By Khadeja Ramali (Interviewed by The Africa Center)
Divisions within Libya’s civil war have been amplified by foreign-sponsored disinformation campaigns. Reconciliation and peacebuilding will require local actors to reclaim Libya’s digital spaces.
Why have these disinformation campaigns been so effective in Libya?
For four decades, the Qaddafi regime was the only source of information in Libya. Information was scarce, but people were used to being told what they needed to know by one source.
When things opened up between 2011 and 2013, there were no institutions or structures for reliable facts—some government agencies would have two, three Facebook pages, and it was impossible to tell which one was legitimate.
Many citizens experienced an information overload that was difficult to sort through.
The development of an objective domestic digital media was cut short by the rise of armed groups, which intimidated independent voices into silence and monopolized information in a way that Libyans were used to under Qaddafi.
Within this environment, disinformation and polarization on social media have grown particularly acute. Social media algorithms are often programmed to show users content similar to what they have liked or followed already.
This means that, in digital spaces flooded by biased or fake sources of information, users’ online experiences could easily end up being digital echo chambers without much diversity or reliable information. What effect has disinformation had on Libyan society?
The impact of this situation—where many Libyan internet users end up in disinformation rabbit holes and echo chambers where local voices are crowded out by fake accounts—has amplified the polarization of Libyan society.
The social media experience of somebody who lives in southern Libya is completely different than that of somebody who lives in the west or the east.
They see the world totally differently through their digital experience. Some people know how to get around this and find other voices, but many people became fed up by the lack of reliable information and become paranoid and distrustful of all information beyond just their neighborhood or local social media groups, which are often the only way to get information on what’s going on at the moment.
Some individuals have emerged as trusted sources for a neighborhood or a town as what I call “connectors”—they’re in charge of diffusing the information for their community.
But then what happens when this person or this entity is biased? Once these people build up followers on their platforms, they can often be co-opted and paid to post on behalf of an armed group or political campaign.
So, then everything is distorted and goes back to the Qaddafi model but on a highly localized scale.
The content I see online now pushes real hate towards people in different regions of the country and promotes emotional blindness, where people aren’t even willing to listen to the other side because whatever they say is wrong and whatever they say is evil.
The power of these polarizing narratives is all the more remarkable given the shared language and religion between different Libyan groups.
This demonization of political opponents is going to be a major obstacle to any sort of political dialogue or debate in the future.
This climate of polarization and the fact that most Libyans live in digital echo chambers has hampered the work of initiatives to fact-check and invigorate traditional media.
Nevertheless, groups such as the Deutsche Welle Akademie Project have persevered to establish fact-checking programs for Libyan journalists.
Such initiatives have expanded their digital research skills, improved their ability to discern the validity of online sources, and improved the professionalism of their newsrooms.
The hope is that quality journalism will eventually provide a reliable and appealing alternative to polarized narratives.
In order to build trust in media, journalists need to be protected and be able to speak freely. Journalists have been calling for new laws that would begin to create these protections.
The Libyan Center for Press Freedom organized a conference in 2019 with the support of the Copenhagen-based organization, International Media Support, to address these issues.
One of the key recommendations was creating an independent media authority to monitor journalistic ethics.
What strategies have you and other Libyans developed to identify and counter disinformation and to continue creating safe and free online spaces?
I’m afraid that Libyans will forget the progress we made from 2011 to 2013 and the little freedoms that we achieved online in that time.
I was very optimistic and perhaps—looking back now—naïve in my hopes of piloting safe online spaces to connect Libyan women.
As public digital spaces became too dangerous, we tried to create closed spaces and link them between different regions—to connect the connectors and information brokers to start a dialogue.
Essentially, we were trying to manually counter social media algorithms to give people views into other regions and communities. But eventually the project grew too much and got too much visibility and had to become closed off again.
A lot of the women whom we connected remain engaged through unstructured networks online, but it is a risk that is difficult to control. So,
I think it’s very hard to create anything that you can build upon at a point when there is an active conflict and anything you say online can make you a target or put you at risk.
In effect, we are at a paradoxical point where those who are anonymous or hiding behind fake accounts can fan the flames of polarization without bearing any consequence while those who are trying to openly foster dialogue and reconciliation put themselves at risk.
Today, Facebook is the primary means of communication for two-thirds of Libyans.
Facebook holds a lot of the online attention in Libya politically, commercially, and socially but many of the online rules aren’t built for a country going through an ongoing conflict.
Like most social media companies, Facebook prioritizes its Western markets and has de-emphasized combatting disinformation in many non-Western countries.
As a region, overall, we need to find ways to reclaim the digital space as well as create other forms of communication.
One thing that I think we need in order to start reclaiming online spaces is an independent and trusted locally-led research institution to collect and thoroughly analyze how social media landscapes are shaping Libyan society and how these platforms are being polluted and manipulated by disinformation and foreign actors.
We have some data on this but we’re in the dark on a lot of it. And we don’t have anything regional like the EU disinfo lab or Stanford Internet Observatory to document and engage the social media companies on how their platforms are being used to cause instability.
This engagement should include advocating for additional customization and transparency from the social media companies regarding their policies on disinformation networks in Libya.
We need more capacity to obtain information from social networks and to influence tech policy decisions in order to counter disinformation in a more local way in Libya.
What role can online spaces play in peacebuilding in Libya going forward?
In the future, we could utilize online spaces to bridge communities among Libya’s far-flung regions and, in the process, to build national empathy and unity, like we started to do before things became too dangerous.
In some post-conflict South American countries, they used radio programs to share human stories from different regions and to humanize the enemy again.
Through storytelling they re-stitched relations between different regions. Something similar is possible with online spaces in Libya.
We need to hear from real people and to build empathy between east and west by finding some points of common ground. We always have to start from a common ground.
And the online space can provide that where you have people in different locations meeting one another, finding out about one another through story-telling or dialogue programs that bring in the local influencers and connectors.
The Libyan National Conference Consultation Process in 2018 and 2019 was a good example of how social media can be used to reach Libyans of different views.
The conference was open to any Libyan through online channels that were set up by the Swiss-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.
Seven thousand Libyans participated through 77 public consultations.
This process identified various valuable points of consensus at the national level, including the need for unified and effective national institutions for governance and security and to protect the sovereignty of these institutions from nefarious foreign interference.
Another example of finding and building on a shared viewpoint came from Libyans’ reactions to proposals suggesting that we should split Libya and get this over with.
A lot of different places in the country came together and agreed that, no, there’s too much history, there’s too much blood, there’s too much connection and relation.
We won’t agree to having the country split. That’s something that we can build upon through future initiatives.
We will need support as well as local capacity-building for projects like these. It’s going to take a lot of time and energy, but I think it’s possible.
Khadeja Ramali is an independent consultant who has worked on issues involving community and digital spaces in Libya since 2014. She is a geophysicist and co-founder of Project Silphium. She has been collaborating with Libyan women’s Radio Network Project, which aims to expand the capacity of women media professionals in Libya.