed by paid activists. The Romanians who ruthlessly mocked the baseless assertions last year by tucking money into their pets’ outfits or making placards for their dogs to wear saying “George Soros paid me to be here” will be less firm in their convictions today.


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Category: A Frontpage, Politics, United Arab Emirates

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