North Africa, West Asia

‘Bots’ and bans: social media and regime propaganda in the Middle East

Regimes in the Middle East are constantly evolving their propaganda strategies to keep up with the new forms of dissent and bolster their legitimacy.

Jon Hoffman
12 March 2020, 12.01am
Illustration by Ann Kiernan. All rights reserved

Regimes across the Middle East have increasingly utilized different social media platforms in their pursuits to advance their respective political agendas. Engineered as a mechanism to shape public discourse, these calculated campaigns are centered around the widespread dissemination of regime-backed narratives in the attempt to manufacture a sense of regime legitimacy and undermine rivals at the domestic, regional, and international levels.

Although regime-engineered campaigns of propaganda are not new to the region, the expanded manipulation of social media platforms demonstrates how government strategies are constantly evolving and taking new forms in order to acclimate themselves to new technological, political, and social contexts. This adaptation is best evidenced in the period following the 2011 Arab uprisings, which witnessed not only mass mobilization against these governments, but also the attempt to break these hegemonic regime narratives that have been weaponized as a means of repression and power projection.

How did the proliferation of these regime-constructed narratives progressively emerge since the 2011 Arab uprisings and how did they assume a central role in both interstate and intrastate competition? One particularly important aspect in this case is the widespread mobilization of automated social media accounts – “bots” – and how these propagated regime narratives overlap with geopolitical rivalries within the region and serve as a tool for the advancement of domestic and regional policies.

Strategies for power and legitimacy

Following the 2011 Arab uprisings, states throughout the region have mobilized thousands of automated social media accounts – “bots” – as well as accounts directed by real persons, in their respective attempts to disseminate regime narratives and undermine rivals. These discursive strategies are deployed to dominate public discourse and advance their respective domestic, regional, and international policies.

These accounts typically represent themselves as locals of whatever specific country being targeted, and primarily focus on the advancement of different host-regime narratives or concentrate on divisive issues in order to exacerbate internal tensions. They have also posed as media entities, reporters, activists, and impersonated real news organizations in an attempt to garner legitimacy for their claims. Through these accounts, these governments have been able to not only disseminate regime-engineered narratives on a vast scale, but they have also attempted to contact and locate dissidents, academics, politicians, and other public figures online.

The number of confirmed fake Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts linked to these governments is staggering. According to the data released by Facebook and Twitter, the five regional states most heavily engaged in these discursive strategies include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Israel, and Iran. Between these five states, more than 4,000 automated Facebook and Instagram accounts, pages, groups, and events have been confirmed removed.

The Saudi regime has created a virtual Twitter army “mobilized to harass critics”

These accounts and pages amassed quite a following, with over 31 million people following at least one or more of these entities. In addition, over 100,000 fake Twitter accounts have been removed, and over $1.3 million has been spent on advertising this material. Yet, not all of the accounts engaged in these activities are automated. For example, the New York Times has reported that the Saudi regime has created a virtual Twitter army “mobilized to harass critics” that pays young men approximately 10,000 Saudi riyals (roughly $3,000) per month. Similarly, accounts linked to Israel’s government are reportedly often operated by actual people. By having real people participating in these campaigns – as opposed to just bots – these accounts are often able to circumvent traditional monitoring mechanisms put in place by Facebook and Twitter to detect inauthentic behavior.

Due to the inherently political nature of these discursive strategies, their content – and targets – have come to overlap with domestic, regional, and international political fault lines. Beginning with interstate fault lines and regional competitions for power, the first such geopolitical conflict embodied within these discursive strategies is the clash between what can be called the “counter-revolutionaries” and the “adventurists.” The counter-revolutionaries are those states within the region – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and post-2013 Egypt – who continue to view the currents unleashed by the uprisings as an existential threat to their authority and legitimacy. Therefore, they have sought a return to the pre-2011 status quo.

This is opposed to the more “adventurist” states – Qatar and Turkey – who have sought greater independence in their foreign policies by backing different revolutionary movements – particularly those linked with the Muslim Brotherhood – throughout the region. While anomalies to this dichotomous classification certainly exist, this divide between Turkey and Qatar on one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and post-2013 Egypt on the other, has had significant regional ramifications, most notably the ongoing blockade of Qatar launched by the counter-revolutionaries in 2017.

This conflict has manifested itself repeatedly within these discursive strategies in various ways. The accounts linked to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and post-2013 Egypt have been very vocal in their criticism of Qatar and Turkey. Indeed, they have regularly accused these two countries of supporting terrorism, have called into question the legitimacy of the news network Al-Jazeera (based in Qatar), have accused Qatari Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani of being the “Gaddafi of the Gulf,” and have criticized Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

However, most frequently referenced is Qatar and Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was declared a terrorist organization by Egypt in 2013, and followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2014.

below is a screenshot of a tweet alleging Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was provided by Facebook after the removal of accounts linked to the UAE and Egypt.

Image by Facebook Inc.

Similarly, competition for power and influence between these two camps within specific national theaters is frequently addressed by these accounts. Concerning Libya, for example, the accounts directed by the counter-revolutionaries have targeted Qatari and Turkish support for the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which is opposed to the Libyan National Army (LNA). The later, which is led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, enjoys the strong support of the counter-revolutionaries, who have increasingly mobilized their virtual armies to spread pro-Haftar, anti-GNA narratives.

Below is a screenshot of a pro-Haftar tweet posted by the automated accounts linked to an operation in Egypt and the UAE, depicting the Field Marshall holding rats (here symbolizing terrorists) with Qatari and Turkish flags.

Image by Facebook Ink.

[Page name: “I am a Son of Libya, who are you?”
Post: “Field Marshal Khalifa #Haftar #The_Libyan_National_Army controls 99% of Libya and now the time has come to finally cleanse and eliminate all terrorism from #Tripoli #Libya_Cleansed”]

Another frequently referenced regional theater of contention pitting these two camps against one another is the growing competition between the adventurists and counter-revolutionaries for influence within the Horn of Africa region and the bordering geostrategic waterways of the Red Sea, Bab Al Mandeb straight, and Gulf of Aden.

These waterways are a critically important maritime route for global trade, and therefore a coveted prize. Turkey and Qatar have established influence with Somalia’s central government, while the Saudis and Emiratis have sought to hedge against this relationship by casting their weight behind Somaliland and Puntland. In addition to casting their weight behind these two autonomous regions, the counter-revolutionaries have sought to undermine the relationship between Somalia’s central government and the adventurists through these discursive strategies.

Below two screenshots as examples of how the counter-revolutionaries have sought to undermine Qatari influence in Somalia.

Image by Facebook Ink.

[“New York Times: A voice recording of the Qatari ambassador reveals Doha’s involvement in bombings in Mogadishu for its own benefit. How many other bombings in Arab countries has Qatar conducted to achieve its own interests?”]

Image by Facebook Ink.

[#QatarTampersWithSomaliasSecurity: The helping hand of the Emirates in Somalia: – The Emirates has taken responsibility for building Somali state institutions – (The Emirates has) trained security and aid organizations and trained their workers – (The Emirates has) worked to modernize the army, police, hospitals, schools, and infrastructure in several regions]

Interstate discursive strategies for power and legitimacy extend beyond the adventurist-counter-revolutionary rivalry and embody other geopolitical fault lines as well. For example, accounts linked to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE have criticized Iran’s activity in Yemen, have championed the “successes” of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and have laudedthe Transitional Military Council (TMC) following the removal of President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan.

Iran too has engaged heavily in such discursive strategies and has sought to project power and influence narratives in both the regional and international spheres. At the regional level, Iran frequently targets Saudi Arabia’s leadership and the country’s campaign in Yemen.

Iran has sought to use discourse to advance its interests at the international level by stirring internal tensions within rival countries

Automated accounts linked to Iran’s government have also been increasingly vocal about the expanding rapprochementbetween Israel and the counter-revolutionary states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and post-2013 Egypt – due to shared geopolitical and security concerns. These accounts have lambasted these Arab rulers for this particularly contentious issue and the neglecting of the Palestinian cause.

Below is an example of such a post linked to Iran that was removed by Facebook in 2018.

Image by Facebook Ink.

Iran has also sought to influence narratives beyond the regional arena and has frequently targeted countries in the West, including the United Kingdom and the United States. For example, posing as individuals and groups native to the U.S. and U.K., some accounts have often criticized western policies towards Iran such as the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord. However, these accounts also frequently focus on divisive political and social issues within western countries themselves. In the U.S., Iranian discursive strategies have focused on race relations, immigration, Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and other polarizing issues.

The two posts below – all produced by Iranian-linked automated accounts – demonstrate how Iran has sought to use discourse to advance its interests at the international level by stirring internal tensions within rival countries.

Image by Facebook Ink.
Image by Facebook Ink.

Israel too utilizes such virtual discursive strategies for the advancement of its foreign policy agendas. An investigationpublished by The Guardian and the Queensland University of Technology in December 2019, revealed that a coordinated campaign was launched by accounts based in Israel in the attempt to gain administrative access to some of Facebook’s largest and most popular far-right pages.

Administrators of large, pre-existing pages were approached by the accounts “promising content that would grow their audiences.” These accounts – which are now able to mobilize a network of 21 different Facebook pages with over 1 million followers – stoke “deep hatred of Islam across the western world,” most commonly via attacking Muslim politicians.

For example, these pages have often attacked Australia’s first female Muslim senator, Mehreen Faruqi, by posting material with comments such as “put your burka on – and shut the [expletive] up!”, “deport the whining [expletive]” and “revoke citizenship and deport.”

Another example is U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who is the most frequent politician targeted by the network: “in the past two years, the Israeli group has pushed out more than 1,400 posts targeting Omar across the 21-page network which in turn have been ‘shared’ more than 30,000 times.”

Creating such virtual atmospheres of hate create the potential for serious real-world repercussions, as evidenced by a phone call placed to Omar’s Washington D.C. office in April 2019, stating “do you work for the Muslim Brotherhood? Why are you working for her, she's a (expletive) terrorist. I'll put a bullet in her (expletive) skull." Much of this material produced by this network is then, according to the report, often shared organically by other far-right Facebook pages, such as the one run by the rightwing UK Independence Party (Ukip).

The targeting of individuals such as Faruqi and Omar – who are both vocal critics of Israel’s policies and western unconditional support for the Zionist state – represents an attempt to undermine these counter-narratives and uphold the status quo.

These virtual discursive strategies are also designed to serve the domestic political agendas of these regimes in their efforts to squash intrastate counter-narratives and project a sense of legitimacy. For example, accounts linked to Saudi Arabia have continuously championed Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, his economic and social reform plan “Vision 2030,” and the love of the Saudi people for their ruler.

These same accounts were also mobilized in the wake of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, promoting hashtags such as “#We_all_trust_Mohammad_Bin_Salman.” In Israel, social media accounts – both automated and human-directed – were deployed to promote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party ahead of the 2019 elections and smear opponents. The accounts were used to spread content critical of Netanyahu’s opponent, Benjamin Gantz, arguing that he was a rapist, mentally ill, homosexual, and had a mistress.

Regardless of whether these accounts are used for the advancement of interstate or intrastate policies, their overbearing raison d’etre is the advancement of regime narratives and policies. It is through the mass dissemination of these narratives online that these governments seek to shape and control public discourse in their ultimate pursuits of regime preservation and power projection.


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