APRIL - JUNE 2019
On April 4th, the Libyan National Army (LNA) advanced on Tripoli while the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in town to set the scene for the National Dialogue Conference, which was planned to take place in Libya on 14-16 April. The situation on the ground shifted quickly from talks about reconciliation, and potential constitutional referendum and elections, to an unfolding civil war under the pretext of ridding the Capital of terrorists. The conflict cast a long shadow not only on what-was-then-an-ongoing political process but also on the social media platforms with all domestic and foreign sides fueling the conflict with hate speech, disinformation and fake news.
Since December 2018, DRI has observed that users on public social media pages are more interested in security related topics than in elections, the constitution or the UN-backed roadmap. The same trends continue to hold true over this reporting period from April to June 2019. Hence, DRI has adopted a more qualitative approach to this issue of the report in an attempt to contextualize the emerging or persisting trends for the purpose of gaining a better understanding of Libya’s social media landscape.
Social media platforms acted as a magnifying lens for the LNA military campaign on Tripoli. In April, the hike in the number of articles and engagements on Facebook was driven by pro-LNA content covering all aspects of the LNA military activities. More than 50% of the total number of SM engagements in April were related to content generated by 218TV. During Ramadan, this spike decreased significantly and re-increased slightly by June when LNA lost the city of Gheryan. Both LNA and GNA used social media extensively to shape the public narrative and perception about the outcome of the battle: the GNA declared the capture of Gheryan as a military victory while the LNA blamed their loss on having been betrayed by the city.
The Libyan National Conference (NC) was scheduled to be held in mid-April 2019. Online media websites and social media pages published a significant amount of content covering the organization and participation in the NC and reactions to its cancellation. As the military campaign began, it took the UN a few days before it announced that the NC was postponed, allowing for much speculation. The online interest in the UNSMIL-backed NC dropped significantly in May and continued to be low in June.
The role of the UN SGSR Ghassan Salame has been a recurring theme in media coverage and social media engagement over the period covered by this report. When the conflict broke out, SGSR became a trending topic as Libyans speculated around the possibility of UNSMIL leaving Libya. Both media pages and SM users interpreted Salame’s comments and remarks to suit the narrative they promote. A France 24 article entitled “Ghassan Salame warns against supporting Haftar and says he is not Abraham Lincoln” was shared 1.3K in April as evidence that SGSR condemns the LNA’s military advance.
In May, Salame visited Brussels to exchange views on possible steps to avoid military escalation.1 He later briefed the UN Security Council on the situation in Libya. His speech was translated and published by several SM pages and media outlets, prompting the different sides to call for Salame’s resignation because of what they perceived as ‘bias’. Salame continued to be the center of SM attention when his Twitter handle got hacked in an attempt to use it to spread fake news.
1 Foreign Affairs Council, 13 May 2015 https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/fac/2019/05/13/
Municipal elections held in April coincided with the beginning of the LNA military offensive on Tripoli. The highest number of articles and user engagement in the category of elections was recorded during April. Because of the month of Ramadan, these numbers dropped significantly; a trend observed in all categories that is also reinforced by the fact that no local elections were held during the month. In June, election related content increased again as Fayez al-Sarraj unveiled “an initiative to end the Libyan crisis” by calling for elections to end the hostilities. Meanwhile, the LNA provided assurances that upon the liberation of Tripoli, elections would be organized.
A similar pattern was observed around the constitution. The beginning of April saw the highest number of articles (10) mainly covering the meeting between the Head of the High State Council, Khalid Almashri, with the President of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki, to discuss the political developments in Libya including the constitution. The highest Facebook engagement (30,311), however, was recorded in June around content discussing the possibility of bringing back the Monarchy.
The ground and air offensive by the LNA on Tripoli in April were accompanied by an equally fierce online campaign driven primarily by 218TV2 (accounting for more than 50% of total security-related engagements), followed closely by Almarsad3. Social media spaces that were almost exclusively used by Libyans have become common place for users from the various Arab countries; each with a stake in the conflict. Twitter turned into a battlefield with hashtags and coordinated campaigns led by Libyan and Arab public figures to create a supportive narrative for the LNA military advance. The majority of tweets were originating from Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, followed later by Qatar and Turkey to promote an anti-LNA discourse.
2 218TV is based in Jordan and was founded in 2015 by Huda Essrari. It appears to be well funded and boosts a lot of content on Facebook. Pro-Haftar/LNA leaning media outlet.
3 AlMarsad is also based in Jordan, was created in 2016 and is a pro-Haftar / LNA leaning media outlet.
Although many Libyans do not use Twitter as their primary social media platform, Libyan tweeps have increasingly migrated to the platform since April. Twitter has become a virtual battlefield where tweeps from Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar took sides and did not shy away from supporting one Libyan party to conflict over the other. Instead of concealing their country of origin, Arab tweeps made sure to use flags next to their tweets so their content is linked to their countries’ position on the conflict in Libya. DRI noticed that during the first days of the Libyan war, tweets from Egyptians, Emiratis and Saudis dominated the Twitter sphere with the hashtag #حفتر (#Haftar) while Qatari and Turkish tweeps tweeting about Libya started to appear as of 7-8 April. Twitter, compared to Facebook made it relatively easier to track patterns of foreign actors engaging in the Libyan social media scene.
Several twitter hashtags were created to show support for LNA or GNA. The hashtag ندعم_الجيش_العربي_الليبي or We Support the Libyan Arab Army was among the most popular hashtags trending in Egypt, followed by #ليبيا or Libya and #حفتر or Haftar. The exact number of tweets using the We support the LNA hashtag could not be extracted due to API limitations.
According to Albawaba news article, the We support the LNA hashtag was started by the Egyptian journalist Mohamed al-Diasiti who has 16.5K followers. His first tweet appeared at 7:31 PM4on April 4. However, DRI research found that the earliest tweets on this hashtag were posted at 6:44 PM by an Egypt-based account with the handle @moud666 and at 7:04 PM by @egyeagle1973, also based in Egypt.
Some of the first accounts to tweet on 4th April from Egypt include @Halabadawy64, @viewsama and @Otty1986.
Several verified accounts joined the hashtag including @UAE_3g who was among the first to use it. We observed that only few Libyan pro-LNA tweeted on this hashtag, as the conversation was essentially dominated by Egyptian, Saudi and Emirati accounts.
The same hashtag was also used to voice opposition to Haftar and his foreign backers. An Egyptian account by the name of @AhmedElbaqry, whose views are generally critical of the current Egyptian regime, tweeted to his 111K followers a video allegedly showing Haftar soldiers being captured by what he called the Libyan revolutionaries. The video received 121K views, 3,475 Likes and 775 Retweets.
Another hashtag was created and used in conjunction with the We support the LNA called #حفتريحررمطارطرابلس or Haftar liberates Tripoli Airport. We spotted the same pattern of verified accounts from Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia – with a large number of followers – tweeting at the hashtag to voice their support to the LNA’s advance on Tripoli to “liberate” it from terrorists. The hashtag was created on 5 April and peaked on 6-7 April. By 9 April, it was no longer active.
The first tweet using this hashtag was posted by a verified account that belongs to a Saudi businessman named Monther Al-Sheikh Mubarak @monther72 with 227K followers. He quoted Al Arabiya saying “Tripoli airport is waiting.” Other Saudi personalities used the hashtag for the same purpose including Fahd Ben Mashaal Ben Saud @fahadMsaud, with 75.1K followers.
DRI collected tweets that appeared in the advanced twitter search and analyzed them. A pattern started to emerge. There were 149 tweets with 13 almost identical ones being repeatedly tweeted by 148 accounts. Sometimes the same tweet is translated into French. When these messages are tweeted (not Retweeted), small differences in punctuation and spelling are found. They all used the same hashtags #LNA #Libya #Tripoli. Although there is no way to verify if these accounts were bots, this tweeting pattern appears to be automated to some degree. It started on the 9th of April all the way until the 22nd of April. Sometimes two accounts would tweet the same message at the same time or a few minutes apart. By the time of writing this report in August, only seven out of 148 accounts remain active (4.7%) to date.
The following graph shows the time of posting of these tweets. The circles indicate the different tweets sent, with each color code referring to one of the 13 tweets.
The following graphs show the frequency of tweeting for each user during the day. For example:
Based on these observations, it appears that this user behavior is not organic and rather coordinated and automatic to a certain degree.
The groups of tweets corresponding to the codes in the below graph are pro and anti Haftar and the LNA. Both sides have used the same technique. Click Here to view the groups of tweets that the dots represent.
Using the Account Analysis Tool, these accounts share several interests including Brexit, popular movies, football hashtags, TV shows, etc. Many share UAE related hashtags such as UAEaid, UAEhospitality, UAE, and ZayedMedal.
Heat maps depict the frequency of tweets: the darker the box, the higher the number of tweets posted per hour. Comparing heat map patterns of different accounts could provide an indication of automated activity. The following heat maps show the similarity of the online activities carried out by these accounts:
Misinformation and disinformation are common and widespread on Libyan social media platforms, especially on Facebook. Since April, fake documents, unverified videos and photos, and manipulation of information have been flagrantly used by all sides to the conflict and their foreign backers. Refutation of fake news was noted to be an emerging trend during the period covered by this report. The following social media activities are incidents of misinformation and refutation of fake news that DRI’s social media monitoring activities picked up.
Attempts to portray the SGSR Ghassan Salame as biased to or against a given side to the conflict have intensified since April. For example, a page named “Friday Market” or شارع أولاد الحاج سوق الجمعة shared a coin with juxtaposed Haftar/Salame faces saying “Today all masks are off after Ghassan Salame sided with Haftar at the UN. What else did you expect, he is someone who gets his salary from the UAE.” The post was shared 113 times and received 10K Likes and 937 comments.
Rumors about the death of Tripoli-based militant Gheneiwa al-Kikly were circulated by a page called “Libya News and the Events of the Critical Situation” أخبار ليبيا واحداث الوضع المتقربع but many other Facebook pages refuted them. The rumors were based on a statement by LNA indicating that al-Kikly was “injured”, which the page manipulated into “perished”. DRI noted that the refutation received significant number of engagements and comments as demonstrated below:
A page claiming to be LNA-affiliated named The Media Centre of the 106 Brigade shared a video of “grad-missiles” allegedly being fired at Tripoli. The Military Media Division of the LNA refuted the authenticity of the video and warned against the imposter pages.
Bani Walid in Western Libya was the target of rumours since the beginning of April. One of the rumours was about armed units allegedly coming to LNA’s aid from Bani Walid and heading towards the Capital. The news was swiftly refuted by Libya El Kheir page, Afrigate News and Libya Akhbar.
Another rumour claimed that Bani Walid shifted alliances to support the Karama Dignity forces (LNA) and therefore is now under the control of the eastern government. The rumour was accompanied by a fake document allegedly issued by the Bani Walid Local Council on the Libya Observer page.
Another fake document was allegedly issued by Alhassa Tribe’s Social Council condemning the war in Tripoli. The page of the Security Directorate of Shahat town, the stronghold of Alhassa tribe, immediately refuted the statement and threatened to prosecute those responsible for the fake document.
A fake statement was allegedly issued by the Amazigh Supreme Council to express support to Haftar and the LNA. LY Observer and Libya Ahrar TV immediately discredited the document. Members of the Amazigh Council went on several TV channels including Aljazeera to refute this fake statement of support.
Fake news was not only circulated by pages but also by some of the media outlets. A case in point is the incident with Sky News special correspondent Alex Crawford: Al Marsad newspaper accused Ms. Crawford of calling the GNA forces “irregular rusty and chaotic militias” in her article on Sky News. Ms. Crawford came out on Twitter and refuted the allegations made by Almarsad and denied that the GNA asked her to leave Tripoli immediately.
Another piece of fake news that was widely circulated on social media claimed that an F-16 fighter Jet departed from the UK accompanying an Ilyushin carrier heading to Sirte. The post also shared a video which analysts5 managed to track it back to 2011.
After the LNA’s loss of Gheryan city to the GNA forces, photos were circulated claiming that an aftermath vengeful attack against LNA soldiers took place. A reverse image search of this photo, confirmed by DRI, revealed that the photo is an old one from Iraq.
An example of how fake/unconfirmed news can create an environment for speculations and mostly opposing interpretations is the story about an alleged advance by the LNA towards Gheryan three days before the actual military offensive took place. Different unverified posts from various pages were used as building blocks to construct narratives that suit each page/group’s leanings as the example below demonstrates.
On 1st April pages like HD Friday Market (سوق الجمعة HD) published posts claiming that LNA was marching towards Ghedyan:
On the evening of the same day, a video was posted by a page called Tajora redemption of a nation تاجوراء فداء الوطن allegedly showing LNA forces driving in Gheryan. The video was geotagged Gheryan on the top and provoked users’ curiosity on various Facebook pages. The higher the curiosity, the more room there was for each page or user to come up with their own predictions and/or (mis)interpretation. On the same day the Breaking News Tripoli عاجل طرابلس الحدث page posted about a meeting held by what the page referred to as the “elite youth and Sheikhs of Gheryan.’ Two opposing narratives can be observed: one side interpreted the meeting outcome to have been a decision to take a stance against Haftar.
Meanwhile pro-LNA pages interpreted the meeting outcome as a decision of Gheryan elites to support Haftar and to disown those who would stand against him in the city. The same post was recreated (not shared) by various pages.
5 Inter alia @Arn_Del, Arnaud Delalande - Def./Security Analyst, Business Intelligence Consultant, Journalist and Author covering Libya
Mentions of the constitution were found in the context of the ongoing war in West Libya. Both sides accused each other of derailing the political process and the democratic dispensations, including the constitutional referendum. For example, Warshfana Now published an Arabic translation of the headlines related to Haftar’s interview with the Italian il Manifesto where he said that Libya would adopt a democratic trajectory, organize a constitutional referendum and general elections after the militias are dismantled. The post received the highest engagement in June (1.7 Likes, 47 comments and 13 shares), with almost all comments being positive and supportive.
In second place comes a video post (2 parts) entitled “Alsonoussy: the decision to reinstate the monarchy is in the hands of Libyans” was published by a page called “The National Conference to Reinstate the Independence Constitution and Return the Constitutional Monarchy to Libya”. The videos show a two-part interview with the former Crown Prince Mohamed al-Hassan al-Reda al-Mahdy al-Sonoussy and collectively received 3.2K views. The page itself has 27.27K Likes and was created in September 2017 with admins based in Turkey, Ireland and the UK. The comments on the video show that polarization runs deep in the Libyan society, with a segment of the population advocating for the return of the constitutional monarchy as a solution for the ongoing legitimacy crisis.
In May, a statement made by Tarhouna Protection Force (TPF) stressing that they believe in a civilian, sovereign and constitutional state, caught the attention of Facebook users. The TPF is an armed group formed in May by young men fighting against LNA. The post received 2,200 Likes, 71 shares and 266 comments that are split almost equally between supporters and opponents.
Municipal elections were postponed in some municipalities over the past few months due to the deteriorating security situation. Online reactions varied and gave way to speculation. For instance, the CCMCE Al-Haraba Facebook page announced that elections would be postponed. In response, Al Haraba municipality together with the Al Haraba Council of Wisemen and Elites denounced the delay of elections in their city in a video that received 15K views and 1.7 Likes.
The delay of the elections made citizens of Al-Haraba speculate about the reasons, which led to the spread of rumors. A page called Al Haraba Homeland Channel قناة وطن الحرابة published a post falsely claiming that the elections were delayed because the towns wanted to split from the municipality. Interestingly, users commenting on the post were trying to provide accurate information to refute the page’s claims. They tried to explain that the postponement of the elections was due to some internal disagreements among tribes since the municipal elections are organized by the GNA. Tribes that supported LNA did not favor a GNA-organised elections and therefore, the elections were suspended.
The CCMCE Al-Haraba page did not provide any explanation as to the real reasons for postponing the elections. DRI noted that in general, the page had only 149 Likes and the range of engagement is insignificant (3 comments on 22 posts throughout the month of April). The page made no attempt to provide the necessary facts to ensure disinformation was contained and no further escalations occurred.
The Central Committee of Municipal Councils Elections (CCMCE) has been particularly active in posting voter education material. Top posts by CCMCE were announcements about the upcoming local elections in the different municipalities. From 1 to 30 April, the page published 112 posts, some of which were photos. A photo of the CCMCE staff included one woman (1 woman/8 men) and another photo of 3 women were in the voting booth. Engagement appears to be high due to sponsoring of the content. Meanwhile comments and shares remain low.
DRI observed that the CCMCE pages for southern municipalities were active in posting voter education material and that the user engagement level with the posts was very low. Candidates on the other hand were not so active on the social media realm. Some lists created public Facebook pages during the elections, the majority of which DRI observed, did not post frequently or regularly or reply to the questions or comments they receive from the users. Many of the lists DRI monitored did not publish an electoral platform or ask their electorate to vote for them. It appeared that the use of public Facebook pages by candidates was more cosmetic rather than a key element of their campaigns.
In April, DRI observed two active voter and civic education campaigns run by two Libyan NGOs (H2O and Fezzan Libya Organization). Both NGOs used Facebook to publicize their activities and announce their presence in the communities they serve.
Fezzan Libya Organization is running a candidate training for Sebha municipal elections candidates. Its page during the month of April alone published 21 posts. The page itself has 27.4K Likes and was created in September 2011. One of the posts published by the page included a group photo of municipal candidates who received training by the organization.6 The comments by users on the photo were strongly worded and essentially dismissed local elections as a waste of money and resources, feeding into corruption. This is a typical example of a successful offline campaign whose SM posts got abused by users for the purpose of voicing negative views that are unrelated to the actual content of the posts.
6 CCMCE and H2O pages published during the same period photos showing their female staff.
Since April, nearly all articles and posts related to UNSMIL focused on comments and statements made by the SGSR to portray him as biased to one side over the other. For instance, the most liked post (10.6K Likes, 449 comments and 98 shares) in this category was a post shared by Libya Post News in April where HoR member Jalal Ashuwaihadi accused Salame of being biased towards Haftar by not adequately and sufficiently condemning Haftar’s actions. Media outlets such as 218TV and Almarsad managed to generate the highest user engagement during the month of May through their headlines accusing UNSMIL/Salame of being biased against Haftar. On 218TV, an article entitled Salef: Salame: We cannot ignore the role of Field Commander Haftar in Libya alone accounted for 23.4K user engagements out of a total of 76,583 Facebook engagements for 218 articles.