The ongoing diplomatic rift involving Qatar continues to grab headlines, but less discussion has focused on the fact that the incident was triggered by an alleged hacking. On May 23rd, the state-run Qatar News Agency (QNA) ran stories including controversial quotes by the country’s leader. Despite Qatar stating that the quotes were fake and put up on the QNA website as the result of a hack, a half dozen regional allies whose alliance with Qatar was already strained used it as a pretext to cut off diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in order to pressure it to change policies. Tensions with Qatar were already high, but it is still significant that the hacking acted as the trigger.
For now there does not seem to be conclusive evidence proving definitively whether or not a hacking really happened, or if it did, who was behind it. QNA has contacted the FBI to help investigate, and initial reports leaking out implicate Russian hackers. Qatari news network Al-Jazeera also reported an attempted hacking shortly after the QNA incident, and experts note that bots on twitter had recently been pushing negative messaging about Qatar. Misinformation has previously led to diplomatic incidents, such as when a fake news story about the Israeli Defense Minister threatening nuclear action against Pakistan led to a real statement by Pakistan’s Defense Minister threatening nuclear retaliation. The War on the Rocks blog points out the current incident also shows that fake news can perhaps be even more dangerous to autocracies than democracies.