Beyond fake news: an investigation into the murky world of fake campaigns
By Fabien Goa, Campaigner on Refugees and Migrants (@FabienGoa) and James Lynch, Deputy Director Global Issues, Amnesty International (@jpmlynch). With investigations by Claudio Guarnieri (@botherder), Tanya O’Carroll (@TanyaOCarroll), and Sabine Gagnier (@s_gagnier).
It was early August this year when we first noticed there was something odd about the messages we were getting from Voiceless Victims.
Their email that day looked ordinary enough:
So far, so normal. There are plenty of rights groups, big and small, which have worked on the issue of migrant workers in Qatar in the context of the World Cup. The fact that we hadn’t previously heard of this organization was not that surprising.
“Amélie” was proposing that Amnesty work with Voiceless Victims, or VLV. She obviously felt passionately about these issues:
“[The Qatari government] for the sake of ostentatiousness tramples each day on the basic rights of hundreds of thousands foreign workers who build, amongst others, the stadiums for the World Cup.”
But when we went to open her “letter to Amnesty International.PDF” and “Draft petition English.PDF” to get an idea of what she was suggesting, Amnesty’s security systems triggered a warning:
The Amnesty system was flagging a warning because the ‘attachments’ in the email were actually just links, redirecting to a website which had been linked to cyberattacks in the past.
Clicking on the links would have caused our machines to visit a very suspicious browser profiling service. This would have provided them with a whole host of information about the web browser we were using, the software running on our machines and our IP address and approximate geographical location. There is no reason a legitimate organisation would need this information. Our tech team suspected it might have been the first step in understanding our machines and network so that further well-crafted phishing attacks could be delivered.
This was alarming. There is a history of organizations that are active on workers’ rights in Qatar having their email accounts hacked by unidentified persons, for the purposes of disinformation.
Was VLV a legitimate group whose servers had been compromised and was being used to send out malicious emails? Or was it simply a fake organization hiding ulterior motives of its creators? VLV had a professional website, a seemingly full team of staff who had an active presence online, and they had run a recognized campaign. It couldn’t be fake, could it? Who would put so much resources into a subterfuge of this scale? And more importantly, why?
Dodgy content: A case of bad taste or something more sinister?
When we checked with colleagues, it turned out that VLV had been in touch with Amnesty over a period of months, starting in late March, when “Amélie” had emailed our Paris office in French, and had spoken to our London Press Office, ahead of the release of Amnesty’s report on abuse of workers employed on the Khalifa Stadium in Doha.
In total, between March and August, she had sent seven emails to five Amnesty staff members — including replying to one holding response she received — and spoken to one. Throughout, she stressed the desire by VLV to work with Amnesty:
“The investigations and articles you published regarding this issue helped us a lot and we know that you are continuing to be involved in this important topic. This is why we would like to cooperate with you in our next move.”
In her emails “Amélie” kept asking Amnesty if we would join VLV in launching a petition targeting Barcelona Football Club, one of the world’s biggest sporting brands. Barcelona’s players wear the logo of Qatar Airways on their shirts.
“Amélie” said that VLV and Amnesty should call on Barcelona to drop Qatar Airways. This wasn’t the strangest idea to suggest. The agreement to put Qatar Airways on the club shirt had been controversial with fans, after all.
It was when we began to look at VLV’s online presence that our suspicions really began to harden.
At an initial glance, the organization might look credible.
It had a professional looking website and an address in Lille, France. It had a staff of five people, some of whom — including “Amélie” and “Luz Bardem” — were active on social media. It had a Facebook page which was well-used, with more than 6, 000 followers. VLV seemed to be working on a range of human rights issues, not just migrant workers in Qatar. Most significantly, it appeared to have been behind the “I support Qatar workers” social media campaign which had been very active on Twitter and Facebook around the launch of Amnesty’s ‘Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game’ report earlier this year.
On 5 April 2016, VLV had issued a press release announcing the launch of their new website and tweeted major media outlets about it.
VLV had also engaged with legitimate NGO campaigns, enthusiastically promoting Amnesty’s report on Qatar and petition targeting FIFA.
But a deeper look at VLV’s online presence began to reveal cracks in the organization’s profile. Take this posting from 3 June, for example:
The absurdly non-specific reference to visiting “Africa”, the stereotyped reference to the experience of African children and the ultimately pointless nature of this posting suggest that its purpose was to serve as evidence that VLV was a real organization that works on a variety of human rights issues.
Another post, from December 2015, invited readers to think about those less fortunate than themselves at Christmas:
Even putting aside the poor taste of the juxtaposed imagery and the gross generalizations about the lives of people “in foreign countries”, the high level of vagueness in this and several other posts suggested to us that VLV was not really engaged in any substantive work to support any “voiceless victims”. On a range of topics, including refugees, child labour and women’s rights, VLV’s content is relentlessly generic.
Contrast this substance-free, easy to produce content with an original slickly produced video on the Qatar World Cup, posted on 10 February, featuring dramatic imagery of a stadium filling with the blood of dead migrant workers, narrated by what sounds like a professional voiceover artist with a British accent. Someone put time, effort and resources into this.
Not all the Qatar content posted by VLV was negative, however. It was also posting apparently positive information about steps by the Government of Qatar to address the situation. Fake information.
This Al Jazeera article, supposedly from May 2016 and accompanied by a feature on the work of Voiceless Victims, never existed (we checked with Al Jazeera) and has been photo-shopped by somebody. The text accompanying this image on the VLV Facebook page includes a genuine number for the Qatar Ministry of Interior.
Dangerous content: building trust with migrant workers
VLV wasn’t just promoting its messages on social media, though. It was seeking engagement and involvement from its audience. Again, it pushed somewhat generic and bizarre online polls on subjects like “To the best of your knowledge, which of the following human rights is most violated?”, and repeatedly called on activists to join its cause and volunteer.
VLV was also attempting to reach out directly to workers and their families, by posting generic (and somewhat condescending) advice for families of migrant workers: “Don’t stop communicating… Accept a helping hand.”
The organization even invited migrant workers, their families and witnesses of abuse to share information with them.
And some people appeared to be responding this call, posting documents on the VLV Facebook page, with specific allegations that — if discovered by their employers — could potentially expose them to retaliation or even to the risk of arrest and deportation.
Voiceless Victims lose their voice
We were now seriously dubious about Voiceless Victims. A look at LinkedIn did not allay our suspicions. The profile of the organization’s “Founder and Director”, a “Luke Hann”, says that he spent seven years as a Director at the Global Justice Center. When we asked the Global Justice Center, which is a human rights organization based in New York, they said they had never heard of him. Meanwhile, we couldn’t find any information about the only other listed employer of “Amélie”, an organization called “Une voix par femme”. The generic descriptions of her responsibilities at her different jobs have been lifted directly from a template on a careers website. Neither of their LinkedIn profiles have any connections.
We did find a real Amélie Lefebvre, working at a law firm in Paris, who we briefly thought could conceivably have some connection to VLV. But she knows nothing of them.
We reached out to other organizations working on the rights of migrant workers to warn them to be careful. In doing so we discovered that we were not the only ones “Amélie” had been in touch with. She had emailed the Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the International Transport Workers’ Federationand Anti-Slavery International, proposing the same campaign focused on FC Barcelona and Qatar Airways. Anti-Slavery had spoken to her on the phone as well and exchanged emails.
At the end of August we emailed “Amélie” back. In September we tried calling her French phone number five times and left a voicemail.
We didn’t hear back. The emails had stopped, and the VLV Facebook page had stopped updating. “Amélie” wasn’t posting on Twitter any more. It seemed that VLV was going offline.
So we paid a visit to the Voiceless Victims ‘headquarters’ in Lille. There was no Voiceless Victims office, name plate or mailbox at the address. No-one there had heard of them: not the concierge, not the postman, and not the teachers’ union which has used the only office in the building for the past six years. There is no record of them at the district office.
In October we put it to “Amélie” and “Luke” in writing that there was no such organization as Voiceless Victims and that the organization, like them, was fake. We did not get a response.
Who is behind Voiceless Victims, and what is their aim?
The emails from “Amélie” and the organization’s web-site only give us a few technical clues as to who could be behind VLV.
Our resident tech experts were able to decipher the techniques being used to try to extract information about our devices and network but this told us little about where the attacks were coming from. What we could conclude however was the Voiceless Victims operation demonstrated a significant level of sophistication and dedication to profiling the international NGO and activist community working on migrant labour issues. It also seemed they were laying the groundwork for a more intrusive attack on our accounts and systems.
Who could be behind it, in that case? The resources put into this subterfuge are relatively significant. We have tracked activity on sites linked to VLV starting in October 2015 and continuing until June 2016. A web-site and multiple social media pages have been updated on a regular basis. VLV has produced videos, operated in two languages, made phone-calls and mapped out the staffing of international organizations.
This points to the probable involvement of a government agency in the creation and operation of VLV, either directly or through the commissioning of a corporate actor to execute this campaign. It is unclear who else would have either the resources or the motivation to initiate and invest in a lengthy project of deception like this.
Which government, then? Qatar itself is one possibility, the focus of much harsh media and public attention over the plight of migrant workers ever since it won the rights to host the 2022 World Cup. While Qatar has generally been open to external scrutiny, allowing rights organizations and media access to the country, the issue of migrant labour is nonetheless treated as a matter of national security and some journalists have been subjected to surveillance and detained. Could information about individuals working on migrant rights and how they access their emails justify an investment of nearly a year in this deception?
We asked the Government. They vigorously deny any involvement:
“After double-checking with all relevant government ministries and entities, we can categorically state that the Government of the State of Qatar has nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of operation of ‘Voiceless Victims’”.
Another possibility, as Qatar seeks to position itself on the international stage, is that one of its rivals — regional or global — is seeking to amplify criticism of it through the infiltration and exploitation of genuine human right campaigns.
There are some regional actors that could potentially have an interest in distributing anti-Qatar material and encouraging new campaigns targeting Qatar’s involvement in international football. Qatar has poor relations with Syria and Egypt, and the former certainly has a track record of using online disruption to further political goals.
One obvious possibility is the UAE, Qatar’s neighbour, which has in recent years been accused of planting anti-Qatar stories in the US media, of funding an opaque Norwegian NGO which sent researchers to investigate migrant labour in Qatar and of providing briefings to UK journalists on an alleged extremists in Qatar.
The UAE has also been accused of using such techniques at home. An investigation by The Citizen Lab earlier this year uncovered a campaign of targeted spyware attacks carried out against journalists, activists and dissidents by a sophisticated operator. Their investigation was triggered by a London journalist receiving an email from a supposed human rights organization that he had not heard of:
“An individual purporting to be from an apparently fictitious organization called “The Right to Fight” contacted Rori Donaghy. Donaghy, a UK-based journalist and founder of the Emirates Center for Human Rights, received a spyware-laden email in November 2015, purporting to offer him a position on a human rights panel.”
The Citizen Lab concluded that circumstantial evidence pointed towards the involvement of the UAE state.
In August this year, UAE human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor — a thorn in the side of the government for his persistent criticism of rights violations — received SMS text messages on his iPhone promising “new secrets” about detainees tortured in UAE jails if he clicked on an included link. He didn’t click.
If he had done, his phone “would have become a digital spy in his pocket, capable of employing his iPhone’s camera and microphone to snoop on activity in the vicinity of the device, recording his WhatsApp and Viber calls, logging messages sent in mobile chat apps, and tracking his movements.” The potential breach of iPhone technology was so significant that Apple upgraded the iPhone operating system to prevent further exploits of this kind.
We asked the UAE government if they had any involvement in Voiceless Victims. At the time of publishing, we haven’t heard from them.
What does all of this mean?
We cannot tell exactly who is behind Voiceless Victims or precisely what their aim may have been. We may never know. But whoever it was, the case highlights a dangerous and disturbing trend.
We know how easy it is for migrant workers in the Gulf to face serious repercussions for speaking with journalists or human rights organisations — companies have a huge degree of control of migrant workers’ lives including the ability to withdraw their legal status and leave them at risk of arrest and deportation. If any workers did send messages to Voiceless Victims in the hope of being helped, what impact could that have for them?
Many human rights and labour activists, in the Gulf and elsewhere, have also probably clicked on links from dubious actors like VLV and never been aware. Not everybody has access to advanced software to detect phishing, and the level of sophistication involved in enticing email recipients to click on links is growing all the time.
The threat to activists, journalists and dissidents in the Gulf region from targeted computer attacks is increasing. They are at risk of having their technology — and their privacy — compromised. In a region where dissent and activism can carry a prison sentence or deportation, that could have dangerous consequences.
Postscript: “The Bad Guys have won”
After months of silence Voiceless Victims suddenly re-emerged in December, responding to emails from journalists from Le Monde and Forbes. “Luke Hann” told Forbes:
“We have tried with our limited resources to achieve public awareness and to expose the harsh human rights violations of foreign workers in Qatar. Unfortunately, since we started this campaign we received various threats. We sincerely hope that your information isn’t coming from the same ones who are trying to bring us down and prevent the truth about foreign workers situation in Qatar to be told”.
In a subsequent message sent separately to both Forbes and Le Monde, “Luke” appeared to try to explain why Voiceless Victims operates in such a clandestine fashion:
“As we have answered to anyone that asked us, we are a group of activists that have embarked in a quest to expose violations of basic human rights of foreign workers. Unfortunately, early in the process we were confronted with all kinds of threats. We have been under attack multiple times, from those that want to make sure no one exposes their wrong doings. Therefore, we have chosen to operate in a way that would permit us to promote what we believe in but also keep all of us safe from harm.”
The email from “Luke” failed to explain a number of things, including:
- Why Voiceless Victims reached out to a number of legitimate NGOs and trade unions, then failed to respond to their emails;
- Why emails from Voiceless Victims contained hidden links to browser profiling services;
- Why the Voiceless Victims web-site gave an apparently false address for its organization;
- Why the LinkedIn profile for “Luke” included verifiably false information about his previous experience;
- Why Voiceless Victims had posted a fake Al Jazeera article on its Facebook page; and
- Why Voiceless Victims had failed to answer several emails and phone-calls from Amnesty International, and had not replied to a letter from Amnesty International which asked for a response to the allegation that Voiceless Victims was a fabricated organization.
In short, the emails from “Luke” have done little to convince us that Voiceless Victims is a legitimate human rights organisation. We wrote to Luke again but he hasn’t responded. He did send one further email to Forbes and Le Monde in which he denied that Voiceless Victims had been “redirecting Amnesty on malicious websites” and called this allegation “an attack”, but he offered no further information to substantiate this.
Meanwhile, on 15 December, Voiceless Victims had made an announcement…
If you know anything about the organization claiming to be “Voiceless Victims” or have any concerns about the issues raised in this story, please contact us at ais-techrights @amnesty.org. To send us information securely visit https://amlea.org/en/. Please note that your internet provider or network administrator can see you visited Amlea.