Shelby Grossman, Katie Jonsson, Nicholas Lyon, and Lydia Sizer
In this study, we use Libya as a case toassess how social media content about a polarizing, conflict-related event varies bythe country of the information producer. We created a dataset of Facebook postsabout a strongman’s attack on Tripoli in 2019.
Foreign governments can hide behind affiliated non-state social media accounts, which themselves can take steps to hide their Internet locations. This allows foreign actors to interfere in corrosive ways that advance their interests, while continuing to publicly sign onto popular peace initiatives.
Third, foreign actors can use social media as a tool of interference or intervention in civil wars to augment diplomatic tools. Foreign actors can overtly use social media in the same way that it has been theorized rebels use social media: to spread positive narratives about their own interventions in the conflict, and negative messaging about foreign actors supporting an opposing side.
Diplomatic tools are essential to preventing, mitigating, and even ending civil wars; however by substituting social media for true diplomatic engagement, foreign actors distort the purpose of this engagement, which is traditionally aimed at decreasing the amount of asymmetric information about intentions between warring factions.
Although using social media in this way may prolong civil war,foreign actors may have enough physical distance from the conflict that they have an incentive to manipulate the conflict in their favor using social media rather than support events to mitigate the violence.
Finally, in the last generation of civil wars, foreign actors involved have recognized that the center of gravity in such irregular warfare – what the factions are fighting over – is not territory per se, but the “hearts and minds” of the people.
The intent of battles is less to defeat opposing factions militarily, but to win over a population’s support while often fighting among them.
In this context, foreign actors may be incentivized to employ social media to manipulate people’s perspectives about a conflict without having to use force in ways that might alienate them.
For these reasons, foreign actors interested in winning “hearts and minds” in a country experiencing civil war will be tempted to run overt or covert information operations on social media.
Winning hearts and minds matters as “civilian attitudes affect civilian actions”; civilians who support a rebellion, for example, will be less likely to share intelligence about rebel groups with the government. Because media can affect individual allegiances and civil wars are, in part, a battle for legitimacy, belligerents and their allies should invest in slanted media to support their positions.
Foreign interference in Libya and the fight for political legitimacy
Evolution of foreign interference in Libyan affairs since 2011
The competition for foreign influence in Libya has increased since the 2011 NATO military intervention that contributed to the ouster of former dictator Muammar Qadhafi.
Following the revolution, the foreign actors that backed the rebels, including France, Qatar, the UK, and the US, sought stronger diplomatic, commercial, and security relationships with new, post-Qadhafi governments.
Libya’s transitional governing institutions faltered quickly because of inexperience with democracy; inadequate post-conflict support from foreign partners; the Qadhafi legacy of corruption and bureaucratic incompetence; and destabilizing internal conflict and terrorist threats.
In this context, many Western governments and private sector entities tempered their enthusiasm about engagement, and post-revolution governments became less picky about the foreign support they received and regional powers sought to exploit increasing factionalism in Libyan politics and society to advance their own, often ideological, foreign policy agendas.
Various Islamist politicians and militias received support from countries like Turkey and Qatar, while anti-Islamist factions received support from the UAE, Egypt, France, and,later, Russia. With the eruption of a second civil war in 2014, foreign patrons shifted their focus from influencing the course of democratic transition in Libya to directly fueling the violent conflict between warring factions.
By 2019, foreign support for rival factions almost single-handedly sustained the conflict in the capital, Tripoli, between anti-Islamist leader Khalifa Haftar, based in the east, and a diverse mix of opponents from Libya’s west a conflict that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.
While this paper focuses on 2019, we note that in October 2020 the GNA and Haftar signed a peace deal.
On March 15, 2021, the Haftar-aligned House of Representatives gave its shaky vote of confidence to the new interim government, the Gov-ernment of National Unity, at a historic parliamentary session. Relations between this new government and the House of Representatives collapsed over the course of 2021, and, as of 2022, there are still ripe opportunities for foreign influence campaigns in Libya.
The battle for political legitimacy
Libya’s second civil war was a battle not only for territorial control, but also – just as importantly – for political legitimacy. TheLibyan people have not approved a post-revolution constitution that could confer clear legitimacy on a government, largely because no Libyan government since 2011 has held a constitutional referendum.
Additionally, no government has provided the adequate basic services and security necessary to earn popular legitimacy. Since the formal division of political institutions in 2014, rivals defined political legitimacy differently to empower themselves at the expense of their opponents.
For example, the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli emphasized international recognition in its definition of legitimacy because UN Security Council resolutions recognized it as the legitimate Libyan government.
On the other hand, Haftar’s rival government in the east defined legitimacy in terms of parliamentary and militia power, in part because Libya’s internationally recognized and democratically elected parliament, the House of Representatives, had been located in the eastern city of Tobruk since 2014.
Furthermore, Haftar branded his loosely grouped militia force, the LAAF, as a professional military (even though his force did not demonstrate any professionalism.
In an effort to reunify the country following civil unrest in 2014-2015, UN facilitators tried to construct power-sharing between rival factions by giving them power within different segments of a post conflict, unity government.
The anti-Islamist-dominated, Tobruk-based House of Representatives would be the internationally recognized parliament; a new, consultative High State Council would be dominated by many Islamist-leaning politicians; and the GNA would serve as an overarching, representative executive branch. This agreement was never fully realized.
Between 2014 and 2021 members of the House of Representatives who did not support anti-Islamist Haftar either voluntarily boycotted the Tobruk-based parliament or faced persecution, including forced disappearance by pro-Haftar militias in the east.
The House of Representatives as an associated, unrecognized government served as a political ally to Haftar, whose ambitions to control Libya fueled conflict as LAAF forces slowly conquered territory in parts of the country.
Haftar and his political allies and foreign patrons refused to confer legitimacy on the GNA because they sought to politically dominate Libya themselves. They also saw the GNA as beholden to Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which pro-Haftar elements, such as the UAE, designate as a terrorist organization, in part to erode the political legitimacy of Islamist groups in Libya.
Social media has served as an important forum for debate over political legitimacy in Libya, in part because public faith in traditional media in Libya is very low. During the revolution, Libyans relied more heavily on foreign satellite television news broadcasts than on local media sources that the Qadhafi dictatorship controlled.
The political and security vacuum led to systematic attacks on the media from unaccountable militias – including threats against journalists made on Facebook – resulting in the deterioration of the quality of local news and rampant self-censorship.
The evolution of Facebook’s role in Libya
In this context, Libyans both inside and outside the country have turned to social media toarbitrate conflict. Protestors used Facebook as an important organizing tool during the 2011 revolution despite regime attempts to block online communications. Itremains the most popular social media platform in the country, especially for Arabic-language communication.
In the absence of reliable local reporting on the unfolding conflict, citizens turned to Facebook for news about where clashes were breaking out and what disruptions they could expect. Militias used Facebook to spread propaganda and fake news about their opponents; organize armed coalitions and recruit new members; find and sometimes kill individual opponents; and even buy and sell weapons.
The growing post-revolution unrest, culminating with Haftar’s offensive in Tripoli in April 2019, provided an opening for foreign actors to shape Libyan affairs through social media. But as foreign actors became more invested in the outcome of Libya’s post-revolution conflict,these actors – aligned with either the GNA or the LAAF – plunged deeply into this largely Libyan debate on social media, via Facebook and other outlets, during Haftar’s on going assault.
As Haftar failed to take over Tripoli as quickly as he had anticipated, he and hisforeign patrons, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, considered all pillars of power available to shift the balance in his favor: military, financial, and – importantly – rhetoric about political legitimacy.
While Haftar’s patrons poured military equipment, advisors, and funding into his kinetic campaign against Tripoli, they also augmented the eastern government’s campaign to erode the GNA’s remaining legitimacy through information warfare on social media.
Therefore, this study analyzes foreign involvement in shaping political-actor legitimacy during the 2019-2020 Tripoli offensive because of the prevalence of available evidence that explains how foreign actors weaponized social media in Libya – and how they may try to do soin different contexts in the future
Who is behind highly slanted Pages?
To better understand the surprising finding that a minority of Pages were creating the slanted content, we created a Page-level data set, subsetted it to Pages with at least 20 posts, and identified (1) the top 10 most pro-LAAF Pages and (2) the top 10 most pro-GNA Pages, as defined by our dictionaries.
For these 20 Pages, we attempted to understand their purpose and backers. We did this by consulting with a Libyan media analyst and using online open source investigation tactics, such as investigating the registration of affiliated websites.
There are two key takeaways:
First, of the 10 most pro-LAAF Pages, only two are run by individuals in Libya. Rather, much of the pro-LAAF content appears to originate from Pages in countries with pro-LAAF associations: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
Second, while more of the pro-GNA Pages appear to have direct connections to individuals in Libya, six of the top 10 Pages have associations with Turkey.
We also looked at the Pages that appeared most frequently in the dataset.
The most prolific Page was facebook.com/libyaakhbar, with 429 posts (2.6% of posts in the data set). The Page was on average slightly pro-LAAF. As of March 2020, the Page had just over a million followers. Interestingly, the Page’s four administrators all have their location hidden, and its Twitter account, @libyaakhbar, is suspended.
Another prolific Page – with 281 posts – was Aljamahiria, the former state-run broadcast channel under Qadhafi. Recent research shows that a firm linked to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin purchased half of this media outlet in 2019, and Facebook suspended the Page in December 2021. This is further evidence of the abundance of foreign-influenced Facebook Pages targeting Libya.
In this paper we have shown a correlation between the bias of Facebook posts about a salient event in Libya and the location of the Facebook Page administrators.
In April 2019, Pages with a plurality of administrators in the UAE and Egypt were more biased in favor of the LAAF while Pages with administrators in Turkey and Qatar were more slanted toward the GNA.
This aligns with the geopolitical interests of these countries. However, not all posts linked to these countries were slanted. We find that these correlations were driven by a smaller number of highly biased Pages.
When investigating the most slanted Pages in the data set, we found that an overwhelming majority of both pro-LAAF and pro-GNA Pages had strong links to foreign countries.These findings suggest, first, that academics, analysts, and policy makers should interpret social media responses to events with deep skepticism.
Many of these responses may originate abroad and social media accounts may be intentionally coy about where they are based. Moreover, this paper focused on Facebook Pages that were live as of early 2020, but at 24
This discussion leads to questions about how social media users respond to slanted content, and where social media users who view this content live.
The time of Haftar’s Tripoli offensive in 2019 there were likely other Pages that have since been suspended. Since the start of 2019, there have been at least seven take downs from Face book and Twitter of foreign state-linked information operations that targeted Libya.
This suggests that we are likely underestimating the extent to which foreign-originating content is flooding Libyan social media.While we did not code the 16,662 posts for containing falsehoods, in the process of coding for other variables we observed that many slanted posts – possibly a majority – were not falsifiable.
These often included hyper-partisan cheerleading posts like “Haftar will bring security to Libya”; this tone-setting content is in line with content researchers have seen the Chinese government push.
This suggests that the current academic and policy focus on “fake news” addresses only a subset of information operations, and that there may be a greater need for mechanisms to help citizens gain insight into the trust worthiness of social accounts, as opposed to specific posts.
Facebook’s Page Transparency is one step in that direction. These transparency tools may be especially useful during crisis events because of the magnitude of partisan influence from foreign sources.
Our findings suggest that the war in Libya from 2019-2020 was fought fiercely in non-kinetic domains by state and non-state actors. There is also a strong potential that conflict could reignite in Libya, creating a new opportunity for spillover into these non-kinetic domains.
Information and ideas are just as important a battleground as territory in conflicts over legitimacy, including international interventions that result in regime change, revolutions, military coups, and counter revolutions.
The narratives pushed by foreign actors can shed light on their incentives. Further work is needed to generate causal identification strategies to assess the effectiveness of these social media information operations.
Shelby Grossman and Katie Jonsson with Stanford Internet Observatory. Nicholas Lyon with Stanford University and Lydia Sizer Tufts University.
Source: Journal of Quantitative Description: Digital Media (2022), 1–57