George Washington University faces $10mn disinformation lawsuit

A leading American university was sued Wednesday over a disinformation campaign allegedly financed by the United Arab Emirates, accused of seeding false narratives that linked academics to a radical group in the Middle East.

Farid Hafez, an Austrian political scientist, filed the $10 million lawsuit against George Washington University and Lorenzo Vidino, the director of its program on extremism.

It’s the second such case in US courts this year that sheds light on what researchers call a lucrative “disinformation for hire” industry that peddles false information and influence operations on behalf of paying clients.

Foreign governments have long been accused of buying influence with large donations to US universities and think tanks. But Hafez’s lawsuit takes it further, accusing a premier higher education institution of involvement in damaging reputations on behalf of a sovereign state.

The suit, which was filed in District Court in Washington, alleges that “GWU and Vidino engaged in a well cloaked conspiracy to defraud authorities, academia and the fourth estate,” a term used to refer to the press, while “holding themselves out as independent and objective academic actors.”

It also names as a defendant Alp Services, a Geneva-based private intelligence firm said to be on the UAE’s payroll, accusing it of shadowy activities such as paying journalists and academics including Vidino to smear the Gulf state’s enemies.

Vidino is accused of using his influential position at the university to target academics such as Hafez, businesses and charities by publishing false reports that linked them to the Muslim Brotherhood, designated as a terrorist organization by the UAE.

“Vidino was a hired gun selling and repackaging unverified rumor and gossip with the veneer of academic objectivity and scholarship, and with a mind toward ruining individuals and institutions,” the suit said.

– ‘Life was destroyed’ –

Hafez, a visiting professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, was detained in 2020 during Operation Luxor, a series of police raids against Austrian Muslims and businesses. No one who was implicated was convicted, and the operation was ruled unlawful in 2021.

Hafez said he was ensnared in the police action in Austria because of a report by Vidino.

A contractual agreement seen by AFP shows Vidino was paid to provide “leads of interest” to Alp, which the Swiss company used as part of its apparent disinformation operation on behalf of the UAE.

“My client’s life was destroyed by the activities conducted against him by GWU, Vidino, and Alp Services,” David Schwartz, Hafez’s New York-based lawyer, told AFP.

He added his client was seeking $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

GWU did not respond to AFP’s request for comment on the legal action or Vidino’s current status with the university.

Vidino also did not comment.

“Even if the university and the program were unaware of actions undertaken in a private capacity, it may well be the case that the prestige of the affiliation added to the perceived credibility of any disinformation,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, from Rice University’s Baker Institute, told AFP.

Hafez’s legal action follows a New Yorker magazine article last year that revealed how Alp -– contracted by the UAE –- smeared oil trader Hazim Nada, ultimately bankrupting his business, Lord Energy.

In January, Nada sued the UAE, its president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan — often known as MBZ — its national oil company ADNOC, Emirati officials, Alp, and Vidino in a Washington court.

The latest lawsuit spotlights the possible influence of foreign money in American universities, said Benjamin Freeman, director of the Democratizing Foreign Policy program at the Quincy Institute.

“US universities receiving millions and even hundreds of millions of dollars from authoritarian regimes are going to be a lot less likely to offer critical commentary of those regimes,” Freeman told AFP.

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