A Light in Libya’s Fog of Disinformation

Divisions within Libya’s civil war have been amplified by foreign-sponsored disinformation campaigns. Reconciliation and peacebuilding will require local actors to reclaim Libya’s digital spaces.

Nested within Libya’s ongoing civil war are a fog of falsehoods, distortions, and polarizing narratives that have engulfed Libyan social media networks and online news outlets. Content created and fueled by foreign actors adds to the confusion. Difficulty in identifying the truth has fueled demoralization and distrust among many Libyans.

Libya’s conflict pits the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based out of Tripoli in the west, against an assortment of militias aligned with warlord Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), controlling territory in the east. For destabilizing actors like Haftar (supported by Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), overrunning digital spaces with disinformation has been seen as a means to achieve conquests on the ground. Haftar’s forces have sought to gain advantage in their struggle by sowing confusion about the motives and tactics of rival groups while making it more difficult to obtain information that may cost the LNA popular support among ordinary Libyans. He has been aided by online firms tied to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries who have pushed divisive narratives into Libya’s social media networks. The foreign-backed efforts to undermine the formation of an informed and democratically-engaged public in Libya’s digital spaces are likely to persist beyond any ceasefires negotiated on the battlefield.

The Africa Center spoke with Khadeja Ramali, a leading expert on Libyan social media and the founder of a digital community for Libyan women, about this challenging environment and the strategies that Libyans are developing to counter disinformation online.

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Who is creating and spreading disinformation in Libya and what forms of disinformation are most prevalent within the country’s digital spaces?

Currently, digital spaces in Libya are highly fragmented and influenced by varying degrees of disinformation from an array of local, state, and international actors. The most sophisticated and coordinated disinformation campaigns have come from foreign states, particularly the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt in direct support of the LNA and Russia’s multifaceted interference in the local media environments in ways that often benefit the LNA. These foreign actors have been able to use Libya’s digital space as a means of advancing their interests without bearing the destabilizing consequences of their actions.

Going back to 2014, large networks of UAE and Saudi fake Twitter accounts have been actively crowding out actual local voices by posting, creating hashtag traffic for, and amplifying nationalistic sentiments in Libya. Beginning in 2019, thousands of these accounts were mobilized to glorify Haftar and his military campaign. This includes invoking imagery of Omar Mukhtar’s (early twentieth century) struggles against Italian colonialism to link the LNA with the fight against foreign invaders and terrorists.

Another tactic of these fake accounts is to Arabize the conflict and to cast Turkey, which backs the GNA, as the Ottoman Empire, evoking Libya as “the graveyard of the Turks.” For each social media campaign, these accounts would localize their message depending on their targets and aims. Many of these campaigns were outsourced through Egyptian firms that were familiar with Libyan dialects and local issues.

Russian-backed actors connected to the Wagner Group, meanwhile, have been more active on Facebook and have developed subtler forms of disinformation by hiring Libyan consultants to create locally “franchised” groups, which can more nimbly sow disinformation that resonates with Libyans. These groups pick up on local grievances and inflame them by bringing polarizing subjects back into the public eye in order to attract passionate online followers who are then primed to be more receptive to Russia’s narratives of the conflict. Many of these narratives appear to have been pilots – testing out different and even conflicting messages – to see what might generate the most sensational effect. The UAE and Saudi accounts, in contrast, were highly coordinated in their attempts to amplify specific goals.

“These groups pick up on local grievances and inflame them by bringing polarizing subjects back into the public eye.”

On the GNA side, the data we have so far shows that Turkey and Qatar have been much less active in producing digital disinformation and have placed more resources and emphasis on messaging through their traditional state-backed television and media channels rather than through fake or franchised social media accounts. They don’t do the same scale of coordinated online disinformation or manipulation, in part because, unlike the LNA and Haftar’s forces which are regularly linked to human rights abuses, the GNA feels less need to vilify the other side in order to excuse their actions to citizens.

Finally, at the local level, we have non-state armed actors shaping the information environment. The largest of these is the GNA-aligned Misrata cluster. They have a very active Facebook presence. They run a pretty smooth operation with what I call “war influencers,” who are so-called citizen journalists, or the militias themselves streaming content directly from the frontlines. They do a lot of videography, and it’s mostly done in-house. The content of these posts is aimed toward keeping up morale, gaining public support, and vilifying the enemy through their platforms. Other smaller militias do this as well, though they are not as digitally savvy. All of the disinformation produced by these groups is basically the same kind of narrow, low-level claims that they’ve captured prisoners or enemy equipment, which may or may not be true. These claims don’t appear to be coordinated and are nothing on the scale of what we’ve seen in terms of larger narratives produced by the UAE and Saudi networks.

How have digital landscapes in Libya changed over the past decade?

In 2011, only a tiny fraction of Libya’s 6.5 million citizens were active online or had smartphones. The digital space was heavily monitored by the Qaddafi regime and an internet connection was expensive. That started to change significantly after the revolution. By 2013, there was a lot of activity as Libyans began joining online spaces and as digital media spaces were energized—though often still run by members of the Libyan diaspora. There was a lot of capacity training by international organizations. As the conflict and civil war began to break out, there were numerous murders and kidnappings targeting well-known media figures in Libya. Benghazi at one point had so many assassinations that monitors started to lose count. People became scared of being outspoken online. Out of fear, most Libyans disengaged with online discussions of politics or current affairs and stayed away from public online spaces and preferred to engage in small closed online groups. Even these conversations were often guarded, however, since they could be infiltrated by outsiders with malicious aims. So, online spaces became fragmented and there became an information vacuum. International media coverage died down, and people weren’t talking about what was happening. As a result, only those affiliated and protected by armed groups, political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, or other powerful groups were left to fill the void.

Things really went downhill after 2014 with the Qatari-backed “Libyan Dawn” militias’ seizure of Tripoli and the evacuation of the international community from Libya. There wasn’t any in-country independent media or any reliable information that wasn’t filtered through specific foreign-funded channels. It was and still remains a confusing space. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. More recently, we have seen fake journalistic personas created to publish propaganda in various media outlets, including policy recommendations regarding the Libyan conflict. Furthermore, social media personalities and war influencers lead the efforts to push hate-filled narratives and political campaigns to Libyan audiences.

Why have these disinformation campaigns been so effective in Libya?

For four decades, the Qaddafi regime was the only source of information in Libya. Information was scarce, but people were used to being told what they needed to know by one source. When things opened up between 2011 and 2013, there were no institutions or structures for reliable facts—some government agencies would have two, three Facebook pages, and it was impossible to tell which one was legitimate. Many citizens experienced an information overload that was difficult to sort through. The development of an objective domestic digital media was cut short by the rise of armed groups, which intimidated independent voices into silence and monopolized information in a way that Libyans were used to under Qaddafi. Within this environment, disinformation and polarization on social media have grown particularly acute. Social media algorithms are often programmed to show users content similar to what they have liked or followed already. This means that, in digital spaces flooded by biased or fake sources of information, users’ online experiences could easily end up being digital echo chambers without much diversity or reliable information.

What effect has disinformation had on Libyan society?

The impact of this situation—where many Libyan internet users end up in disinformation rabbit holes and echo chambers where local voices are crowded out by fake accounts—has amplified the polarization of Libyan society. The social media experience of somebody who lives in southern Libya is completely different than that of somebody who lives in the west or the east. They see the world totally differently through their digital experience. Some people know how to get around this and find other voices, but many people became fed up by the lack of reliable information and become paranoid and distrustful of all information beyond just their neighborhood or local social media groups, which are often the only way to get information on what’s going on at the moment. Some individuals have emerged as trusted sources for a neighborhood or a town as what I call “connectors”—they’re in charge of diffusing the information for their community.

“This demonization of political opponents is going to be a major obstacle to any sort of political dialogue or debate in the future.”

But then what happens when this person or this entity is biased? Once these people build up followers on their platforms, they can often be co-opted and paid to post on behalf of an armed group or political campaign. So, then everything is distorted and goes back to the Qaddafi model but on a highly localized scale. The content I see online now pushes real hate towards people in different regions of the country and promotes emotional blindness, where people aren’t even willing to listen to the other side because whatever they say is wrong and whatever they say is evil. The power of these polarizing narratives is all the more remarkable given the shared language and religion between different Libyan groups. This demonization of political opponents is going to be a major obstacle to any sort of political dialogue or debate in the future.

This climate of polarization and the fact that most Libyans live in digital echo chambers has hampered the work of initiatives to fact-check and invigorate traditional media. Nevertheless, groups such as the Deutsche Welle Akademie Project have persevered to establish fact-checking programs for Libyan journalists. Such initiatives have expanded their digital research skills, improved their ability to discern the validity of online sources, and improved the professionalism of their newsrooms. The hope is that quality journalism will eventually provide a reliable and appealing alternative to polarized narratives.

In order to build trust in media, journalists need to be protected and be able to speak freely. Journalists have been calling for new laws that would begin to create these protections. The Libyan Center for Press Freedom organized a conference in 2019 with the support of the Copenhagen-based organization, International Media Support, to address these issues. One of the key recommendations was creating an independent media authority to monitor journalistic ethics.

What strategies have you and other Libyans developed to identify and counter disinformation and to continue creating safe and free online spaces?

I’m afraid that Libyans will forget the progress we made from 2011 to 2013 and the little freedoms that we achieved online in that time. I was very optimistic and perhaps—looking back now—naïve in my hopes of piloting safe online spaces to connect Libyan women. As public digital spaces became too dangerous, we tried to create closed spaces and link them between different regions—to connect the connectors and information brokers to start a dialogue. Essentially, we were trying to manually counter social media algorithms to give people views into other regions and communities. But eventually the project grew too much and got too much visibility and had to become closed off again. A lot of the women whom we connected remain engaged through unstructured networks online, but it is a risk that is difficult to control. So, I think it’s very hard to create anything that you can build upon at a point when there is an active conflict and anything you say online can make you a target or put you at risk. In effect, we are at a paradoxical point where those who are anonymous or hiding behind fake accounts can fan the flames of polarization without bearing any consequence while those who are trying to openly foster dialogue and reconciliation put themselves at risk.

“Facebook is the primary means of communication for two-thirds of Libyans. … [It] has de-emphasized combatting disinformation in many non-Western countries.”

Today, Facebook is the primary means of communication for two-thirds of Libyans. Facebook holds a lot of the online attention in Libya politically, commercially, and socially but many of the online rules aren’t built for a country going through an ongoing conflict. Like most social media companies, Facebook prioritizes its Western markets and has de-emphasized combatting disinformation in many non-Western countries.

As a region, overall, we need to find ways to reclaim the digital space as well as create other forms of communication. One thing that I think we need in order to start reclaiming online spaces is an independent and trusted locally-led research institution to collect and thoroughly analyze how social media landscapes are shaping Libyan society and how these platforms are being polluted and manipulated by disinformation and foreign actors. We have some data on this but we’re in the dark on a lot of it. And we don’t have anything regional like the EU disinfo lab or Stanford Internet Observatory to document and engage the social media companies on how their platforms are being used to cause instability. This engagement should include advocating for additional customization and transparency from the social media companies regarding their policies on disinformation networks in Libya. We need more capacity to obtain information from social networks and to influence tech policy decisions in order to counter disinformation in a more local way in Libya.

What role can online spaces play in peacebuilding in Libya going forward?

In the future, we could utilize online spaces to bridge communities among Libya’s far-flung regions and, in the process, to build national empathy and unity, like we started to do before things became too dangerous. In some post-conflict South American countries, they used radio programs to share human stories from different regions and to humanize the enemy again. Through storytelling they re-stitched relations between different regions. Something similar is possible with online spaces in Libya.

We need to hear from real people and to build empathy between east and west by finding some points of common ground. We always have to start from a common ground. And the online space can provide that where you have people in different locations meeting one another, finding out about one another through story-telling or dialogue programs that bring in the local influencers and connectors.

The Libyan National Conference Consultation Process in 2018 and 2019 was a good example of how social media can be used to reach Libyans of different views. The conference was open to any Libyan through online channels that were set up by the Swiss-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Seven thousand Libyans participated through 77 public consultations. This process identified various valuable points of consensus at the national level, including the need for unified and effective national institutions for governance and security and to protect the sovereignty of these institutions from nefarious foreign interference.

Another example of finding and building on a shared viewpoint came from Libyans’ reactions to proposals suggesting that we should split Libya and get this over with. A lot of different places in the country came together and agreed that, no, there’s too much history, there’s too much blood, there’s too much connection and relation. We won’t agree to having the country split. That’s something that we can build upon through future initiatives. We will need support as well as local capacity-building for projects like these. It’s going to take a lot of time and energy, but I think it’s possible.

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