Marc Owen Jones
Situating the Middle East
Despite this urgency, up until now the study of disinformation has tended to privilege a Cold War paradigm, which frames Russia and China as forces undermining US and European security. The focus is rarely on the Middle East and Western-allied Gulf states. In a similar vein, there has been a tendency to focus on actors who produce their own capabilities, such as China and Russia.
This is not to diminish such research, but simply to argue that there is a normative tendency to focus on these states as the main actors in the disinformation ecosystem. It is a field dominated by transatlantic security concerns. From a communications and political science perspective, much of the existing non-MENA literature is also focused on the disinformation propagated by the rise of the far right, both in the United States and across Europe.
This has been especially true within liberal democracies, which have often framed the rise of disinformation as being integral to the decline of democracy and to a renewed interest in libertarian or authoritarian principles.
It also makes sense, as disinformation has arguably been both the product and symptom of the resurgence of populism. Parallels drawn with the rise of European fascism in the 1930s have also created an understandable sense of urgency in trying to understand the role of propaganda, deception and populism.
However, for those living in the Middle East, disinformation is all too familiar. But, like other regions beyond Europe and the English-speaking world, it is neglected by social media companies too.
BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman notes how Facebook tended to be US-focused when dealing with disinformation. Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook employee, highlighted how Facebook tended to ignore or delay dealing with platform manipulation in places that would not cause an overt PR backlash.
Conversely, it is this seeming indifference from tech firms in the so-called Global North that facilitates illiberal practices across vast swathes of the globe. It has become abundantly clear that the research agenda needs to focus on disinformation in the Middle East and Africa.
Extant disinformation studies on MENA have tended to conform to Western foreign policy concerns, for example, Daesh and Iran as bad actors. The rise of Daesh has thrown into sharp relief the power of non-state actors to spread gruesome and morbid propaganda. It has also reflected the fact that disinformation or propaganda has tended to elicit interest from Western policymakers only when it poses threats to Western civilians or interests.
Yet the rise of Daesh itself, both on- and offline, can partly be attributed to a tendency to ignore the initial indicators of a looming crisis before it breaks into the mainstream. Without wishing to undermine the importance of studying the likes of Daesh, or indeed, their disinformation, it tends to divert limited attention from the sheer scourge of disinformation generated by MENA state actors that are well integrated and legitimised within the international community.
Of course, this does not mean there is not a burgeoning network of scholars, activists, policymakers and journalists working to document and highlight the prevalence of disinformation in the Middle East. Fact-checking sites such as the Jordanian-based fatbyanno (meaning “just check” in Arabic) and Misbar have been pioneering Arabic language fact checking.
But they have their work cut out; with over 400 million Arabic speakers worldwide, and a media ecosystem plagued by disinformation, efforts are limited. Much research has been issue focused, with published articles seeking to elaborate on specific events, such as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, or the Gulf Crisis, or religiously framed Covid-19 disinformation.
There are also emerging studies based on country cases and demography. Sub types of disinformation connected to cybersecurity, such as studies on “hack and leak operations”, shed important light on the minutiae of tactics and how they resonate in a regional context. However, due to the need to highlight disinformation campaigns rapidly, the snail-paced aspect of academic publishing creates a lag around what is a rapidly changing and urgent problem.
The new methods required to do open source and forensic analysis are also creating a chasm in the literature between those working in the realm of computer science and the social sciences. Empirical studies are increasingly documented by reputable news outlets working with researchers, and research organisations focused on technology and digital forensics.
The Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, has published numerous forensic investigations on digital authoritarianism across the region, and for some time ran a periodical update entitled The Middle East and North Africa CyberWatch.
The Stanford Internet Observatory has also established relationships with companies like Facebook and Twitter, and frequently publishes analyses of state-backed information operations emanating from the Middle East based on data provided on those countries. Similarly, the Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation published annually by the Oxford Internet Institute interviews subject area experts to document the nature of disinformation in a worldwide context.
The European Union is also beginning to resource tackling disinformation, and, as Mariatje Shaake has noted, “Europe” is one of the only serious regulators of big tech. Given the wide range of methods required to study and identify disinformation, it does not sit comfortably within a single academic discipline.
It can seem somewhat arbitrary to focus on countries equally when studying a whole region. The term MENA is a problematic term used to describe diverse populations, languages, historical experiences and political traditions, not to mention increasingly divergent foreign policies and domestic priorities.
Nonetheless, without wishing to appear reductive, many of the states are still bound by common strands, especially with regard to religion, language and legacies of imperial or colonial domination. At the very least, it is a useful, albeit flawed, heuristic.
In the context of this book, the MENA is also a nexus, where multiple actors compete for interest. Part of de-essentialising any region is to acknowledge that the “deception order” is not confined to authoritarian states hermetically sealed into neatly packaged geopolitical regions.
While the role of the internet and digital media has spanned multiple disciplinary spheres, there is still a tendency within research on the region, and more broadly on the global context, to focus on the state as a key unit of analysis – whether in terms of state policies or state activities.
This is particularly true of relevant studies of authoritarian resilience in the region, which focus on regime survival. Much of the capability of MENA-based actors comes from the utilisation of technologies and human resources from China, Europe and North America, which often permit such expertise to be shared on the basis that many of these countries share overlapping foreign policy goals.
This is not to discount the role of the state, but rather to acknowledge it as one actor among many in the creation of digital authoritarianism, and that states, just as they interact with other entities, are also able to more easily project their power beyond borders when it comes to digital authoritarianism.
An aspect of this book is that digital authoritarianism involves a decoupling and despatialisation of authoritarian practices, beyond traditional state boundaries. Digital authoritarianism is a transnational endeavour, and new digital powers, nodes or hubs that project their influence electronically are emerging. An underlying element of this is neoliberation technology, discussed in the following chapter.
So while these agglomerations of disinformation actors span continents, MENA here generally refers to the locations and populations targeted and exploited in the context of these operations, and that emanate from the deception order outlined in Chapter 2.
At the same time, while the book deals with numerous case studies, the focus tends to be on events and actors in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, as this book argues, the politics of the Gulf region have resulted in numerous global deception operations since 2011.
With the majority of Gulf states rated by most indices as authoritarian, the need to understand digital illiberal practices is as pertinent as ever. The fact that the study of digital disinformation is relatively new, and that the Middle East is often overlooked, means that many pertinent questions remain unanswered.
These questions span multiple disciplines, but especially International Relations, Political Science and Communications. In the area of Communications, Ferrara et al. note the urgent task of identifying the “puppet masters”.
Indeed, by exploring whom bots target, what they talk about, and when they take action, we might be able to determine who is behind them. Such inquiries overlap with the demands of IR theorists, who seek to understand “why states and non-state actors use disinformation, and why disinformation appears to be ever more present in modern-day international politics than ever before”.
To do this we must first document and uncover deception operations, and then determine who is responsible, how they work, and on what scale they operate. We can do this by examining the discursive, tactical and strategic qualities of deceptive content. By answering these questions we can begin to understand who the largest deception players in the region are, and what it is they are seeking to achieve.
Marc Owen Jones is an Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at HBKU, and a Senior Non Resident Fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now and the Middle East Council for Global Affairs.