Blurring the lines of media authenticity
By Shelby Grossman, Khadija H., Renee DiResta
The Stanford Internet Observatory has been investigating new facets to the manipulation of the local media environment in Libya.
Russian actors who are known to have previously created and sponsored online news media fronts and associated Facebook pages, now appear to be expanding into similar activities in broadcast media.
By surreptitiously financing a well-established well-known media brand, these actors are taking a Cold War-era strategy of supporting local media outlets and updating it for the digital age.
Over the past year Russia has become increasingly involved in the conflict in Libya. Some of this involvement is kinetic: Russian mercenary soldiers employed by firms linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with close ties to Vladimir Putin, are fighting longside Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) forces.
Modern Russian weapons have been found on battlefields. Alongside the kinetic, the relationship includes media and information operations support for political candidates, and social media influence operations.
Stanford Internet Observatory research previously found that Prigozhin-linked firms had created Facebook Pages bolstering not only Haftar but Saif al-Gaddafi, one of Gaddafi’s surviving sons.
Prigozhin may be trying to bring Gaddafi supporters to Haftar’s camp, or simply playing multiple sides of the local power game by bolstering two likely presidential contenders.
While the motivation remains a matter of state strategy, it is clear that Russian actors are exerting influence via traditional as well as social media channels.
This involvement takes the form of both direct involvement in content creation as well as financial support for local creators, which presents a challenge for evaluating authenticity in the Libyan media ecosystem: when does foreign support for local media cross the line into facilitating inauthentic behavior?
In November the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative organization, shared an appendix from an internal Prigozhin-linked group document with the Stanford Internet Observatory team. The leaked document, dated March 20, 2019, describes three media interventions in Libya:
- entering into a financial arrangement in which a Prigozhin-linked firm would own 50% of the former state-run TV station under Muammar Gaddafi (now supportive of Saif al-Gaddafi);
- creating a physical pro-LNA newspaper, Voice of the People; and
- consulting on Alhadath, a Haftar-aligned TV station.
In this post, we discuss the social media and online presence of these television channels and the Voice of the People print newspaper. Key findings include:
- By secretly investing in a long-standing TV channel, Prigozhin is refining his ability to blur the lines of media authenticity.
- The TV channel (and its related social media entities) have historically been pro-Gaddafi; in the months since investment, they additionally became supportive of Haftar. This backfired, with social media users mocking the obvious shift in tone and calling out what they perceived to be the channel’s foreign backers.
- A real political party, the Civil Democratic Party, posts PDFs of the Prigozhin-funded newspaper on its Facebook Page, with the party’s logo on the paper’s header. The newspaper is vigorously anti-GNA and pro-Haftar.
Aljamahiria TV station and Jana News Agency
The Aljamahiria TV channel was the former Libyan state-run broadcasting organization under Gaddafi. Anti-Gaddafi rebel forces removed it from the air in 2011. It appeared again in 2014, and is now on Nilesat, an Egyptian communications satellite.
The Dossier Center document describes “the company” (the name for the Prigozhin-linked group) providing technical, financial, and advisory support for a TV station, Aljamahiria TV since January 2019.
The memo goes on to say that “the channel criticizes the activities of Khalifa Haftar [LNA], Khalid Al-Mishri [head of the Tripoli-based High Council of State] and Western countries” and supports Saif al- Gaddafi, and notes that “50% of the channel (in a joint venture) belongs to the Russian side” (translated).
The memo highlights the transformative effects of the Prigozhin investment, saying that the TV channel used to be: chaotic, regularly interrupted for 2-3 months.
Currently, the channel broadcasts on a regular basis and is popular with supporters of Saif al-Gaddafi. The channel’s monthly audience exceeds 6 million views in the Middle East and North Africa.
Moreover, the company’s employees created a unified information service for the Jamahiria TV channel and the Jana news agency. In March 2019, the company’s specialists launched 6 new regular broadcasts and resumed work […]
The memo then shows before and after images of the studio, illustrating that the Prigozhin investment helped modernize the studio.
Content on social media accounts associated with this TV station indicate that it shares Gaddafi nostalgia content (ie, “Muammar Gaddafi, I wish that you would come back.”) and content supportive of Saif al-Gaddafi.
For several months the additional posts on Aljamahiria’s Facebook Page were typically neutral news statements — noting that there were clashes south of Tripoli, or posts about the weather.
In December 2019, however, the tone changed. Posts began to appear that were critical of Turkish military support to the UN-recognized Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, and more supportive of the LNA.
For example, a post on January 6, 2020 said قوات الشعب المسلح تحرر مدينة سرت (The forces of the armed population free the city of Sirte). The phrase “forces of the armed population” is a phrase originating from the Gaddafi regime to describe the official Libyan armed forces. Here the channel is using the term interchangeably to describe the LNA advancement on Sirte.
Beginning in December 2019, social media users noticed this trend; they called it “حفترة قناة الخضراء” (Hafterization of the Green Channel).
On December 19 one Facebook user commented in a group that Aljamahiria had shifted from referring to “Haftar’s militias” to “the Armed Forces,” language that aligns Gaddafi-era terms with Haftar’s LNA.
One Page mocked Aljamahiria’s dramatic shift in tone, suggesting satirically that even the word “prayers” needs to be renamed “Haftar’s prayers.” In one comment thread a user said “the channel is now with Haftar,” and another responded saying “no, Haftar is now with the channel.”
Authentic Gadaffi supporters took to Facebook to express their displeasure at how now Hafterized Aljamahiria was misrepresenting them. One commenter even wrote a few poetic verses to describe his anger:
Yes, he really hafterised it
from Ghat to Sebha ..
and He ruined it ..
The green channel, he hafterized it.
Yes, rats hafterize yourselves.
The zero hour always equals zero if it’s according to the local time of the Karama leader’s watch.
Aljamahiria then backed off the pro-LNA language; in one post they called Haftar a war criminal. But social media users noticed this shift in tone as well.
In February 2020 a pro-GNA Page posted an Aljamahiria video, saying that the channel was suddenly criticizing Haftar after having encouraging the youth to fight with him.
In response to an Aljamahiria video that was critical of Haftar and posted in February 2020, one user wrote: “why did u turn on the army?” (translated).
Two users posted 1,500 word tomes theorizing about the shifts in Aljamahiria’s tone, with one directing remarks toward what he perceived to be Aljamahiria’s foreign backers: he accused Jamahiriya of accepting money from foreign countries and said that Jamahiriya had become a channel of “propaganda and distorted ideas.”
A Twitter user commented on the new tone shift as well.
Libya Facts, a pro-Gaddafi Page, defended the Aljamahiria Page, showing screenshots of anti-Haftar posts on Aljamahiria to allay suspicions.
Libya Facts also noted that the channel is based out of Egypt and the Egyptian government carefully monitors who receives foreign funding, implying that Aljamahiria could not possibly be tied to any foreign entity.
Aljamahiria has a professional, polished Instagram account, created in October 2019, which shares original Gaddafi nostalgia memes and pro-Saif al Gaddafi memes.
The Jana News Agency, which is explicitly part of the Aljamahiria network (its logo says Aljamahiria News Agency) and is mentioned in the leaked document, has a website, jana-ly.co, that was created in January 2017.
Its original Facebook Page had 5 admins in Egypt, 1 admin in the UK, and 3 admins whose location are hidden. This pattern is similar to the administrator ownership pattern of Facebook Pages involved in Libyan influence operations that we identified in previous research, where Pages typically had 5 Egyptian Page admins and 1 other admin in a European country.
Interestingly, jana-ly.co has an article from November 2, 2019, reposted from Russian state media outlet Sputnik, about the Prigozhin-linked Facebook takedown of influence operations targeting Libya.
It claims that Facebook removed those Pages in anger over the success of the Russia-Africa Sochi summit. In February 2020 its Page came down, and days later it respawned as facebook.com/jana2.ly with 3 admins in Egypt.
We also found a Facebook Page called الجبهة الشعبية لتحرير ليبيا (Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya) that lists as its “media platforms” facebook.com/aljamahiriytv and facebook.com/janaly.co Like the TV channel and Jana News, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya Page has pro-Gaddafi content.
It has also run anti-Sarraj and anti-Turkish ads.
The Popular Front Page also lists facebook.com/safalbonyan, facebook.com/libya24tv, and facebook.com/libyamandela as additional “media platforms”, which similarly have pro-Gaddafi posts. All of these Pages have a majority of administrators in Egypt.
Consistent with the trends we observe on these social platforms, New York Time reporting suggests that Haftar is welcoming support from former Gaddafi supporters.
Voice of the People Newspaper
Another entity mentioned in the Dossier Center memo is the Voice of the People newspaper. The memo notes that “since January 2019, the Company’s specialists began publishing the Voice of the People newspaper.
The newspaper is distributed in the territory controlled by the LNA.
The general content of the newspaper is criticism of the new draft Constitution, the policies of Al-Misri and Sarraj, support for the activities of the LNA and the image of Khalifa Haftar.
The circulation of the newspaper is 300,000 copies. At the moment, 2 circulations of the newspaper have been prepared and distributed.”
The creation of a print newspaper is noteworthy.
New York Times reporting suggests Russian entities created a newspaper in Madagascar in 2018 as well, saying: “Russians published their own newspaper in the local language and hired students to write fawning articles about the president to help him win another term.”
We found the two issues of the newspaper here and here — as of February 2020, there don’t appear to be more.
The newspaper is vehemently against the new draft constitution, encouraging citizens to vote “no” on it.
The Constitutional Drafting Assembly voted to allow military personnel to be eligible for president only if they renounce their military positions two years before elections, a policy that pro-Haftar groups were against given that he would likely run for the position in the future.
The latest (fourth) draft of the constitution also says that presidential candidates must relinquish any foreign nationalities at least one year before elections; Haftar has American citizenship.
The Civil Democratic Party appears to be close to Haftar, and supports his offensive on Tripoli.
Accounts on Twitter have said that the newspaper is being distributed for free; one posted a photo of it.
The paper is branded with the logo of the Civil Democratic Party, and issues have been posted as PDFs on the Civil Democratic Party Facebook Page.
The Party is made up of former members of Libya’s Transitional Council and former ambassadors. Its Facebook Page was created in September 2017, and has 3 admins in Libya.
The CDP appears to have their own video recording capability, occasionally posting videos reminiscent of news broadcasts.
The first issue of the newspaper, published in January 2019, included an article introducing the paper, written by the president of the party. The party leader expressed allegiances toward the LNA.
The issue focused on criticizing the constitutional drafting project. Articles implied the new draft constitution was undemocratic and “succumbed to political Islam.” An opinion piece urged citizens to vote against the constitution.
The second issue of the newspaper, published in March 2019, led with an article called “The Hidden Lebanese Government” (translated). The article alleged that the Government of National Accord — the internationally-recognized Tripoli-based government — is letting international actors like the UN and Lebanon take over the government.
Another article on the cover page noted that the average Libyan is suffering, with queues at banks and corruption. The GNA should be replaced, it claimed, and the state should regain its monopoly on force and bring back the rule of law.
A cartoon on the cover page shows the GNA Prime Minister bringing foreign allies a pie of Libya. Each foreign actor vies for a piece of Libya, and the Special Representative for the UN in Libya says there will be enough for everyone.
Alhadath TV Station
The third aspect of this memo references the LNA-aligned TV channel: “In February 2019, the company’s specialists conducted an external audit of the activities of Alhadath TV channel (LNA channel), on the basis of which they prepared and presented their recommendations for the optimization of broadcasting to the [Haftar] team.”
The Facebook Page associated with this TV channel has about 875,000 followers. It was created in 2016, and has seven Page administrators in Libya.
The Page is generally pro-Haftar and often reposts statements from Haftar’s spokesman, Ahmed al Mismari. There is a Twitter account, @libyaalhadathtv, created in 2015, which has 89,100 followers.
The only account that the Twitter account follows is @news9ly, which was created in July 2019 and shared LibyaAlhadathTV content. There is also a YouTube channel, created in 2016, which notes that the station (like Aljamahiria) is on Nilesat. Its associated website is libyaalhadath.net.
The current nature of Prigozhin’s involvement in this TV channel is unclear, though we note that Facebook lists the Alhadath Page as a “Related Page” to the new Jana News Agency Page.
Our prior research showed that Russian actors created Facebook Pages supportive of Saif Gaddafi and Haftar. This leaked document suggests that Russian actors are supporting these two figures in Libya’s traditional print and television media space as well.
In our earlier research, we found that Russian actors had franchised out management of their Facebook Pages to content creators in Egypt.
This made it harder for Libyans to detect the involvement of Russian actors. Similarly, here we see foreign actors inserting themselves into the legitimate Libyan media environment by way of financial support.
While Libyans noticed the change in tone on the Pages, attributing that involvement to specific actors is a significant challenge.
Going forward, the combination of franchising and virtually-undetectable financial support will make gauging the independence and authenticity of media outlets online and offline even more difficult for disinformation researchers.
These tactics will also create difficult decisions for platforms about whether the behavior violates their terms of service.
Shelby Grossman is a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory. She was previously an assistant professor of political science at the University of Memphis. Dr. Grossman’s primary research interests are in comparative politics and sub-Saharan Africa.
Renée DiResta is the Research Manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory. She investigates the spread of malign narratives across social networks, and assists policymakers in understanding and responding to the problem. She has advised Congress, the State Department, and other academic, civic, and business organizations, and has studied disinformation and computational propaganda in the context of pseudoscience conspiracies, terrorism, and state-sponsored information warfare.
Stanford .. Internet Observatory – Cyber Policy Center