Shayan Sardarizadeh: There's also an information war going on, and both sides want to win it by sharing whatever is confirming their own narrative.
Brooke Gladstone: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week a guide to sifting fact from fiction about the Israel-Hamas conflict like how to spot fake posts.
Mike Caulfield: Very often it's just typed out with no link, no article name. Just below it, it might say, BBC World, or something like that, but not a link to the source.
Brooke Gladstone: Also, on the show a month ago, Israel and Saudi Arabia were in talks to "normalize their relations." Then the war began
Justin Scheck: The idea of Saudi Arabia recognizing Israel has gone from unimaginable to about to happen to unimaginable again.
Brooke Gladstone: Kingdom's role in the current Middle East crisis and more. It's all coming up after this.
Micah Loewinger: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Many researchers have noted, I'll just summarize, that the maelstrom of mis and disinformation circling the sliver of land comprising Israel and Gaza is the most started case of garbage-in, garbage-out since the invention of social media. Why wouldn't it be? Those platforms grow ever larger and faster. Technological tools ever more capable of convincingly faking evidence. What's more, the major political players in the conflict are not just lied about, they lie too.
Micah Loewinger: Of course, it's not just social media. Plenty of legacy news outlets also rush to judgment on too little information. That said, this week we respond to listeners who've told us they're waiting for another OTM Breaking News Consumers Handbook. Actually, we've made a couple dozen of them. They're really just a single printable page of red flags and warning signs, guides to what to expect and what to watch out for in the coverage of a particular breaking story. For instance, we have one for mass shootings, one for pandemics, for plane crashes, and coups, just to name a few. We make them whenever the longing for information outpaces the availability of actual facts, and they all live on our website, onthemedia.org.
Brooke Gladstone: Now our Breaking News Consumers Handbook: Israel and Gaza Edition. We begin with number one, the hardy perennial of breaking news advice. When perusing headlines about a war, don't swallow without chewing.
Joe Kahn: The early versions of our coverage, the headline, and the news alert ended up attributing our description of what happened at the hospital to a Hamas government official. The information that that government official passed along turned out to be inaccurate.
Brooke Gladstone: That's New York Times Executive Editor Joe Kahn, representing one of many major news outlets who failed to contextualize an unreliable source offering comment within minutes of an explosion at Gaza's Al-Ahli Hospital.
Joe Kahn: That early version with the benefit of hindsight was not as good or as accurate or verified as it could have been.
Brooke Gladstone: Conflicting video evidence is still being parsed. The prime evidence, fragments of the munitions responsible cannot be examined because says, a senior Hamas official, "The missile has dissolved like salt in the water." Something that bomb and shell fragments definitely are not known to do. On to point number two, be aware of the biggest spreaders of bad information about this conflict. That's not so hard. We know who they are.
Mike Caulfield: Seven accounts. For those top seven accounts, we saw over that three-day period, they accumulated 1.6 billion views across a total of 1,834 tweets.
Brooke Gladstone: Mike Caulfield is a research scientist leading the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public. His team analyzed the accounts on X that were getting the most views in the first three days after October 7th. Then they looked at popular news sources like BBC World, CNN Breaking News and found that--
Mike Caulfield: Over the first three days of this crisis, we found that the seven accounts had 1.6 billion views. The highly-subscribed traditional news accounts had 112 million views.
Brooke Gladstone: Note that these non-traditional accounts usually don't link to the source of their information. If they do have a citation--
Mike Caulfield: Very often, it's just typed out with no link, no article name. Just below it, it might say, BBC World, or something like that, but not a link to the source.
Brooke Gladstone: Another common characteristic, most of these sites post a lot.
Mike Caulfield: Hundreds of times a day. Very quick granular posts. Text posts very often with a image or with a video is decontextualized media, decontextualized rumor, and just coming to people in the stream.
Brooke Gladstone: Most of these sites are very emotionally charged.
Mike Caulfield: It's high intensity one way or another, either the newness or the nature of what you're watching, which might be about violence. It might have a culture war angle. The thing that we found was the experience of going through it is very disorienting because you're just seeing intense video and hearing intense rumor one after another, and you're never getting to any deeper treatment of that.
Brooke Gladstone: They use the language of journalists posting breaking news.
Mike Caulfield: You might get a police siren or all-caps BREAKING, that sort of thing.
Brooke Gladstone: These accounts are not affiliated with any news outlets, which is partly what endears them to X's owner Elon Musk, who has actively promoted some of them.
Mike Caulfield: One of the top accounts has been repeatedly promoted by Musk as an example of what he calls citizen journalism he wants to see.
Brooke Gladstone: One of those seven accounts is @WarMonitors known for misinformation and antisemitism, including using the word Jew as a slur as in, "Mind your own business, Jew." The other, @sentdefender, is notorious for fake news and has been called by a researcher at the Atlantic Defense Digital Forensics Research Lab, "Absolutely poisonous account." That's two of the big seven massively trafficking NBS.
You can find them all at U. Washington's Center for an Informed Public. Meanwhile, many of the worst sites love to pass themselves off as real open-source researchers, when in fact they're merely grabbing stuff from platforms like Telegram. More on that later. Real open-source intelligence or OSINT researchers stay up nights tracking images back to the source, scrutinizing landmarks and the angle of the light. Aric Toler is one of those, a reporter at the Visual Investigations team at The New York Times. He says that in this conflict, he's seeing a lot of the bad stuff he's seen before.
Aric Toler: The classic things you see in every conflict. You find old misattributed videos, something from Syria or Afghanistan, or Yemen, they repackage. Or from Palestine that is just old that they repackage and reshare. That's par for the course. This happens in every conflict.
Brooke Gladstone: But he's noticed one change in recent conflicts like the Russia-Ukraine war, Twitter is no longer a driver of new information. It's just another aggregator.
Aric Toler: Similar to what Facebook and Reddit and some other platforms became from other conflicts.
Brooke Gladstone: Which brings us to our third point, know your platforms. You want to be where the action is? In this conflict, it's not Twitter or X. It's Instagram.
Aric Toler: Instagram is used more heavily in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and so on than some other platforms, but Telegram has been really important.
Brooke Gladstone: Telegram is a messaging app that also has channels. Anyone can create a channel and broadcast messages to whoever subscribes. It has other advantages in a war zone.
Aric Toler: It doesn't take a lot of bandwidth. It doesn't take nearly as much battery as some other platforms, especially where the power situation is so precarious in the Gaza Strip. It's lightweight. It's easy to use. You don't have to have the newest iPhone 15 or whatever to use it.
Brooke Gladstone: At least in the first couple of weeks of this particular conflict, Telegram was almost entirely unregulated. That's where Hamas was posting because it was banned from the major platforms.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Telegrams may not be that popular in some parts of the West, but in some other parts of Europe and some parts of Asia, it's really, really popular. It has like half a billion users.
Brooke Gladstone: Shayan Sardarizadeh is a journalist at BBC Monitoring and BBC Verify.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Hamas usually shares their content on Telegram. Then those videos, those images then are reposted onto other major platforms like TikTok, Twitter, Facebook.
Brooke Gladstone: Earlier this week, the app started restricting access to several Hamas-run channels, but by then some of the accounts had grown to hundreds of thousands of followers. Hamas' social media, like the other parties involved in this conflict right now, is currently in very high gear. Sardarizadeh works day in, day out to verify or debunk the information shared on all these platforms. He says he sorts mis and disinformation into three big buckets.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: One is the obvious one, which is everyone knows in the 21st Century, wars are for both online and offline. It's not just the artillery shells and airstrikes. There's also an information war going on and both sides want to win it by sharing whatever is confirming their own narratives.
Brooke Gladstone: The first bucket has the stuff generated by those actively engaged in the information war. The second bucket of bad info is filled by what he calls engagement farmers.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Hundreds of millions of people are going online to find out what is happening on a daily basis. This is a great opportunity for you to just share anything that is shocking, enraging, outrageous, regardless of whether it's true or not, as long as it gets you engagement, not only do you raise your profile, but also in some cases you can make money.
Brooke Gladstone: What is the third bucket?
Shayan Sardarizadeh: The third pocket is what I would call proper disinformation. People who are exploiting this conflict in order to share their political narratives. I'll give you an example. In the first week of the conflict, we had a video go viral online, which appeared to be a BBC news video. It was a completely fake video, and it claimed that the BBC was reporting that the weapons that Hamas used in order to attack Israel on the 7th of October had come from Ukraine. There's no evidence for it, but then you have to wonder why someone would go through that much effort to try and tie the Ukrainian government or the conflict in Ukraine to what's going in the Middle East right now.
Brooke Gladstone: Then what do you come up with? Russia?
Shayan Sardarizadeh: I don't have evidence for who might have produced it. All I can say is the day after that video went viral, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev made the exact same claim on one of his social media accounts. Again, somebody clearly is benefiting politically from spreading the idea that Hamas is using weapons given to Ukraine by Western governments.
Brooke Gladstone: We've spoken with a researcher from the University of Washington about a few key Twitter X accounts that have been very influential, also very unreliable in spreading information about the conflict, which points to the degradation of X as a source for breaking news.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: That's a good point because X is the platform where most journalists talk, but people forget that the size of users that X has is not in any way comparable to say Facebook, or Instagram, or TikTok, or YouTube. Now in the case of TikTok, the number of false or misleading videos that I've seen go viral is mind-boggling. I'm not talking about videos that have 2,000 views, 3,000 views. I don't care about that. I'm talking about videos that have 5 million views, 10 million views, 20 million views, and you look at the video and you find out it's not even from the Syrian war or the Israel-Hamas war in 2021, at least it's video game footage.
One really egregious example of it that I saw was a few days ago, somebody was pretending to be a live streamer who was a freelance reporter on the ground in Israel reporting the latest incidents that are happening live streaming it. 3 million people were watching it. I checked the video that was being live-streamed, allegedly from the ground in Israel. It was a military exercise that you could find on YouTube from 2017.
Brooke Gladstone: Sardarizadeh scales mountains of deception, but he says that one kind of story frequently called a lie isn't a lie. His research has found that when someone claims that images of victims or casualties of war are faked or staged by crisis actors, that's almost always a lie. Mark that as point four in our breaking news consumers handbook.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: One example is there was in the first week of the conflict, there was a video of a child in a hospital wrapped in a shroud. The child was dead and somebody who seemed to be a relative was hugging that child in distress and that video went viral and it was shared by official accounts linked to the Israeli government claiming that child was a doll. We went and checked it. It turned out that was a real child that had died and had gone through rigor mortis. They had been in the hospital morgue for hours and hours and hours.
Another example that I saw two days ago, viral on Instagram was heavily edited footage of two or three separate videos. They were Israeli teenagers crying recounting the story of how their parents were killed during the Hamas attack in one of the kibbutz in Israel. This got millions of views both on Instagram and on X. It claimed that these teenagers were crisis actors, they had been hired. It claimed that you could clearly see in one of the videos that one of the teenagers starts laughing because the director gives them something or they're embarrassed by their acting. I went back and checked that the videos that have been put together and deceptively edited were from genuine interviews by CNN and ABC News with these three teenagers. There are Israeli-Americans, by the way, and they genuinely reside in the kibbutz in Southern Israel, and their parents were actually both killed, shot dead on that day.
Brooke Gladstone: You've been posting social media threads with tips and tricks for verifying information about the conflict. You created a fake BBC tweet. You showed how it was done. You showed how you could identify a fake tweet.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: One of the textbook ways people mislead on the internet is they claim to have taken a screenshot of a genuine post and then they share it on another platform without linking to the actual post.
Brooke Gladstone: So you can't go to the actual thing, you're only looking at a picture.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Yes.
Brooke Gladstone: One rule for a listener might be very suspicious if you can't link to the original tweet
Shayan Sardarizadeh: 100%.
Brooke Gladstone: That's point five. Check the attribution and be careful of the source you're pulling from and learn about some of the basic verification tools at your disposal. Apparently, it's easier than you may think. I ask Sardarizadeh, can you give me an example that people can go to of how you used readily available tools to verify a picture?
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Yes, of course. It was a picture of two children and a convoy of tanks with Ukrainian flags on them, and this was shared two days after the outset of the war in Ukraine, February 2022. This image went really viral. I remember European politicians, US politicians, influencers shared it because it was a touching moment. The way I checked that one was I use a tool which is called Google Lens, and it allows you to crop a social media post in this case the image that I want in that post, and then go through the archive of pages that Google has and see the first use of that particular image on Google.
After searching for a while, I was able to find one example from Flickr from 2016 with that image shared by the official account of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry in 2016. Although that was a picture of two children seeing off a convoy of tanks of Ukrainian troops, it had nothing to do with that particular moment in time.
Brooke Gladstone: Now is Google Lens easily accessible?
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Anybody can go to it. Just type in images.google.com in your web browser, whatever browser you're using, and you will see in the search box what appears to be a camera logo. You click on that camera logo and all you have to do, if it's a link with a social media post with an image, you just copy-paste that link into the search box and then it will do the job for you.
All you have to do is just go through the results that it brings up for you. The most important thing is try to find examples from authoritative sources, news organizations, people who you can trust at least to some extent, and then you want to find the earliest example of its use. Say with the image that we just spoke about, if you find the image shared on the internet in 2020, you already know something is wrong there. That image cannot have appeared on 2020 and also 2022 at the same time.
Brooke Gladstone: Right.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: If like me, you want to find a full context about it, you have to spend a bit more time go through the results, and I found the actual original use from 2016.
Brooke Gladstone: He's very keen on a plugin called InVID because it enables you to make simultaneous use of a bunch of different verification tools like Yandex or TinEye, each of which has particular strengths, but that's for the next class. I'm sticking to Verification 101 today. Still, it's all there ready for you. All you have to do is be on the Chrome browser and install the InVID Chrome extension.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: You will find how much easier verifying images on the internet will become.
Brooke Gladstone: It's not just for experts anymore. [chuckles]
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Hopefully not, and it shouldn't be. This is something that in this day and age, in the 21st century, this is necessary knowledge for everybody.
Brooke Gladstone: Shayan Sardarizadeh is a journalist at BBC Verify. You can find his X feed @Shayan, S-H-A-Y-A-N, 86 for tips and tricks on how to interpret what you see online. You need some level of media literacy to navigate these muddy waters, but it also takes time. It takes commitment, and that's point six. Aric Toler of The New York Times described what it took his team to put out an investigation earlier this week that showed that a piece of video evidence US and Israeli officials were using related to the hospital explosion was not what they believed it to be.
Aric Toler: These videos don't have timestamps on them. You have to watch hours and hours to find the right sequence of a flash here, a flash there, a missile goes up here, and like, "Oh, wait, those are the same," or, "Oh, the clouds match up." It's very labor-intensive work.
Brooke Gladstone: Of course, they're doing granular OSINT work, not just basic image verification.
Aric Toler: We looked at this data, we looked at these videos, you can look at them here, and this is how things line up on the satellite map, which you can look at the same as us, and if you don't trust us and you don't believe us, then that's fine. We've given you what we got. We've shown our work.
Brooke Gladstone: Even so, sometimes the experts get it wrong.
Aric Toler: Even if you go through all the same tools and you kind of do the labor and you get on the satellite maps and match up imagery and all that stuff, even then sometimes you don't get to the answer. It's not easy, I mean, you see the seasoned accounts, who've been doing this stuff for years and years and years who get fooled by some photos and videos that come out.
Brooke Gladstone: Point seven, is less a directive than a suggestion, that goes back to our very first handbook, think before you repost. Some of this is on you. What you do matters. It's so easy to further pollute the toxic stew that is our media ecosystem with a casual retweet of bad but affirming information. Take a moment, look for the source, check and see if it's an easy-to-fake screenshot. Any of the stuff we talked about or if that's too time-consuming and it may well be, maybe just don't click. This is On the Media. This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: And I'm Micah Loewinger. On September 22nd, about two weeks before the war between Hamas and Israel began, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood before the United Nations and outlined his plan for the region.
Benjamin Netanyahu: The blessing of a new Middle East, between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and our other neighbors.
Micah Loewinger: We see him holding a thick red marker, one of his favorite bits of stagecraft, which he squeakily drags across a map of the region, from the United Arab Emirates in the east to the Mediterranean in the west.
Benjamin Netanyahu: We will not only bring down barriers between Israel and our neighbors, we'll build a new corridor of peace and prosperity that connects Asia through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, to Europe.
Micah Loewinger: This rosy pitch is what diplomats have been referring to as normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. A deal brokered by the US that could unlock new trade agreements, establish new embassies, and see Saudi Arabia formally recognize Israel as a nation for the first time. But, and this is Netanyahu's framing, there was one thing standing in his way.
Benjamin Netanyahu: We must not give the Palestinians a veto over new peace treaties with Arab states. The Palestinians could greatly benefit from a broader piece. They should be part of that process, but they should not have a veto over the process.
Micah Loewinger: The normalization process has been cited by American officials as a trigger for the attacks on October 7th.
Joe Biden: I'm convinced one of the reasons Hamas attacked when they did, I have no proof of this, just my instinct tells me.
Micah Loewinger: President Joe Biden in a rose garden speech this week.
Joe Biden: Is because of the progress we were making towards regional integration for Israel.
Micah Loewinger: Saudi Arabian leaders now say they stand with the Palestinian people and all parties appear to have paused normalization talks indefinitely.
Justin Scheck: The idea of Saudi Arabia recognizing Israel has gone from unimaginable to about to happen to unimaginable again.
Micah Loewinger: Justin Scheck is a reporter at the New York Times and co-author of the book, Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman's Ruthless Quest for Global Power.
Justin Scheck: For much of the Islamic world and for many people in Saudi Arabia and in the Saudi royal family, including the current King, King Salman, the Palestinian cause was one of the number one priorities they had politically and religiously for decades. Mohammed bin Salman, the King's son, has turned that in his head.
Micah Loewinger: Scheck says, bin Salman had been willing to negotiate with Israel partly for access to Israeli security and military technology, and partly for geopolitical alignment with anti-Iran countries, but he was in a bind.
Justin Scheck: Israel hasn't given an inch in terms of any meaningfully better situation for the Palestinians.
Micah Loewinger: In the midst of an unfolding war with uncertainty as to how much or how little the wider region will become embroiled, we wanted to take a step back and focus on the role of the Saudi Kingdom. In the profile of Mohammed bin Salman in his book, Justin Scheck describes the crown prince's aha moment.
Justin Scheck: What Mohammed bin Salman realized as he gained experience within the Royal Court is that Saudi Arabia, for the entirety of the country's history, has had the structure where the royal family gains its legitimacy from the religious establishment. What we would call the Wahhabi strain, these clerics believe in this very, very conservative interpretation of Islam where men and women need to be separate. You had this kingdom where there was no live music, they banned movie theaters. A man and a woman who were not related couldn't go out in public together. What Mohammed bin Salman realized was that Saudi Arabia's population has grown tremendously. Over half the country is under 30 years old, the country has some of the highest levels of smartphone saturation in the world, just to say they're extremely online.
What they see when they're extremely online is that people of their age and level of wealth in all these other wealthy countries can go to the movies, they can go to concerts, they can go to dates, they can dance. They see these social freedoms, and now that alignment between the royal family and the religious establishment is no longer what gives the royal family legitimacy, it makes the royal family resent it. Mohammed bin Salman realized you can't rule 30 million people if they all dislike you. He realized that in order to get buy-in, he was going to have to get legitimacy from the country's younger population and not from the religious people anymore who made life no fun for those younger people.
Micah Loewinger: I mean, he was in his mid-20s during the Arab Spring, and so he could relate to and see that the internet and social media were these extraordinarily powerful tools for political upheaval. It seems like he came to respect and even fear these tools. Is that fair to say?
Justin Scheck: Yes, absolutely. One broad way to understand some of the big forces in Saudi politics over the decades is to look at these two major periods of revolution in the region. One was in 1979 when he had the Iranian Revolution and this conservative takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in Saudi Arabia by very conservative Muslims. You saw what could happen when extremist religious groups feel that their leaders are indulgent and not religious and can form that kind of uprising.
Micah Loewinger: You mean like the modern-day rumors of Saudi princes getting wasted in Europe and hanging out with sex workers and that kind of thing?
Justin Scheck: Yes. All of the cliches of the Saudi royal family being profligate and spending too much money and the Saudi royal family said, "Oh, this is something we need to deal with." Saudi Arabia became a more restrictive, more conservative country. Now move forward to the Arab Spring, you get a different swing where you have these populations of young people who feel their rulers aren't legitimate, not because of their profligacy or sinful lives, but because of lack of freedom. Mohammed bin Salman, as you said, he saw the Arab Spring and to him, it was an urgent issue to make Saudi Arabia into a place where younger people would want to be.
Micah Loewinger: He was also fixated on how people outside of Saudi Arabia felt. As he gained power, he hired international polling companies to survey people about their perceptions of Saudi Arabia. What he found wasn't that surprising.
Justin Scheck: What the polling found was that people in the West thought of Saudi Arabia as a place that was restrictive, that had a connection to terrorism, that separated men and women, that didn't have entertainment for its people. It was seen as a place that nobody would want to visit and nobody would want to live in.
Micah Loewinger: He set out to reform the country culturally and financially, addressing some of these negative perceptions of the country for the world at large, and for this burgeoning youth population. His character as a leader is somewhat hard to grasp because he's seen as liberal in some ways, at least compared to the country's ultra-conservative past, but he's also a leader with a horrifying list of human rights abuses.
Male Speaker 1: In one of the biggest mass executions in decades, Saudi Arabia executed 81 men on Saturday, which included seven Yemenis and one Syrian.
Micah Loewinger: His government has jailed female activists, for instance, for fighting for a woman's right to drive. Even as secretly, MBS had softened on that idea and was willing to lift some restrictions for women. How do we make sense of his actions and the way that he's treated people advocating for some of the same beliefs?
Justin Scheck: Mohammed bin Salman has really liberalized Saudi Arabia socially. It's a place where your day-to-day life is much freer now. There are no longer these bearded men going around reprimanding or arresting women whose ankles show. You can go and get coffee with a member of the opposite sex, women can drive, all that, but in his vision for the country, social freedom and political freedom have nothing to do with each other. The idea that you can have social freedom means that you will get these freedoms that flow from the leader. They flow from him and his father. They don't flow from people protesting and demanding things.
On the political side, and he's made Saudi Arabia a place that is perhaps less politically free. I hesitate a little bit because it's an absolute monarchy. There's never been political freedom like people have no say in their own rule by definition. In the past, there was more wiggle room to criticize. You could be loyal opposition. You could come out and say you didn't like certain things and now you can't criticize him. Part of it is he realizes the power of social media and knows that one person with an offhanded remark on Twitter can go viral. Then he's got millions of people seeing criticism of him.
Micah Loewinger: He was so afraid of one person's ability to write a tweet that he ended up effectively helping develop a spy within Twitter in San Francisco to root out this very problem.
Justin Scheck: Two spies. I thought there were two.
Micah Loewinger: Oh, really?
Justin Scheck: Yes. They infiltrated Twitter to help unmask the identities of Royal Court critics on Twitter.
Micah Loewinger: Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi earned a reputation as a giant thorn in the side of the royal family. According to the CIA Crown Prince, MBS personally ordered that Khashoggi be killed. It's been five years now since he was dismembered by Saudi operatives at the Consulate in Istanbul. How did the public knowledge of that killing affect Saudi politics thereafter?
Justin Scheck: He came from a family that had been closely tied to the Saudi royal family for a couple of generations. He was of their milieu, he was someone who sometimes he worked for the Royal Court, sometimes he worked for media organizations. In the eyes of Mohammed bin Salman, he was seen not so much as a journalist criticizing him, but as his own guy who had betrayed him. Unlike, for example, the bombing of Yemen, which Saudi Arabia has been doing for years at this point, with many dead civilians to show for this single act around Jamal Khashoggi really resonates internationally. It's something that's so beyond the pale that immediately there are calls for the US to sanction Saudi Arabia or for the US to pressure King Salman to remove Mohammed bin Salman from the line of succession.
Micah Loewinger: Have we meaningfully sanctioned Saudi Arabia since then?
Justin Scheck: No. There were not meaningful sanctions put in place. I think when you're dealing with a monarchy, you can't ask them to change the line of succession. What they learned with Mohammed is that he's not someone who responds to pressure. The more publicly people or governments try to get him to do what they want, the more publicly he pushes back. From a practical perspective, if Saudi Arabia is going to be US's ally, it has to deal with the guy, it has. I think also there's something problematic about saying like, "We'll basically support you bombing children in Yemen." That can go on for seven years, but there's one guy, that's it.
Micah Loewinger: We'll sell you weapons to do the bombing of children in Yemen.
Justin Scheck: Yes, exactly. Once you're in bed with these people other than crawling out of bed with them, it's hard to see a coherent framework within which to deal with them. It's like you take each thing as it comes along and hope it blows away eventually, which is what's happened with Khashoggi. It's no longer something that Mohammed bin Salman is considered a pariah for, evidently.
Micah Loewinger: Khashoggi's death has been largely ignored by American officials, but not forgotten.
Stephen Colbert: Washington insiders are now grimly joking that MBS stands for Mr. Bone Saw.
Brooke Gladstone: Coming up, Mohammed bin Salman's effort to change the Saudi narrative abroad, please a young and restless populace at home, and diversify an oil-based economy helps explain why his country has poured money into a dizzying number of sports.
Micah Loewinger: This is On the Media.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: And I'm Micah Loewinger. Before the break, I was talking to Justin Scheck about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's efforts to change Saudi Arabia from the inside out. To that end, Bin Salman has been buying up a whole lot of sports.
Male Speaker 2: Saudi Arabia have confirmed that they will be bidding to host the World Cup in 2034.
Female Speaker 1: Saudi Arabia has investments of somewhere upwards of $500 billion talking about soccer clubs, Formula 1 races, the WWE.
Male Speaker 3: The WWE, who you may remember, signed a 10-year deal to stage events there, and who in April staged the greatest Royal Rumble in Jeddah, which was wall-to-war propaganda for the Saudi Government.
Male Speaker 4: It's hot here in Jeddah, but tonight is going to get hotter and hotter and hotter. We got a whole lot of action going down there.
Male Speaker 5: Many critics are looking at this and saying, "Well, quite simply, Saudi Arabia have bought the game of golf."
Justin Scheck: The golf thing originated with a guy named Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who was Mohammed bin Salman's banker. He had this deep passion for golf. When Mohammed became Crown Prince, he appointed Yasir Al-Rumayyan to be the head of the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund. It's called the Public Investment Fund. People call PIF sometimes. It's this giant fund that invests money for the Saudi government all over the place. He was able to convince Mohammed bin Salman that investing in golf was the thing that could help Saudi Arabia become a place that the world sees as coming out to meet it.
Micah Loewinger: In 2021, Yasir Al-Rumayyan founded LIV Golf, a new entity that would compete with the PGA tour, which until that point essentially had a monopoly in the sport. LIV began poaching big names like Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, and Phil Mickelson by promising them giant payouts. Then the PGA fired back.
Male Speaker 6: You could say it was the shot heard around the world of golf today, the PGA Tour effectively sliced 17 players from its roster over their participation in a Saudi-financed golf tournament.
Micah Loewinger: In turn, some of the band golfers sued the PGA, LIV joined the lawsuit, which stretched on for the better part of a year.
Justin Scheck: There was legal wrangling back and forth and eventually the PGA caved and agreed to merge because I think they felt like they just didn't have the money to compete both for players and paying players, but also to have a protracted legal dispute with a country that is sitting on top of one of the world's biggest reservoirs of oil like Saudi Arabia pumps money, and the PGA doesn't.
Micah Loewinger: To be clear, the merger may not go through, but I was curious to know how people within Saudi Arabia were reacting to Bin Salman's Golf shopping spree, so I called up this guy.
Ahmed Al Omran: It's barely registered in Saudi media.
Micah Loewinger: Ahmed Al Omran is a freelance reporter based in Saudi Arabia. He's worked with NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times.
Ahmed Al Omran: It was not covered that much. It was not debated that much on local social media. It only merited a mention on page 5 in Al Riyadh, the Saudi local daily.
Micah Loewinger: Saudis, he says, by and large, don't really care about golf. Their hearts are with another game.
Ahmed Al Omran: Football or soccer is the biggest sport of the country. It has the attention of a lot of people, especially young people. Remember this is a very young country where the majority of the population around 60% are under the age of 30 and football is their favorite sports and their favorite pastime.
Micah Loewinger: In December, Mohammed bin Salman's Public Investment Fund began injecting its national soccer league with serious money and serious star power.
Male Speaker 7: It's official Cristiano Ronaldo is taking his talents to Saudi Arabia and the man is going to get paid to do it.
Male Speaker 8: More than $200 million a season. That's right. $200 million, roughly the annual playing wages of LeBron James, Steph Curry, Aaron Judge, and Patrick Mahomes combined.
Ahmed Al Omran: When it started last January with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo to Al-Nassr, there's a lot of curiosity and questions about what does it all mean. Is this a one-off? Should we expect more of this? Then over the summer, we saw the continuation of this Saudi sports project with all these other big names arriving.
Female Speaker 2: It's been the summer of Saudi football transfers, players like Roberto Firmino, Édouard Mendy, Riyad Mahrez, have all joined Al-Ahli.
Micah Loewinger: This idea of trying to change Saudi's image through sports has led many in the Western media to use this term, sports washing. It's everywhere. How do you feel about that term?
Ahmed Al Omran: This idea that huge spend then would somehow cause a positive image of the country is not automatic. If anything, they say it's been the opposite, that these investments did not lead to a better or more positive coverage of Saudi Arabia. It has led to more scrutiny of Saudi Arabia and its record.
Micah Loewinger: I spoke to Justin Scheck from the New York Times. One of his theories is that Mohammed bin Salman has been very wary of this very online, very young population of seeing culture outside of Saudi Arabia. That after the Arab Spring, having a large population that is, let's say unfulfilled is a sleeping threat. Does that ring true to you at all?
Ahmed Al Omran: We have to be careful about how we talk about this because some of what it appear to suggest that this thing is being done as some sort of distraction. Let's get people to watch these football stars in the flesh from a close distance and somehow that would help you stave off frustration or people wanting what's outside. I think more fundamentally it's about the economy and how the economy does. Let's face it, if these young people cannot find jobs, then they won't be able to afford the tickets to go watch these football stars in the flesh.
Micah Loewinger: In fact, the crown prince said something similar in response to a question from Fox News's Bret Baier when they spoke last month.
Bret Baier: What do you say to the people who judge that that's part of sports washing? That you're trying to use all of that to somehow improve or somehow affect your image in a way?
Mohammed bin Salman: Well, if sports washing going to increase my GDP by 1%, then I will continue doing sport washing.
Bret Baier: You're okay with that term?
Mohammed bin Salman: I don't care. I have 1% growth of GDP from sports and from another 1.5%.
Justin Scheck: I have no idea what he was talking about 1%.
Micah Loewinger: Justin Scheck.
Justin Scheck: I haven't seen the numbers. It's hard for me to imagine that their GDP has increased by 1% because they own a golf league now, and they bought a bunch of soccer players. My co-author, Bradley Hope, and I, we've talked about this, we bristle when people say sports washing.
Micah Loewinger: Why?
Justin Scheck: Not because it's offensive, but because it assumes that Saudi Arabia is really this one thing, but they're buying sports stuff to pretend like there's something else. Mohammed bin Salman was been very open that this is a country that is welcoming tourists. It's becoming much more socially free. It is politically extraordinarily restrictive. If you're Saudi, you better not criticize me, but if you're foreign and you want to come visit, we would love to have you.
Micah Loewinger: What I hear you saying is that he doesn't really care if you still associate Saudi Arabia with the horrible things that his government has done because he knows no matter what, you'll do business with him.
Justin Scheck: Which implies the big lesson of the last seven or eight years that Saudi Arabia has taught us, which is that if you have enough money, you can do whatever you want.
Micah Loewinger: The crown prince is spending a boatload of money in an attempt to improve both his country's image abroad and his subject's lives at home. It remains to be seen if either goal is attainable. How is his presence affecting the wider region? What part will Saudi Arabia play in the geopolitical game of chess unfolding around it particularly when it comes to its longtime foe, Iran?
Kim Ghattas: They have a long history of enmity since 1979 and the Iranian Revolution, which turned Iran into an Islamic Republic with the ostensible goal of being not just the leader of the Shia world but the Muslim world. That triggered a bit of rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Micah Loewinger: Beirut-based journalist Kim Ghattas writes for the Atlantic. She's also the author of Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. This week, Saudi Arabia evacuated the family of its diplomatic staff in Lebanon as fighting between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel intensified. Ghattas believes that Saudi Arabia could play a crucial role in the future of this conflict. She's observed a pattern in which Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the US, define themselves in the region in relation to each other.
Kim Ghattas: Saudi Arabia has often used the threat of Iran and that it poses to the region, to call on the US to remain fully engaged in the Middle East. Iran uses America's influence in the Middle East to justify why it needs to remain fully on guard and using proxy militias and continue to support Hamas and Hezbollah and to push back against what it describes as the imperial America and its support for Israel. America ends up in this interesting triangle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Micah Loewinger: Has the jockeying between Iran and Saudi Arabia for power, with Palestinians caught in the middle, changed at all since Mohammad bin Salman came to power?
Kim Ghattas: In a way, yes, because he has sounded very serious about normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. We need to keep in mind that it's possible that the Saudis were very willing to have normalization with the Israelis while providing very little for the Palestinians. I don't think the shopping list was very big or very important when it came to what the Palestinians were going to get out of it. Now they're offering in a way the jackpot for the Israelis, full-on relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
What more could you ask for as Israel? The Saudis now hold a card that previous Saudi rulers didn't have. The Saudis now realize that they need to get quite a bit more for the Palestinians. They need to get something really serious. They need to get a political horizon and a way towards the end of the occupation of Palestinian territories.
Micah Loewinger: When Hamas launched its attack on Israel on October 7th, Hamas's political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, warned Arab countries that Israel couldn't protect them. How did that message reverberate in Arab nations?
Kim Ghattas: Part of it was a message to Arab countries that have been engaged in normalization talks with Israel like Saudi Arabia and countries that have already come to an agreement with Israel through the Abraham Accords like the United Arab Emirates. It took me a while to realize that beyond saying that this was an attack that was meant to derail those efforts, it was also a veiled threat. In essence, "You might be next and Israel cannot protect you because look at how weak it is."
Micah Loewinger: You've observed that following the attack, we saw some communication between Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman and the President of Iran. Why was that significant?
Kim Ghattas: I thought it was very significant. Now, they've had periods of détente between the two of them since 1979, namely in the '90s. Since 2016, the relationship between the two countries has been very tense. They broke off diplomatic relations and there's been a lot of not only rhetoric but also proxies of Iran lobbying missiles at Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, the Saudis and the Iranians announced a new rapprochement. It helped along in the last mile by China, and that came about because tension was rising way too quickly between not just the two of them but generally in the region, and they both wanted to buy some breathing space.
That rapprochement is tenuous but has held since then. I thought it was very interesting that when the October 7th attack happened, and Ismail Haniyeh says, "Be clear, this is a warning that Israel can't protect you as Arab countries." Instead of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman saying, "Okay, this is the end of the rapprochement because that was all about keeping the region quiet and now one of Iran's allies has upset this." No, he takes the call from Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian President, because on the one hand, the Saudis are thinking smartly, keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer, we need to keep this channel open.
Interestingly enough also the Iranians I think, as far as I can understand from my information, were taken aback by the extent of the operation that Hamas carried out, and the blowback which has come at great cost to civilians as well in Gaza and has brought US warships to the Mediterranean and President Biden visiting Israel. I think they don't want a full-on war. They were quick also to reach out to the Saudis to pass a message to say, "We're reasonable, we're here to talk."
Micah Loewinger: Normalization is on the back burner now, but what role do you think Saudi Arabia might or could play in helping defuse the conflict in the shorter term?
Kim Ghattas: There's only so much the Saudis can do on their own. If there are no calls for a ceasefire by the US, if the military campaign by the Israelis continues, if there are yet more Palestinian deaths in Gaza. If there is neither a desire by Benjamin Netanyahu to engage in conversations about the long-term future of this region and the concession this requires to the Palestinians, nor a new Israeli government, then there's really not much the Saudis can do on their own.
It requires partners, it requires the US, and it requires the Israelis and the Saudis to gather and other Arab countries, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Emiratis, to come together and work intensely together to figure out a path forward and away from the violence. The Saudis have an opportunity here to deliver a long-term, peaceful outcome for this region, but they can't do it on their own.
Micah Loewinger: Kim, thank you very much.
Kim Ghattas: Thank you so much for having me.
Micah Loewinger: Kim Ghattas is the author of Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. The horrendous violence in Israel and Gaza is far from the whole story. As we heard, Saudi Arabia's move towards normalization with Israel may have sparked this horror but it can't end it. Now, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a status quo maintained by periodic spasms of violence may be subtly shifting. Not quite the new Middle East Netanyahu promised but one that could have reverberations clear across the world.
Brooke Gladstone: That's the show On the Media is produced by Eloise Blondiau, Molly Rosen, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang, and Suzanne Gaber with help from Shaan Merchant.
Micah Loewinger: Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Nerviano. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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