By Wolfram Lacher
The authoritarian states intervening in Libya also lead disinformation campaigns whose scope illustrates dramatically altered international power relations.
Just as the United States and Europe retreat in the face of growing interventionism by regional states, power relations in the global media undergo dramatic changes that wreak unprecedented upheaval in the information economy of crisis states like Libya.
Armies of bots and trolls fielded by Gulf states, Egypt, and Russia flood social media with propaganda, amplifying the views of venal “influencers” in Western and Middle Eastern capitals, and pushing conspiracy theories peddled by satellite channels such as Russia Today or Al-Arabiya.
Authoritarian states now direct such disinformation campaigns at multiple countries at the same time. They are making inroads into the public spheres of advanced democracies and developing countries.
But settings like Libya offer a particularly fertile environment for their operations: countries without a history of independent, professional journalism but instead a legacy of mass indoctrination by regimes that tried to shield society from global information flows.
Add to those conditions the effects of successive civil wars in which rival factions have long spread hatred for their political adversaries, and gained ample experience in manufacturing fake news.
Even before the entry of foreign bot farms onto the scene with the beginning of Haftar’s Tripoli offensive, Libya’s weaponized media made it impossible for anyone to get to the bottom of events without access to firsthand information.
The country’s leading TV channels and news websites often hide their ownership and sources of funding, but most broadcast from Middle Eastern capitals, have foreign sponsors, and are directly linked to key players in the conflict.
Propagandists on social media and television promote hate speech and lies in ways that offer their political sponsors deniability. Photos and videos taken from other countries or past events are a staple of Libyan fake news.
Another is fabricated articles purporting to be from major Western newspapers, exploiting the limited language skills of most Libyans, a legacy of Gadhafi’s decades-long ban on foreign language teaching.
When the current war erupted in April 2019, foreign information warriors considerably boosted the torrent of propaganda. Within hours of Haftar’s announcement that the offensive had begun, Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian influencers began posting and tweeting in support of the operation, supported by legions of automated accounts.
Clearly, the social media campaign had been coordinated with advance knowledge of Haftar’s offensive. Haftar had met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman only a week before he launched the operation, giving rise to speculation that the unprecedented intervention of Saudi-sponsored bots and trolls was among the outcomes of that meeting.
Since then, propaganda specialists from other countries have entered the battle for the minds of Libyans, and for narratives of the war in the global media.
A few days after the beginning of Haftar’s offensive, Qatari and Turkish accounts began to shoot back. Pro-Haftar bots soon started adopting British and French personas, with dozens of accounts tweeting identical messages about Haftar doing “the Lord’s work in Libya,” and proving that “one man can be enough to change history.”
Several months before the war erupted, accounts linked to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin began an influence operation in support of Haftar and Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam, which continued as Prigozhin started deploying mercenaries to fight with Haftar’s forces in Tripoli in September 2019.
The activity of foreign bot armies is yet another illustration of the shifting global balance of power. Under public pressure, Facebook has taken down hundreds of pages from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates due to “coordinated inauthentic behavior” directed at Libya, among other countries.
Twitter has done the same for thousands of accounts from Saudi Arabia. But many similar networks continue operating with impunity, provoking accusations that Twitter has a “blind spot” when it comes to manipulation by powerful Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Together, Libyan and foreign agents of disinformation have turned Libya’s public sphere into a toxic mix of fake news and hate speech where nothing is immune to manipulation, and no amount of evidence is sufficient to prove something as true.
Haftar’s powerful propaganda machine has many believe — or at least consider it possible — that the rockets Haftar’s forces regularly fire at Tripoli’s airport actually originate from Haftar’s enemies.
When imagery of a downed drone appears, both sides will claim it is their enemy’s aircraft. Videos of airstrikes that killed dozens of civilians are turned into proof that artillery fire was responsible.
When a video surfaced in which Syrian mercenaries bragged about their battlefield victories in Tripoli, the same video reappeared only hours later with a different soundtrack, suggesting it was taken in Syria. It remains unclear which of the two soundtracks is authentic, and attempts to geolocate the scenery in such videos have given rise to only more controversy.
Such information warfare strengthens the deniability of foreign intervention, particularly in the eyes of the Libyan public.
No number of articles in The New York Times can convince true believers that Russians are fighting for Haftar, or Syrians for his opponents.
But for those who have not entered the echo chambers of one particular faction, the flood of fake news from countless sources spreads confusion, and sows doubts even in indisputable facts.
Deniability and disinformation are as old as war itself, and combat drones first entered the world’s war zones two decades ago.
What is different about today’s warfare in Libya is that a much greater range of actors is now wielding such instruments in a single conflict at the same time.
During the Cold War, “plausible deniability” was the hallmark of U.S. covert action. In fact, U.S. and Soviet support for mercenaries, insurgents, and militias was widely known, but simply not officially acknowledged.
Deniability allowed both sides to avoid a direct confrontation that risked triggering nuclear war. This logic is now making a comeback amid intensifying great-power competition.
But in Libya, not only the great powers take advantage of the fiction of deniability. In Libya, as in Syria, multiple middle powers intervene in a distant war zone using mercenaries from at least four countries.
The United States pioneered the use of drone strikes as a way of eschewing accountability for targeted killings. For years, the United States rarely acknowledged its responsibility for the strikes, though as the only power possessing combat drones, denials would have been implausible.
The United Arab Emirates and Turkey merely imitate the longstanding U.S. practice of bombing people anonymously and out of the blue.
Now, the United States has an incentive to claim the strikes it carries out in Libya, to dispel doubts that it could be responsible for strikes perpetrated by the other two states operating drones there.
(France, which has recently acquired combat drones that are based in neighboring Niger, could soon emerge as a fourth drone power in Libya.)
Flooding social media with disinformation, conspiracy theories, and hate speech is a strategy first developed in Russia. But that approach has rapidly spread across the globe. The Gulf states are clearly among the leading investors in armies of bots and trolls.
In Western and Middle Eastern capitals, countless influencers associated in one way or another with the states meddling in Libya have joined the battle over the narratives defining the country’s war.
The information war is not one of pitched battles, but of chaotic melees.
Drones, deniability, and disinformation in Libya are not mere symptoms of global disorder, but also its agents. Nostalgists of the so-called rules-based international order undoubtedly understate the injustice of those rules, and the role of political expedience in deciding whether they were applied or ignored.
It is fitting that one decisive step towards the demise of the liberal world order was the 2011 intervention in Libya, which ushered in a decade of paralysis in the U.N. Security Council.
Today, that body no longer cares whether its sanctions and resolutions on Libya are implemented — and several Western council members share that disinterest with Russia.
The annual reports documenting weapons shipments and foreign intervention in violation of the arms embargo are of purely academic interest.
Deniable meddling in Libya is now wrecking the vestiges of the rules-based international order, one drone strike at a time.
Wolfram Lacher is a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. He is the author of Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict.
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