In the old days you could pull a trigger on a revolver and hurt people, but today when you trigger these vast media that we use you are manipulating entire populations.
– Marshall McLuhan
We don’t use the term “terrorist” lightly. It’s a word that has become so overused and erroneously applied to all sorts of people it’s almost lost all meaning. Dissident rappers in Spain are now called terrorists. Environmental activists are classified as terrorists. Adversarial journalists? Yep! They are terrorists too. Even though it is statistically impossible that all 2.5 million members of the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists, that’s exactly what the Egyptian government would like us to believe.
There are however actual jihadist terrorists in the world and they are dangerous motherfuckers. Perhaps some assume they mostly live in caves in the mountains of Afghanistan but we might need to course correct our assumptions of who they are and how they operate. Terrorists today have social media skills. They have graphic designers, videographers, app developers, PR people and branding. Terrorists even have their own memes.
— Jihadi Memes (@JihadiMemes) May 24, 2014
So it seems we have terrorists in our internetz folks and they are spreading their extremist propaganda like wildfire. We thought this would be a good time to examine propaganda in the Middle East and how it spreads via social media. It might be easiest to start with some government propaganda and ease into the terrorist stuff so we will begin there.
Ex-army chief, Abdel Fatah El-Sisi was officially sworn in as Egyptian president on June 8. Reports indicate Sisi won a whopping 96% of the vote, destroying opposition candidate Hamdeen Sabahi who only garnered 3% of votes. Sabahi actually came in third place in the election taking into account the spoiled ballots. Despite low voter turnout, Sisi still managed to sweep the election. No one was really surprised. The propaganda campaign in favor of Sisi was massive and mostly uncontested by Sabahi.
Till now Sabahy is third after the invalid ballots. I think Sisi could appoint Mr. Invalid Ballot as Prime Minister. #Egypt
— The Big Pharaoh (@TheBigPharaoh) May 28, 2014
Our photographer saw one ballot on which someone scrawled "CC killer" in box next to Sisi. Judge counted as a vote for Sisi…
— Samer Al-Atrush (@SameralAtrush) May 28, 2014
Bashar Al-Assad also won the election in Syria earlier this month, also winning by a landslide of 88.7% of the vote. The two other candidates, Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Hajjar, won 4.3% and 3.2% respectively. The Syrian election was denounced widely as a farce.
So how do we square the results when two authoritarian regimes are elected into office by a seemingly popular vote? Part of the answer might lie in South Korea’s election rigging scandal of 2012.
The incident was strangely under-reported in western media but the implications of social media being used as a tool of manipulative propaganda are pretty huge. Nine agents from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) were found to have created hundreds of fake profiles which were used to attack opposition candidates on the internet. The Korea Center for Investigative Journalism (or NewsTapa) shared CSV files containing raw data and their analysis which revealed that 658 Twitter accounts had been used by the NIS to send out 237,000 tweets. The small army of fake social media propagandists was determined to have influenced the presidential election.
The main stream media propaganda machine in Egypt alone was probably enough to convince the public to vote for Sisi. Popular news personalities were even referred to as Egypt’s media bling-bling anchors. Their images and videos went viral in Egyptian social media.
A phenomenon known as “online committees” or “e-committees” has been witnessed in Egyptian social media. Our sources there tell us it is common to have 10 people running hundreds of fake profiles via multiple devices which are used to spread propaganda via social networks, mainly facebook and twitter.
The Egyptian government has dabbled in social media since around 2008. When they realized people were mobilizing the streets via facebook and twitter they jumped on the bandwagon. Early on the Egyptian government used sock puppet accounts on twitter that were easily recognized because they didn’t bother to change the twitter egg default avatars and didn’t have any followers. Now the regime communicates via official facebook accounts that were opened not long after Mubarak left office in 2011. The Egyptian Cabinet of Ministers facebook page currently has 1.9 million fans and 174K followers on twitter. The spokesperson for SCAF on facebook has 2.5 million fans.
The Egyptian government is active, popular and very well-versed in social media. Granted most people are aware that you can buy facebook fans and twitter followers pretty cheap these days, but still when you see a facebook page with 2.5 million fans it’s easy to assume said page is representing something with serious social media klout.
We hear similar reports of fake accounts spreading disinformation in Syrian social media networks. Syrian sources have told us that every real account has five fake accounts and their target is giving false news. Same as e-committees in Egypt, fake Syrian accounts attack opposition accounts and generally spread pro-government propaganda. We are told that much of their news is directed at western media sources. The Syrian Electronic Army is well known for its hacking exploits and website defacements but it also carries out spam campaigns supporting the Syrian government.
Smear campaigns and consensus cracking are textbook cointelpro maneuvers used to sway opinions in online forums. Several social psychology techniques illustrate how easily masses of people can be manipulated by what appears to be a consensus of public opinion.
For example, pluralistic ignorance, a situation where people privately disagree but publicly support a norm or belief – thinking erroneously that everyone else concurs, is a well documented psychological effect that can influence masses of people. It was perhaps first demonstrated in the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” where an entire town feared speaking out about an obvious injustice not wanting to stand out of the crowd. Finally it took an innocent child to publicly yell out that the emperor was naked for the other townspeople to realize that they had all been duped.
In comparison to modern times and real world social media, an army of paid trolls can significantly drown out the smaller voices online who may be trying to convey legitimate true information and opinions. A timid person who might consider voicing a dissenting opinion can be easily self-censored if they believe that the majority of people are not in agreement with them.
Just how damaging are e-committees? Their influence is difficult to measure but should not be underestimated. We could not find much analysis regarding social media propaganda metrics in the Middle East. In the case of South Korea, only 9 government agents running a propaganda botnet had a really big impact. In Egypt and Syria paid trolls incite violence online and get people killed. Experienced social media users tell us they can easily spot the socks. Naïve or new users… not so much.
We expect these kinds of shenanigans from nation states. But now we are seeing a new twisted dimension of online propaganda under the brand of ISIS. As revealed by The Atlantic earlier this week and confirmed by our own sources in Syria, The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is VERY active on twitter. They have their own apps to spread propaganda and create twitterstorms that would give the appearance of consensus in Iraqi social media and abroad.
We were advised by Syrian sources that they are spreading disinformation in Iraq just the same as they have done in Syria. They are even circulating fake pics from Libya or Syria and claiming they were taken in Iraq. Fake pics being spread online is nothing new, only this time they are being spread by the scariest terror network on the planet.
— Iraqi Blogger (@Hamzoz) June 16, 2014
ISIS did a twitterstorm after Friday prayers on June 20 under the tag #AllEyesOnISIS and from what we saw it was much like any other twitterstorm. Standard, pre-written tweets from accounts with black flags praising ISIS and attempting to portray a positive and revolutionary image. We did not click any of their links.
ISIS tweeters attempted to hijack World Cup hashtags:
— رآويہ#خلافة۩ (@loooly44_82482) June 20, 2014
— رآويہ#خلافة۩ (@loooly44_82482) June 20, 2014
— Tara Al-hamdani (@tara48818185) June 19, 2014
— ابنة الشيخ البغدادي© (@MujaahidaHafy) June 19, 2014
Ironically the US government has supposedly been developing persona management software for the sole purpose of countering extremist propaganda. One of the first reports on Operation Earnest Voice was published by The Guardian in 2011:
“Operation Earnest Voice (OEV), which was first developed in Iraq as a psychological warfare weapon against the online presence of al-Qaida supporters and others ranged against coalition forces. Since then, OEV is reported to have expanded into a $200m programme and is thought to have been used against jihadists across Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.”
Was Centcom on vacation while ISIS was blasting out their extremist propaganda? We were under the impression that NSA has dragnet surveillance programs in place to catch terrorists. An article published by CNN earlier this month claimed the US State Department is trolling jihadists online but they didn’t seem to be present in the ISIS twitterstorm. What we would really like to know… how do twitter accounts of activists get shut down yet ISIS twitterstorms are permitted? Are we all being trolled by terrorists?
Sources and additional reading:
On the Harms of Brainwash by Alaa al Aswany
Social media as a government propaganda tool in post-revolutionary Egypt by Sara El-Khalili