The Middle East has always been rife with enmity and rivalry, and its regimes have long taken advantage of the region’s many linguistic, religious, and cultural connections to shape the overall political environment. Regimes that do not control the information space risk being destroyed by it.
The Middle East is far from alone. Virtually every authoritarian regime barrages its own population with propaganda, ranging from state-controlled television to social media campaigns on a wide range of platforms. The Middle East, however, may be especially prone to foreign influence operations. In addition to intense regional rivalries, the lack of free media in many countries and the distrust of government and institutions make the region particularly vulnerable.
This tendency is reinforced by actual conspiracies, including the 1953 coup that toppled Mossadegh, the false pretext of the Suez Crisis, and myriad attempts by regional governments to weaken and overthrow one another. In addition, shared religious, historical, and linguistic ties, embodied in concepts such as pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, both create transnational bonds and foster vulnerabilities. It is easy for ideas to cross borders, and in so doing they can inspire, frighten, or subvert.
Social media campaigns are now a regular tool of Middle Eastern governments, and they are used as well by governments like Russia seeking to influence the Middle East. The confrontation between Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (the so-called “Quartet”) and Qatar, for example, began in 2017 in part due to social media exploitation involving hacked email accounts and associated disinformation. It escalated into a massive social media skirmish between the two sides around the broader Muslim world that endures to this day. This campaign later encompassed an effort to discredit Qatar’s ally, Turkey, and included actors in the civil wars in Libya and Yemen, as well. Iran, for its part, created a network of fake websites and online personas, an operation that The Citizen Lab labeled “Endless Mayfly,” to spread false information about Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. On a more individual level, Saudi Arabia targeted dissidents such as Jamal Khashoggi, trying to make his online life a living hell — “the equivalent of sustained gunfire online,” as one of his friends put it.
Why social media is so useful for Middle Eastern governments
Social media offers governments several advantages in their information operations. Perhaps most important, social media campaigns are relatively cheap and have low barriers to entry. As so many Middle Easterners use social media, manipulating these platforms is an inexpensive way for regimes to influence large audiences. What’s more, social media companies’ guardrails are weaker outside an English-language environment, as they may focus more on profitability and innovation before security and information quality.
Volume also matters. Rumors and conspiracies are more likely to be believed if people are repeatedly exposed to them, and the constant pushing of conspiracies on multiple platforms can make the outlandish seem believable.
Social media campaigns also grant a degree of deniability. Some states clandestinely fund private firms, encourage their citizens to act on their own, or simply tolerate activities such as hacking and harassment, making it hard to find a smoking gun that ties the government to a specific action.
Social media sources are often more trusted than traditional media. Family and friends pass on news and other information via Facebook and other platforms, implicitly endorsing it, and they are more trusted sources than the media and government. When governments can tap into these personal networks, their messages are far more likely to be believed and supported.
Finally, social media also offers an excellent mix of differentiation and reach. Huge platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram are great ways to reach elite Saudis focused on politics as well as more ordinary Saudis who might use these platforms for sports, work, and entertainment. At the same time, through microtargeting the regimes can focus more specialized messages on different constituencies, again at relatively low cost. Political microtargeting is under-regulated, especially for non-English-speaking users.
How disinformation campaigns play out on Middle Eastern social media
These campaigns and the states behind them use a number of tools to increase the influence of their social media efforts. These include creating fake news sites, modifying the content of legitimate sites, creating fake personas who masquerade as journalists or opposition figures, “typosquatting” by taking advantage of common mistakes (such as “thejerusalempost[dot]org” (the real site is “jpost.com”), and many other methods. In addition, they may simply create a virtual loudspeaker, using bots and human armies to retweet, “like,” and drown out critics, while boosting pro-regime content.
At times they have directed their troll armies at internal critics, such as the late Khashoggi or critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. Such constant harassment makes online life miserable for these individuals, wearing them down through constant abuse. It also deters ordinary people from following them, as they seek to avoid the cesspool of recrimination and abuse associated with the critics’ accounts.
Another method is to hack or otherwise gain access to a rival’s private information and then selectively publicize it. In June 2017, days before a public and enduring split between Qatar and the Quartet began, a group called “GlobalLeaks” sent out copies of emails and other hacked documents of the UAE ambassador to the United States to various U.S. media outlets.
At times, the goal (or at least the outcome) is that citizens do not know what to believe and so dismiss all news sources or otherwise lose faith in traditional institutions. Facebook notes that some actors “engaged in what we call ‘perception hacking.’ That is, rather than running actual on-platform campaigns or compromising election systems, they are attempting to garner influence by fostering the perception that they are everywhere, playing on people’s far of widespread deception itself.” Making all this worse, a host of authentic accounts from political leaders, clerics, and others spread hateful or false ideas, often with little interference from social media companies despite the violation of their terms of service.
The capabilities and means of state actors to spread disinformation vary considerably. Many employ outside firms to run at least part of their effort. Saudi Arabia created a “troll farm,” identifying messages to amplify and paying workers to identify voices on Twitter that need to be silenced. Workers at the farm received daily lists of people to threaten and insult, pro-government messages to augment, and other instructions.
What is the impact of these disinformation campaigns?
Judging the impact of these campaigns is difficult. The Quartet was determined to escalate pressure on Qatar, and the social media campaign was the result, not the cause, of this standoff. Although Iran was able to get its propaganda published and retweeted — The Citizen Lab estimates that Iran generated 21,685 clicks on its Endless Mayfly content — how much it changed minds, and who those minds were, is not clear.
Fortunately, Middle Eastern regimes are not at the level of Russia when it comes to disinformation. Iran, with its anti-American propaganda, often is “hasty in execution” when it comes to operations, according to disinformation expert Clint Watts. And while Saudi Arabia did indeed make Khashoggi’s online life a living hell, this did not deter him, leading the regime to turn to the more time-honored tactic of assassination. Researchers Jennifer Pan and Alexandra Siegel found that the Saudi regime’s imprisonment of dissenters and other repression did deter critics, but it also led to an increase in attention to their cause and more online dissent from their followers.
How to push back against online disinformation
Democratic governments, social media companies, and civil society organizations all can help combat these campaigns. Much of the relevant technical expertise and knowledge of ongoing operations are in the private sector, and governments must be able to draw on and coordinate with experts there. The United States and other democratic governments must improve their technical capacity and, with it, their ability to detect these campaigns.
Social media companies, for their parts, must improve their ability to protect the accounts and user experiences of dissidents, particularly those not operating in an English-language environment, as well as ordinary users who might be fooled by false information. These companies must increase the people and resources they devote to the region to combat false information and actors who violate their terms of service. They must also be more open with data so independent researchers can better monitor potentially dangerous activity.