Tunisia crisis prompts surge in foreign social media manipulation

Social media propaganda emanating from Saudi Arabia and the UAE seeks to justify the Tunisian president’s decision to sack the prime minister.

Twitter logo
An analysis of 12,000 tweets revealed a concerted effort to portray the actions of the president as a popular Tunisian revolt against Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood [Matt Rourke/AP Photo]

The political crisis in Tunisia has prompted a surge of social media propaganda and manipulation emanating mostly from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), much of it attempting to skew the narrative so that it justifies Tunisian President Kais Saied’s decision to suspend parliament and sack the prime minister.

Soon after news broke of Saied’s unprecedented move on Sunday, the hashtag “Tunisians revolt against the brotherhood” began to trend on Twitter, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.

But as with anything on social media, especially in the Middle East, it was not immediately clear whether the trend represented organic public opinion. And if it did, whose opinion it was?

Analysing social media

An analysis of social media data and conversations shows a number of insights, such as who was writing about a particular topic, and whose voice is influential on that topic.

It can also indicate where those people are, and whether they are genuine people or bots, which are fake accounts designed to manipulate public conversations through censorship and intimidation, and trend manipulation.

An analysis of 12,000 tweets from 6,800 unique Twitter accounts on the hashtag “Tunisians revolt against the brotherhood” revealed a concerted effort by Gulf-based influencers to portray the actions of the president as a popular Tunisian revolt against Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the right is the main cluster of Saudi and Emirati influencers using the hashtag. The blue constellation on the left shows Twitter account Fairuz and more than 200 other accounts retweeting her. The fact they are disconnected points to inorganic behaviour [Twitter/Al Jazeera]

The largest party in Tunisia’s parliament is the Islamist Ennahdha party, which has accused President Saeid of staging a “coup”.

However, the majority of users tweeting with the hashtag reported their location as being either in Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

In addition, the top 10 most influential accounts on the hashtag were all Gulf influencers also based in Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

These accounts included Emirati Khalid bin Dhahi, Saudi influencer @s_hm2030, Saudi cartoonist Fahad Jubairi, the Emirati writer Mohamed Taqi, as well an Emirati patriotic account called emarati_shield.

Here you can see which accounts formed the most influential nodes within the hashtags #disinformation and #influencecampaigns

They pushed narratives that sought to frame the president’s extraordinary measures as a popular revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi influencer Monther al-Shaykh, the most influential account in the whole hashtag, even called the sacked prime minister the “Khamenei of Tunisia”, putting him on a par with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom Saudi Arabia has demonised.

The specifically anti-Muslim Brotherhood narrative clearly reflects the foreign and domestic policies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have been inexorable in their crackdown on Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East.

Police officers stand guard as supporters of Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, gather outside the parliament building in Tunis [Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

Al-Shaykh has been known for his outsize role in monopolising Arabic Twitter narratives. He has gained a reputation as a primary influencer spreading disinformation and nationalist propaganda on Arabic Twitter.

In analysing the hashtags in the aftermath of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, one study by Harvard academics Alexei Abrahams and Andrew Leber documented that on a hashtag related to Khashoggi, retweets of al-Shaykh accounted for 8 percent of all retweets – and there were 365,000 users on that hashtag.

Last year, al-Shaykh, along with numerous UAE-based journalists, attempted to push a false narrative that there had been a coup in Qatar. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with Bahrain and Egypt, imposed a blockade on Qatar in June 2017. But in January this year, the blockading countries agreed to restore ties with Qatar.

Many of the other accounts spreading propaganda about Tunisia are also regular participants in regional disinformation campaigns.

Cartoonist Fahad Aljubairi and s_hm2030, were very active after a suspected Pegasus spyware infection resulted in numerous Gulf-based accounts spreading private hacked photos to smear Ghada Oueiss, a prominent Doha-based news anchor at Al Jazeera Arabic.

Bots and sock-puppets

In addition to this, one of the most influential of the 6,800 accounts on the hashtag had the handle, @7__e7, and the name Fairuz.

Analysis of the account, whose posts were retweeted hundreds of times, showed it was fake, and her tweets on the hashtag contained an unrelated “comic” video of a person falling out of a car while reversing.

However, while Fairuz was technically one of the most influential accounts on the hashtag, none of the accounts retweeting her was real.

They were sock-puppets – hacked or fake accounts programmed to automatically retweet content, analysis of the accounts showed.

One example was the account of a 14-year-old Filipino girl, and another person with the name Emma Roberts, who had a picture of a Smurf as their display image.

Using hacked Twitter accounts for advertising and marketing is common, but it is also used for spreading propaganda in the MENA region, particularly during big political events.

Highly retweeted fake accounts often feature in the top tweets section of Twitter, increasing the salience of propaganda to those reading the news.

Fairuz’s tweet garnered more than 200 retweets within five minutes, a speed so quick it strongly indicates automation.

Fairuz’s account was suspended by Twitter last night after a thread about her went viral.

Tunisian street

Years of analysing propaganda hashtags have revealed a familiar roster of names and influencers that form a Gulf Twitter elite based largely in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This elite monopolises Arabic political discussions on Twitter with hyper-nationalist tropes.

These influencers are augmented by trolls and bots who spread propaganda and intimidate critics.

The hashtag “Tunisians protest against the Muslim Brotherhood” represented no evidentiary claim or grassroots movement, which does not mean that there are no Tunisians who hold that view.

Analysis of Twitter accounts shows it is mostly Emirati and Saudi influencers who are pushing the anti-Brotherhood hashtag. The most retweeted and influential accounts are monther72, faljubairi and s_hm2030 and emarati_shield [Twitter/Al Jazeera]

It is, however, clear that Tunisians on Twitter were not reporting en masse that they were rebelling against the Brotherhood.

Rather, it was propagandists speaking on behalf of Tunisians, attempting to convince local and international audiences that the Muslim Brotherhood represents an existential threat and that liberation from them is a justification for a return to authoritarianism.

This digital playbook highlights that social media is often not the democratising space where voices are equal, especially in the Middle East where authoritarian regimes, along with their known ability to surveil and digitally track dissidents, coupled with their willingness to kill and arrest critics, has scared people into silence.

Often, this silence forms a vacuum, which is then filled with co-opted influencers who repeat government talking points and distribute state propaganda with little contestation.

Source: Al Jazeera