Saudi Arabia was one of the easiest countries in the world to influence from the outside because of the spread of mobile phones and satellite TV. There are 50 million mobiles active on social media in the Kingdom, meaning that every person has an average of two mobiles. This situation was ideal for anyone trying to influence public opinion with little resistance.
The dangers of foreign parties influencing public opinion are not limited to the four countries that are engaged in information warfare with Qatar. It is a global problem exacerbated after American accusations of Russian electronic interference to influence voters in the last presidential election.
So if any foreign power is able to influence public opinion in a country, it can topple its government or influence its decisions. These motives were enough to wage military wars in the past. In the present Gulf crisis, the aim is to restore public opinion that was hijacked by Qatar, Daesh and other parties with hostile agendas.
After it was discovered that the freedom provided to people through technology was being exploited by terrorist groups and hostile governments, regulatory institutions began identifying the sources of information posted on social media.
After the leadership of the information society discovered that the freedoms provided to people by technology were also beneficial to terrorist groups and hostile governments, it retracted. Regulatory institutions in local governments were able to identify sources of information posted on social media.
Accordingly, it was possible to discover the nature of campaigns, whether spontaneous or planned, and identify e-armies or e-committees and the people who interact with them and share their political views. On this basis, activists working for foreign governments were arrested. They were unknown in the past, but not anymore.
But with regard to controlling content, which is still one of the main obstacles, there was a development when the companies dominating the global information market — such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — recently succumbed to demands by the US Congress to cooperate following serious accusations against them.
TV channels, news agencies and e-papers still play a vital role since gradually becoming part of social media, and they are still the most important content providers for it. The latest developments include controlling TV services by moving them to telecommunication, satellite dishes and fiber optics in disciplined states such as the UAE and Qatar, whose governments regained management of their societies to a great extent.
These governments do not just ban services; they also provide alternatives to stop millions of viewers from resorting to proxies to unblock banned services and view banned media outlets — a problem Iran is facing.
A lot of what is available online is the product of e-armies, but the question is: Our e-armies or theirs? And who is more capable of persuasion? Cyberspace was previously managed by a small number of groups whose dominance has faded, especially the electronic accounts of Qatar and its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The war reached its peak in the last six months, when both sides overwhelmed each other with information, photos, and true and fake news. The result was a huge defeat for Qatar, which used to claim that it brought Tunisians and Egyptians out of their homes to protest and topple their regimes in 2011.
This time the result was the opposite. Qatar’s government was hurt by its opponents. Even Qatari opposition tribes launched campaigns against it, and some Qatari individuals for the first time expressed their opinions publicly. The era of free cyberspace, and the phenomenon of foreign interference associated with it, are almost over.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.