In Libya, traditional and social media are used to fuel war

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Biased news outlets, unprofessional journalism and systematic use of social media for disinformation have combined to create the perfect storm of confusion.
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If there’s one thing that’s consistent about Libya, it’s confusion. Whilst everyone has an opinion on almost everything, no one seems to know all the facts. Who is fighting who, what’s the latest, how many killed, what are they even fighting over? After eight long years of conflict, disinformation in and about Libya is rife.

Over five years on from the launch of field marshall Khalifa Haftar’s ‘Operation Dignity’ in the east of Libya, the warlord is now marching on the edges of the capital in an attempt to overthrow the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), and the facts of this latest conflict are just as confused.

Biased news outlets

“Where did you see that one?”

“Libya24 uploaded it”

“Are you sure it’s not old? I heard that one months ago”

“No, 2 hours ago”

“Yeah, but we know what Libya24 are like…”

These are the mental calculations Libyans make every time they consume media coverage of the ongoing affairs in the country. Every Libyan news outlet has obvious and sometimes unabashed biases – Libya24 for example, has given itself a reputation for taking a pro-Gaddafi stance, while others such as al-Nabaa are seen as overly sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. The extent to which they allow debate and independent comment varies.

As dozens of civilians have been killed since the start of Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli last week, a staunchly pro-Haftar news outlet, Libya Alhadath, broadcasts a steady stream of songs glorifying Haftar and his offensive, in a way reminiscent of Libya’s solitary state TV channel for most of the Gaddafi era.

A problem of trust

To make matters worse, most Libyan news outlets and TV channels have dramatically changed their stances over the past number of years as alliances have changed and new actors have emerged in the country. Political actors and alliances with deep-pocketed funders heavily shaped the young and not-yet-institutionalised outlets. The outcome? Libyans don’t trust local media.

But foreign media has been equally tarnished, through the partisanship of Arab outlets which are predominantly Gulf-based, such as Aljazeera, Alarabiya and Sky News Arabia. For years, Libyans have denounced “lying media”, but this is far from populist anti-media demagoguery – the lack of professionalism and dishonesty of TV channels has driven many to social media for news updates.

When the revolution began in 2011 there was an explosion of independent media outlets, with Libyans able to express themselves freely for the first time in four decades. Alongside the newly created satellite television channels, anybody could open a page on Facebook and begin to document their local news and stories. However, the lack of familiarity with journalistic standards as well as basic media literacy meant that most were of a low standard. Well-intentioned citizen journalists enthusiastically spread rumours and misreported or exaggerated clashes, quickly creating a reputation for dishonesty that stuck to the sector as a whole.

Waging war via social network

The flood of targeted disinformation on Facebook made differentiating fact from lies nearly impossible for the average Libyan. In a single day you might hear online that a town has been “invaded”, with detailed reports of clashes and casualties, only to see on another outlet that the area has been “liberated again” with one side, or both, claiming victory. But if you know someone in the town in question, you might call them up to check on their safety only to find that they haven’t heard a single gunshot and life has continued as normal.

Systematic posting of false information on social media accounts also became a favoured tactic of militias on all sides of the conflicts has become a trademark tactic. They aimed to misdirecting people in order to exploit the confusion created in the conflict.

Haftar’s self-declared National Army is a systematic practitioner of this dark art, regularly announcing that they’ve conquered a location on their official channels whilst journalists and residents verify that fighting is still ongoing. During the years-long siege of Derna for example, pages and channels backing the LNA shared videos of Haftar claiming victories in the city, as well as spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari – who has 15.5 thousand followers on Twitter – posting regular ‘updates’ on social media when clashes escalated, claiming victories that residents and other fighters from within the city refuted.  This was sometimes done to demoralise opponents and persuade them that continuing to fight was a lost cause.

People living in the same area are often exposed to completely different realities depending on the media they consume. Neighbours can have entirely opposing perceptions of situations unfolding right on their doorsteps due to irresponsible reporting practices, bias, and at times, blatant fake news. This has contributed to the polarised and dysfunctional state of society in Libya, which makes trust in institutions and elected leaders low and reduces political engagement.  

The Gulf joins in

A phenomenon new to Libya in this round of conflict is the large-scale attempts by gulf monarchies to fill social media with blatant propaganda in favour of their chosen sides. Haftar has long been backed by Saudi and the UAE, with the latter repeatedly breaching a United Nations arms embargo to provide his forces with attack aircrafts, armoured vehicles, helicopters and other ammunition. When he started his Tripoli offensive, shortly after meeting Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, large, verified and widely-followed Saudi and Emirati-based Twitter accounts have tweeted Arabic hashtags in support of Haftar’s operation, including “Haftar the Glorious” and “We Are All The Libyan Arab Army”.

Smaller possibly-automated accounts have been generating engagement in an attempt to make them trend, as shown by Khadeja Ramali, a Libyan data scientist, who has examined and mapped tweets mentioning Haftar since the offensive was launched. Her research has clearly shown a huge pro-Haftar push from accounts based in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.

This follows the established pattern for the Gulf monarchies – as the Sudan uprising climaxed, Twitter users noting large volumes of tweets from from them in favour of now-former President Omar al-Bashir and his military apparatus. Not to be outdone, Qatar also joined with the Libya propaganda campaign, a few days late, to broadcast the UAE’s complicity in Haftar’s crimes.

There has been no indication that either Twitter or Facebook are aware of the way their platforms are being used in Libya. Facebook has been repeatedly criticised for the way its platform is used by authoritarian leaders and governments to incite conflict, including in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and it’s clear that they still haven’t managed to solve the problem. The solution doesn’t rest only with them though, but in media literacy and inculcation of skepticism among the audience, as well as training professional outlets and ensuring they have business models which guarantee their independence – audiences support is critical for this.