December 2018 – January 2019
Over the past eight years, the power and reach of the internet has grown substantially. In 2011, social media was used as a tool to mobilize Libyans to revolt against Mu’amar Gaddafi. However, since 2014, social media, and Facebook in particular, is also much used for propaganda purposes by militias.
In December 2018, DRI has begun monitoring Facebook content posted on Libyan public pages established for or run by political figures, government institutions, media outlets and influencer in order to understand the social media landscape and debates in Libya. It seeks to identify key narratives that shape the Libyan public opinion and map potential social media manipulation. The report offers an analysis of content consumed by Libyan users on Facebook and their online behavior regarding the constitution, elections and the political process in general.
This report covers findings of December and January. Until June, we will share our findings on a monthly basis.
In December, approximately 61 articles raising awareness about the constitution and addressing various aspects of the constitutional referendum were published on social media. Users often display disinterest in political news, yet when the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) announced the date for the constitutional referendum, the post got an engagement of nearly 4000, which is considerably higher than engagement with other constitution-related topics published within the same time period as shown in the below graph:
In January, the total number of articles on the constitution dropped to 27, gathering only 4,505 engagements in total, out of which 4,388 were Likes. The average engagement per article was around 167. The post that received the highest engagement of 1.500 was Almarsad article covering the House of Representatives’ proposed alternatives in case the constitutional referendum is not held.
With the municipal elections approaching, the Central Committee for the Municipal Councils Elections (CCMCE) posted regularly on its official Facebook page. In the period from 5 to 20 December, CCMCE published 26 posts providing voters with the necessary information regarding voter registration. The post announcing the beginning of voter registration received the highest number of engagements (1.036) and was shared 414 times. The same trend continued in January where the CCMCE page recorded the highest average engagement as compared to other government pages.
The CCMCE page admin responded to questions posed by users and provided the necessary information, whether by directing them to a CCMCE branch or otherwise. The administrator was able to discredit imposter pages that aim at disseminating fake news about the municipal elections. In general, the comments section is well managed and very few abusive or negative comments were found.
In December, two controversial potential presidential candidatures became highly visible on Facebook: Those of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and Hassan Tatanaki. The first pieces of news about their possible candidature were sponsored. It appeared that a targeted social media campaign was at work to frame them as heavyweight politicians, possibly to secure their seat in the UN-backed Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference.
In the beginning of December, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi's representatives travelled to Moscow to deliver a letter allegedly from the political figure himself asking for support on running for elections in Libya in addition to supporting his vision to end the Libyan crisis. At the same time, a Facebook page entitled “Mandela Libya” was created, comparing Saif al-Islam Gaddafi to Nelson Mandela. It posted a sponsored poll asking citizens whether they support Saif al-Islam Gaddafi to be elected as President. The page reported that 65.125 out of 71.065 said ‘Yes’.
Even though the page was only created in December 2018, it has already gained 103.400 likes/followers by the end of the month. The number of Likes and Shares of the various posts on the page is significantly higher than on other comparable public Facebook pages. For instance, the post announcing the results of the sponsored poll received 32.978 reactions, 9.813 mostly supportive comments and 817 shares.
Manual sampling of some 7000 accounts which shared the poll post suggests that at least 75% of them are fake accounts. They were newly created, often in December 2018 and were “friends” with each other. The name combination of many of these accounts followed the same pattern - the same word mentioned twice (in Arabic) - and very few had profile pictures. Many of the accounts tried to appear credible by indicating a job but in all cases the job had supposedly started in December 2018 around the time the poll was created. It is important to note however, that there is no definitive tool to carry out automatic inspection of all accounts or to match the accounts that “Liked” the page to those which responded to the survey.
Following the publication of the post, several Libyan and international news outlets such as Sky News Arabia, Afrigate News, Aswat and others picked up the poll results. The interest this piece of news received from social media users surpasses other political content published within the same time period.
In January, the number of posts about Saif al-Islam Gaddafi decreased dramatically as compared to December. The main source for the Facebook engagement during this month originated from three Russia today (RT) articles published on 15th January.
The other presidential hopeful, Hassan Tatanaki, is a Libyan businessman who has just founded a political party entitled “Libyan Democratic Unity”. He has a professional public page, created in 2013, with 1.8 million Likes. Even though a significant number of the users following his page has grown organically, there is a substantial number of fake accounts as well. Manual inspection of a sample of 10.000 accounts from the page found the same pattern of names, occupation, education and newly acquired Facebook friendships as in the case of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s. Unlike Mandela Libya page, comments on Tatanki’s are unfiltered: negative and abusive comments are left unremoved under the various posts.
Tatanaki has received special media attention in December, particularly in relation to his statement criticizing the successive Libyan governments for the protracted conflict and political crisis. His statement was picked up by several news outlets, one of which is Almotawaset website. The news item was shared on Facebook 13.535 times, which is an unusually high number in the Libyan SM landscape. To compare, the engagement of Facebook posts on unofficial pages averages around 3.000 – 5.500 engagements per post, while the average engagement on government related posts is less than 1000.
Tatanki gave an interview to Al Arabiya channel, which was then posted as a sponsored post on أنا ليبي ومراتي ليبية or I am Libyan and my wife is Libyan, where he states that the only solution to achieve stability is the election of a single ruler. The majority of the comments were sarcastic. Some users asked the page admins about the amount of money they were paid to sponsor the post.
In January, the number of posts about Tatanaki dropped as compared to the month of December. However, the pattern of user engagement with Tatanaki related posts remained the same. For instance, the video post entitled “The only solution for Libya’s stability is to amend the constitution” was viewed 118.388 times and received 2.800 Likes, 197 comments and 78 shares.
Generally, elections attracted the attention of six main media outlets during the month of January as indicated in the below chart:
Debates on elections evolved as various political actors expressed different opinions as to whether elections should be held and when. One of those actors was Atef Belregaeg, a notorious leader of the Tripoli Revolutionary militias, accused by the GNA Interior Minister Fathy Baghasha of being the cause of the security chaos that wrecked east Tripoli and led to the forcible displacement of hundreds of families. Belregaeg believes that the only solution for Libya’s crisis is to hold elections and enact a constitution by going to a national comprehensive dialogue. The statement was published by Alaraby website, gathering 8.037 engagements in total, out of which 193 were comments and 29 shares on Facebook.
Delaying the presidential elections was another popular theme during the month of January. The comments of Ziyad Dagheem, a House of Representatives (HOR) member, attracted significant attention on social media. Dagheem expressed his support of Salame’s alleged plan to postpone the presidential elections). Dagheem’s statement was significant as he is a member of the HOR Barga bloc that holds the opposite view on the matter. The article that was published on Almarsad platform received 3.900 Likes, 294 comments and 29 shares in total. By manually analyzing the top 19 comments, we found that the majority of comments were negative and had an accusatory tone, understanding a delay in elections as an act of conspiracy by intentionally prolonging of the status quo. Some used humor to convey the message while others resorted to abusive language. And all 19 comments were by men.
The UN-backed plan for holding a Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference to end Libya’s political and security impasse was widely discussed on social media in December and January. Most notably, Libya 24’s Facebook page published a post indicating that the UN-backed Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference was scheduled in February and was to be held in Sirte or Zawya. The news turned out to be a rumor, but only after it had been widely circulated online. A series of reactions in the form of posts describing Libya as a chaotic reality with a confusing roadmap, or accusing UNSMIL of exclusionary bias, surfaced on Facebook and media pages. They received a relatively large number of engagements ranging from 1.000 to 4.000. However, when Libya channel later published the UN statement refuting the rumor, it was not picked up by any other media outlet and received an insignificant number of engagements (168).
UNSMIL news continued to be the subject of many social media posts during the month of January. The website Libya24.tv published 89 articles on UNSMIL receiving significant engagement (30% of all engagement on UN). Libyaakhbar.com ranked second with a 25% share of the total number of engagements despite publishing a higher number of related posts (91).
Six out of the top 10 articles on UNSMIL were published by Almarsad.co, displaying anti-Salame sentiments. The number of total engagements with them were relatively high, ranging from 2.000 to 3.500.
The chart below shows four peaks over the month of January in relation to UNSMIL:
Pages like I am Libyan and my Wife is Libyan published a sponsored anti-Salame post. It referred to the recent truce brokered in Tripoli by Bani Walid tribes and argued that Libya does not need Salame’s intervention. The post received 21.000 engagements and 2.500 comments. This is five times higher than similar unsponsored posts on other pages. Analysis of these comments showed a similar tone responding to the posts and a call to action for peace in Libya.
Out of 108 Facebook posts on Salame/UNSMIL, 86 displayed negative sentiments, making these points:
The monitoring data suggests, that the anti-Salame campaign on social media originated from, and was mainly promoted by, LNA supporter.
The Libya Mandela page (pro Saif Gaddafi) posted a video about Salame’s remarks on the timing of elections, using the latest feud between Libya and Lebanon – Salame’s country of origin – to discredit him.
However, in January, only an estimated 399 posts related to UNSMIL were published on Facebook. As per the below figure, user attention to Salame related news was fading away by the end of the month.
An important feature of the social media landscape appears to be the low visibility of women participation in online public political debates. In the period covered by this report, most comments and reactions on Facebook posts have been made by male users. Women often refrained from engaging with public posts, assumingly to protect their reputation and avoid abusive responses by male users.
While there is no reliable data on the topic, anecdotal evidence suggests that since 2014, Libyan female bloggers and social media users have resorted to self-censorship on public online forums and preferred either private or female-only online spaces instead to control their audience and sometimes their narrative. Female only groups like “Bride of Fezzan 2019_2020” with 40.000 members and “The daily life of a Libyan man’s wife” that has 85.000 members focus on social life and life style. There are also private female-only Facebook groups created by CSOs such as the Silphium Project with 7.500 members to provide a safe space for women to freely debate politics and other contentious topics.
Furthermore, Twitter was found to provide a safer public platform for Libyan women to express their opinions and engage in discussions on a plethora of topics including women’s rights and politics. Since Twitter is not widely used in Libya, female tweeps1 are able to avoid the monitoring of their family members, which is usually one of the reasons why women avoid Facebook. Posting in English adds an additional layer of protection as it allegedly shields them from potential harassment and bullying. For these women, any public or semi-public expression of opinion is seen as a possible risk.
A case in point is the recent incident of Café Casa in Benghazi. A group of female tweeps (users of twitter) organized a TweetUp2 for young tweeps who have been interacting for some time on Twitter without meeting in real life. The TweetUp was supposed to take place in a café called Casa in Benghazi. The hashtag #تجمع ـ بنات ـ تويتر or The Gathering of Female Tweeps was started to mobilize for the meeting which was to take place on 27 December 2018.
The meeting was raided by forces of the Ministry of Interior (MOI), café staff. On the evening of the 27th, the MOI Facebook page published a damaging post (now deleted and MOI Facebook page was later taken down by MOI in January) accusing the TweetUp participants of being immoral and describing the event as lewd and the café a brothel. Although deleted, the statement was picked up by big news outlets such as 218TV, which led to a wave of hate speech against the young women.
Pro-Libyan National Army (LNA) pages shared the statement, calling it a victory for Benghazi security arrangements. Some pro-LNA pages went as far as posting fake case documents as evidence that the case is still being considered by the court.
For Islamist-leaning pages, the MOI statement was a victory against liberal values. On 29 December, a snap chat video was leaked by a fan page called the Original Benghazi Breaking بنغازي عاجل الأصلية , supporting Benghazi security forces and inciting violence against the women and their families. The video went viral, amassing more than 65.000 views by the end of December. The video was later removed by Facebook for violating the Facebook community policies, but the damage had already been done.
Activists, mainly women, took to Twitter to defend themselves and the young tweeps. Approximately 1.500 unique tweets were posted and the top tweets on the hashtag were by women. Most tweets expressed disbelief and some shared Libyan laws, which prohibit such raids. Women voiced their view on the story and began talking about sexualized and gender-based violence and oppression that are plaguing the Libyan society.
On the 29 December, the hashtag caught the attention of UNSMIL, prompting it to release a statement in support of the young women and to pressure Benghazi’s MOI to release the Café staff. This incident follows the same pattern of security crackdowns and policing faced by other social media events like “Benghazi Earth Hour” in 2017 and the backlash against a book released in western Libya (2017) that saw social media users launch a viral campaign against women involved with the event.
1 Twitter users
2 Meeting for twitter users
During the month of December, the number of comments on security and political posts were low compared to those on entertainment posts. The only exception was when posts were on significant events such as the terrorist attack on Libya’s Foreign Ministry. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the low number of comments/shares is partly due to general apathy towards the political process and/or fear of reprisal if the users comment under their real name. The below chart shows the monthly average engagement with security content during December 2018.
Over the last two weeks of December, stories about a surge in crime rates in Benghazi were widely circulated on social media, leading to mounting public pressure for the eastern government and the LNA. Social media commentators emphasized the insecurity in the eastern region contrary to the claims of the pro-LNA camp. Some of the stories were denied by the Ministry of Interior staff in Benghazi, albeit a bit too late. For instance, one post about a doctor who was robbed inside the 1200 hospital went viral and received 2.000 Likes, 193 shares and 758 comments. Only then, MOI denied the incident.
Despite MOI’s efforts to curb this – sometimes false - reporting, media outlets continued to extensively post about the increased rates of crime. The ferocious social media campaign against MOI contributed to the resignation of the head of Benghazi security, Salah Huwaidy.
The below chart shows that the coverage of and engagement with this piece of news was significantly smaller compared to that of the news about the terror attack on Tripoli MFA that occurred during the same period. The content and reach of the commentary regarding Benghazi’s security helped shape public opinion, which pushed for a change of the security apparatus leadership. This might have been due to the increased scrutiny the Benghazi security forces are under.
Huwaidy was replaced by Adel Orfi, who received significant support from Facebook commentators. Orfi began introducing changes into the security departments, an initiative that social media users appeared to support.
Disinformation on security issues is not just restricted to the east. In response to fake statements attributed to the Tripoli Protection Force, a new page entitled Tripoli Protection Force – Official Page was created on 15 January during the fighting that occurred in Tripoli during January. It was shared and endorsed by the Joint Deterrence and Rapid Intervention Force Facebook page. In a few days, the page was liked by 32.000 users. It began publishing statements and refuting fake ones that were broadly shared on the 5th and 6th of January. The false statements wrongly attributed to Tripoli Protection Force were shared on Facebook and attracted social media user engagement of 30.500. The corrections and clarifications refuting the disinformation, on the other hand, only accounted for 10.100 of Facebook engagements.