By Rohit Kumar Sharma
In February 2023, as nations were gearing up to assist Turkey and Syria following a massive earthquake, the digital world was embracing yet another exposé undermining the ‘techno-utopianism’ associated with the advancement of technology. The revelation concluded over six months of an undercover joint investigation by journalists from various media outfits. The investigation centers around Tal Hanan, a former Israeli special forces operative running an Israel-based election interference-for-hire company. The investigation uncovered that Tal Hanan had been running the firm under the pseudonym “Jorge,” specializing in ‘building narrative’ and then propagating with various services, including bot networks, false information, and hacking of opponents. The firm also employs Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS) to create digital avatars and disseminate automated content. The AIMS software uses keywords to make posts, articles, comments, or tweets in any language.
Team Jorge also boasted of having interfered in “33 presidential campaigns, 27 of which were successful”, most of which were in Africa. The clientele includes unnamed intelligence agencies, political parties, and corporate clients. According to some reports, the ‘Team Jorge’ had also worked closely with Cambridge Analytica, an infamous British political consulting firm that became prominent through the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal. The revelations have brought infamy to another Israel-based entity in the digital world. For all the notoriety that a few Israeli firms have faced allegations for, the pertinent question is whether it is an Israeli or regional/global issue. If March Owen Jones, a researcher on the Middle East, is to be believed, the region is mired in disinformation campaigns directed by states and non-state actors against their adversaries. But what exactly is disinformation, or digital deception, as Jones would opine?
Disinformation in the Middle East
According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, disinformation is “The process of providing deliberately deceptive information to adversaries to mislead or confuse them regarding the security posture of the system or organization or the state of cyber preparedness.” In his recent book Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East, Deception, Disinformation, and social media, Jones categorizes disinformation as a deliberate act of manipulating audio, textual, or visual content. He further explains how digital deception is the new face of information warfare and how social media has been weaponized by states and commercial entities to control human behavior.Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter once touted as liberating platforms, are now used by powerful actors to mold public opinion and export “digital authoritarianism,” especially in states with vulnerable democracies.The absence of necessary regulatory frameworks amplifies the problem encouraging threat actors to unleash their influence operations against their adversaries. Given the lack of free media and distrust of government institutions, many people put too much trust in social media. The threat actors have repeatedly exploited this trust and have used their might to influence domestic and foreign audiences.
The Qatar crisis in 2017 was partly due to social media manipulations involving hacked accounts and associated disinformation. There have been reports of sock puppet accounts and bots in three potential influence campaigns in Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon pointing to the reach of powerful regimes and their willingness to influence political outcomes. During the October 2019 protests in Iraq, many fake accounts were reported to have been created promoting pro-Saudi sentiments. Wide-range of tools are being employed to amplify the reach and influence the target audience. This includes creating fake news sites, typosquatting, and hacking legitimate accounts. Such incidents demonstrate social media platforms’ vulnerability and how regional powers have been involved in electoral interference and manipulation of public opinion.
Interestingly, these nefarious activities are not left unchecked. Many regional initiatives have been launched to counter the disinformation operations. One such initiative is Misbar, an “Arab fact-checking platform” launched in 2019. As a non-profit initiative, it relies on a team of independent journalists and has an advisory board of independent experts to monitor the published material and verify its accuracy. Recently, Misbar investigated a circulating video claiming ‘the attacks on Sub-Saharan African in Morocco following the recent anti-migration remark by the Tunisian President Kais Saied.’ Following a detailed examination, Misbar found the claim to be misleading.
Given the ubiquity of disinformation across the internet in the Middle East, initiatives like Misbar offer hope to the users relying on digital space for information. Since the potential of actors to manipulate the digital world is profound, individuals at the receiving end of the information must be mindful of what they are consuming and support fact-checking initiatives in the region.
The author is Doctoral Candidate, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
(Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)