How dangerous are the Middle East's "electronic armies"?

Turkey: Jamal Khashoggi demonstration.
Turkey: Jamal Khashoggi demonstration.

The Middle East is plagued by electronic armies working at the behest of one regime or another. Long used by those in power as a weapon in the fight against activists and dissidents, such operations can have deadly consequences for those caught in the crosshairs. Cathrin Schaer has the details

By Cathrin Schaer

There are armies in the Middle East that do not have guns and whose "soldiers" work online only – but that doesn't mean they're not dangerous. The term "electronic armies" is commonly used in the Middle East for such forces.

The concept is simple, as the Internet freedom advocates from Access Now explain. "A group of people assume false identities in order to participate in Internet forums and social media to send – or suppress – a specific message."

Mahmoud Ghazayel, an expert in online disinformation in Lebanon, says that even in Western countries, for example, political influence is exerted via social media. Online campaigns and hate propaganda exist worldwide. But the degree and type of disinformation varies, says Ghazayel. "In the Middle East, such campaigns can easily get someone killed. Unfortunately, we already have a lot of examples of this," he said.

Conspiracy theory culminated in murder

Last August, for example, the young Iraqi activist Riham Yaqoob, born in 1991, was murdered. Yaqoob was supposedly killed because of her participation in local anti-government protests. But Ben Robin-D'Cruz, a researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark, has looked more closely into the details of Yaqoob 's death. He says that by the time she met her death, the 30 year-old fitness specialist had long since withdrawn from protests.

Videos circulating on social media that purported to show her leading protests were actually not of her, nor were they filmed in Basra as alleged, Robin-D'Cruz noted.

Instead, Yaqoob was the victim of a widely shared conspiracy theory that accused a group of young locals "of being agents in a U.S. plot to orchestrate violent protests in Basra," Robin-D'Cruz wrote for the London School of Economics' Middle East Center. In fact, the group had only participated in a U.S.-funded youth leadership programme.

A #woman activist and #medic , Dr Riham Yaqoob, was shot dead today in #Basra in south #Iraq , where #Iran-backed militias have been targeting protesters and critics. Iraqi activists are living in fear as assassinations are becoming increasingly frequent

— Donatella Rovera (@DRovera) August 19, 2020


Targeted disinformation

But a story on Iran's state news agency, Mehr, published on 10 September 2018, suggested otherwise.

The Iranian news agency article identified the young activists clearly and their pictures, including one of Yaqoob that showed her with the former U.S. consul general in Basra, Timmy Davis, were shared on social media. The image was enough to portray her to the public as a U.S.-backed conspirator. In Iraq, which was reeling from numerous protests, this was a serious accusation.

After that, pressure mounted on the activists from pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Other members of the group fled the city or the country. But Yaqoob didn't, and on 19 August 2020, she was shot in her car by a gunman from the back of a motorcycle.

The Jamal Kashoggi case

But Iraq is not the only country in the region in which electronic armies are thriving. Perhaps the highest-profile example of such online harassment relates to the case of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered inside the Saudi Embassy in Turkey in 2018.

A 2020 analysis of threats made against him on Arabic-language social media indicated a pattern of co-ordinated intimidation and abuse, much of which could be traced back to Saudi Arabia, investigators from the Soufan Group, a U.S.-based security consultancy, have argued.

State actors outsourcing their campaigns

Additionally, third parties may be involved. "We are increasingly seeing state actors outsourcing their disinformation operations," researchers from the Stanford Internet Observatory wrote in a report published last December. This gives governments a level of plausible deniability, they said. And if one firm gets banned, those who are paying simply use another.

Of course, other countries also have "electronic armies". Elsewhere they have been described as troll farms, cyber armies, keyboard armies or web brigades. In its 2020 report, Freedom House revealed that in 39 out of 65 countries surveyed, individuals were employed by political leaders to "manipulate online discussions".

Iraq/Demonstration for assassinated Hisham al Hashemi (photo: Ahmad al-Rubaya/AFP/Getty Images)
Protest in Baghdad against Iran's influence following the murder of activist Hisham al Hashemi. The regime in Tehran is targeting democracy activists and opponents of Iranian influence in Iraq with targeted online defamation campaigns. In September 2018, Iran's Mehr News Agency published a photo of activist Riham Yaqoob with the then-U.S. consul general in Basra to portray her as a U.S.-backed conspirator. On August 19, 2020, Yaqoob was shot dead in her car by an unknown armed motorcyclist

Approach to digital media problematic

Experts agree that as a region, it is quite possible that the Middle East has some of the worst problems with electronic armies in the world. This may be because of how people in the region use social media, Ghazayel suggested.  Although most Middle East countries offer a wide variety of traditional news outlets, locals tend to be wary of them, as many are funded, founded, or directed by the country's government or social or religious interest groups. So instead, they turn to social media for news and information, the credibility of which is often questionable.

This is a growing trend. A 2020 study of attitudes of Arab youths aged between 18 and 24 found that 79% were getting their news from social media. Around two-thirds of respondents told researchers they trusted social media "to do the right thing". In comparison, a 2020 study by the Reuters Institute showed that only 56% of young Germans and 51% of Americans of the same age got their news from either Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok.

Precarious political culture

The Middle East's problem with electronic armies may also have to do with language, Owen Jones reasoned. "In Arabic, disinformation seems to thrive," he said during the TED talk. "And I think part of the reason for this is a regulatory blind spot when it comes to the social media companies, who are less inclined to take action against accounts who aren't speaking English, or that aren't impacting directly on U.S. interests."

Ghazayel believes it also has to do with the precarious political climate in some Middle Eastern countries, where there is conflict, economic pressure, or an authoritarian government.

"When they are being encouraged by politicians or governments, and then also find that social media platforms are letting them loose without any genuine or swift action to rein them in, electronic armies thrive in the absence of the rule of law."

Cathrin Schaer

© Deutsche Welle 2021