Arabi Facts Hub is a nonprofit organization dedicated to research mis/disinformation in the Arabic content on the Internet and provide innovative solutions to detect and identify it.

Researches


Behind the Smoke: How Does Disinformation Surrounding Syria's Chemical Attacks Undermine Public Health?

Salma Daoudi

This month marks the commemoration of two of the Syrian regime’s chemical attacks on the Syrian population: the seventh anniversary of the attack on Khan Sheikhoun city and the sixth anniversary of the attack on Douma city.

Tragedies in their own right, these two events have also been conceited by a cloud of disinformation that unveils how the Assad regime weaponizes misinformation to maintain opacity surrounding its war crimes, ensure its survival, and evade accountability.

While the immediate impact of the attacks resulted in the indiscriminate killing and injury of its victims, the accompanying disinformation and denialism campaigns hindered urgent medical and humanitarian interventions, undermined public trust in the health sector, and hampered the latter’s ability to navigate misinformation and respond to health crises.

This article seeks to further explain  the ramifications of the strategic use of disinformation to manipulate public perceptions related to engineered public health crise, touching upon the difficulties health workers and organizations face amidst information scarcity, the erosion of trust in health information, and the exploitation of health narratives for political ends. 

A series of chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime

The use of chemical weapons in Syria has been documented and confirmed by several human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, based on physical evidence, testimonies, and medical accounts. According to a study published by the Global Public Policy Institute, over 336 chemical attacks have been carried out in the country between 2012 and 2019, over 98% of which are attributable to the Syrian government. Casualties included at least 1900 direct deaths and over 18700 injuries

The majority of these deaths occurred following one of the first and largest chemical attacks conducted by the regime on the Eastern and Western Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. Previous instances of smaller-scale attacks were reported by Syrian opposition activists, but the Ghouta chemical attacks of 2013 represent a watershed moment in the chemical weapons usage.

Not only did they mark one of the deadliest chemical assaults in recent history, but they also tested the international community’s resolve, which failed to hold the regime accountable. The Syrian regime faced no consequence after it targeted on August 21st, 2013 twodensely populated districts with sarin, a nerve agent that led to the suffocation, convulsion, and agonizing death of the local population.

Evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the Syrian regime as the perpetrator, but the regime never claimed responsibility, blaming instead rebel forces. Through Russian mediation, the U.S. negotiated an agreement to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons, but despite Syria eventually signing on the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), reporting to have destroyed all critical equipment and chemical weapons facilities, and collaborating with an OPCW-UN mission to verify compliance, chemical attacks continued at alarming rates.

In a disturbing déjà vu, the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack of 2017 echoed the horrors of the Ghouta assaults. The  nerve agent, believed to be sarin or a similar substance, released in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib province claimed the lives of over 70 civilians, including children, and left in its trail scores of injured and traumatized victims.

The large-scale act of violence reignited global debates on accountability, the enforcement of international norms, and the urgency of addressing the rampant use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war. As the international community grappled with the shock of such a blatant violation of international norms, the Syrian regime engaged yet again in a concerted effort to deny its involvement. This denialism was not merely a tactic to deflect blame. Rather, it became a strategic tool to manipulate narratives, hinder humanitarian efforts, and serve set political and military ends.

 These attacks were not only marked by the immediate devastation they wrought but also by the subsequent strategic manipulation of information to shape narratives, undermine the public health response, and achieve set political objectives. Denialism surrounding the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime has not only hindered immediate humanitarian efforts and diplomatic responses, but also exacerbated the health challenges faced by Syrians over the long-term. The spread of contradictory narratives, coupled with a lack of accurate health information, presented healthcare providers with the daunting task of navigating health crises amidst confusion and with limited resources.

Moreover, the erosion of trust in health information further complicates the prevention and containment of current disease outbreaks, as public skepticism has interfered with healthcare seeking behaviors and adherence to medical guidelines. Given the lack of fully functional health infrastructure and of medical staff, the reluctance to seek adequate care facilitated, and continues to facilitate, the rapid spread of diseases at rates exceeding local capacities.

 

The spatial distribution of chemical attacks in Syria between 2012 and 2019 and associated casualties. Source: AJLabs

Informational warfare: At the crossroad of battlefields

The Syrian regime’s informational warfare relied predominantly on causing enough confusion to cast doubt on the plausibility of the attacks and its own possible involvement. This coordinated dissemination of disinformation through traditional media was coupled with viral campaigns on various social media platforms to amplify the narrative and sow seeds of doubt, but this article focuses specifically on the arguments propagated by outlets close to the Syrian apparatus or its allies.

Indeed, Syrian allies used conventional media to present the allegations as a politically motivated and rebel-orchestrated campaign to justify airstrikes conducted against Syria. Outlets such as Al Masdar New, RT, Sputnik, and Mehr News were instrumental in advancing the Syrian regime’s main talking points.

Al Masdar News, for example, published an article shortly after the Khan Sheikhoun attacks, arguing that severe inconsistencies undermined claims that a nerve agent was used against the population of Idlib. The article referred specifically to footage circulated by first responders in order to cast doubt upon the nature of the injuries treated, asserting that it does not match exposure to sarin gas.

More importantly, and consistent with the line of argument advanced by other Syrian and Russian-controlled outlets, the article accused the White Helmets, a civil defence group involved in rescue efforts, of collaborating with foreign powers and rebel groups to frame the Syrian regime.

The lack of use of protective gears by White Helmets first responders was, for instance, attributed to a poorly designed and staged scene, rather than a natural consequence of the blockade preventing vital humanitarian aid from reaching Idlib.

The Syrian Arab News Agency echoed these attempts to discredit the organization and accused the White Helmets of deliberately killing children to “use them in staged videos about alleged chemical attacks, whether in Khan Sheikhoun or in other Syrian areas”. Delegitimizing an already underfunded task force served to further hamper the White Helmets’ ability to provide appropriate and necessary care following attacks on civilians, whether chemical or otherwise.

The White Helmets were further accused of “conspiring with Western nations to carry out strikes against the Syrian military and its allies” and of planning to train Ukrainians on how to fabricate a false-flag attack.

Indeed, not only does RT dedicate several articles to defending the Syrian government from chemical use allegations, it also utilizes the story as an emblematic example of false-flag operations orchestrated by powers hostile to Russia.

An article focused exclusively on Syria mentions explicitly that “the US government used the allegations as justification to launch air strikes against the Syrian government,” whereas another article discussing the conflict in Ukraine starts with a reminder of the illegitimacy and inaccuracy of the evidence presented against Syria, to accuse the US of preparing a similar scenario to frame Russia in Ukraine.

Articles published on Sputnik invoked testimonies collected by the Russian Reconciliation Center from doctors and state organizations to assert that no patients displayed signs of chemical poisoning following the 2018 Douma attacks, contradicting statements from doctors involved in treating the victims. 

According to the director of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), the Syrian regime pressured members of the medical corps to publicly deny the occurrence of the gas attack in Douma through violent intimidation campaigns and coercion, even while health facilities were overwhelmed with a severe inflow of suffocating and burned victims.

Humanitarian paralysis: How denialism hampers urgent medical interventions

The regime’s alleged public adherence to the CWC helped obfuscate its role in the attacks, as well as hinder humanitarian and medical relief efforts. The lack of transparency surrounding the attacks and the chemical agents used deprived medical teams on the ground from the ability to immediately diagnose symptoms of contamination and provide adequate care in a timely manner.

Testimonies from medical personnel on duty during the Ghouta attacks point out to utter confusion in the face of the large influx of suffocating patients that overwhelmed local health facilities, many of whom were foaming at the mouth, choking, convulsing, and suffering from impaired vision. This engineered environment of information chaos hindered the accurate identification and treatment of chemical exposure symptoms.

Médecins Sans Frontières reports at least 3,600 persons were treated for symptoms consistent with exposure to neurotoxic agents at the hospitals it supports in the area. Healthcare providers faced challenges in administering appropriate care due to a lack of acknowledgment of the specific agents used in the attacks. Not only did health personnel lack access to reliable information to diagnose and treat incoming cases, but they also lacked the necessary resources. 

The areas affected by the Ghouta attacks already suffered from undersupplied health facilities, many of which were no more than makeshift underground clinics established to provide medical assistance. The establishment of secret underground facilities resulted from both a security imperative due to the heavy bombing of hospitals or their infiltration by security forces, as well as a logistical imperative to evade the tight sieges preventing the entry of medical supplies and equipment.

Additionally, in the days leading up to the Ghouta attacks, several health facilities were targeted with conventional munitions, significantly undermining the capacity of an already weak and under-resourced health infrastructure to mitigate the public health catastrophe in the aftermath of the attacks.

The majority of the healthcare personnel who attended to the incident suffered severe health consequences and many were reported dead, further incapacitating the healthcare force. Similarly, during the 2017 sarin attacks, airstrikes targeted the very same hospitals where the attacks’ victims were being transferred for treatment. About 10 airstrikes targeted the main medical facility and the civil defence centre, putting both out of service. The physical damages inflicted upon the facilities as well human losses incurred constrained the ability to promptly mitigate the consequences of the chemical attacks.

As such, denialism added to the deliberate incapacitation of the health system impeded swift international humanitarian responses, delaying the delivery of critical medical assistance and aid to the affected populations.

The Syrian government's refusal to acknowledge its role created bureaucratic hurdles, restricting access for humanitarian organizations and hindering the timely deployment of medical teams to the affected areas. Many agencies have also been forced to cease operations or have seen funds reduced or cut as a result of the disinformation campaigns targeting organizations that provide medical aid to areas falling outside regime control. While some hospitals still managed to purchase new supplies of antidotes to treat nerve agents following the Ghouta attacks, the Syrian regime’s declaration that it had had agreed to give up its chemical arsenal through the American-Russian mediated agreement gave local health authorities a false sense of safety.

Consequently, the medication expired and was not re-stocked, causing significant healthcare access gaps during subsequent chemical attacks. Starting 2017, the WHO has worked on distributing medical kits for the treatment of chemical exposures in besieged areas of rural Damascus and in northern Syria; however, not only do some chemical agents such as chlorine or blister lack antidotes, but many areas across Syria have also remained unreachable to intergovernmental organizations. 

By casting doubt on the veracity of evidence and deflecting blame, the Syrian regime has obstructed emergency medical assistance and international intervention. However, the enduring health challenges faced by Syrians extend far beyond the initial impact of chemical attacks. Exposure to toxic agents can result in lingering health effects manifesting as chronic respiratory conditions, neurological disorders, and other persistent conditions. Previous evidence from the health consequences of the 1988 Halabja massacre points to the increasing incidence of birth defects, congenital defects, and cancers.

Further research is needed to assess the exact long-term impacts of exposure to chemical weapons in the Syrian context, but the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre reports physicists’ concern about the significant rise in the number of children born with birth defects since 2015.

Yet, the reluctance to acknowledge the full extent of the health crisis by health authorities hampers the conduct of further comprehensive studies and perpetuates a cycle of suffering, impeding the restoration of normalcy for affected populations. As a matter of fact, denialism not only obstructs accurate diagnosis and treatment, but also contributes to the exacerbation of chronic conditions, as the lack of official acknowledgment hinders the development of targeted healthcare strategies.

It also inflicts a unique form of psychological warfare on survivors, not only by discrediting the trauma resulting from chemical exposure and the loss of loved ones, but also deepening the sense of distrust and betrayal resulting from the lack of accountability and justice. Rising rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder are usually reported among populations affected by chemical warfare events, as they suffer from lingering and acute psychological distress.

Chemical weapons are, after all, weapons of terror, designed to induce lingering panic, confusion, and uncertainty. Coupled with deliberate and strategic disinformation, their volatile use by the Syrian regime entertains constant anxiety and fear of experiencing once more the agony of suffocation. Unlike that of chemicals, the smoke of fear and confusion never truly dissipates.

The fog of confusion: Public health under threat

The resulting constant state of confusion entrenched several challenges healthcare providers were contending with. within an environment fraught with disinformation and information scarcity. The fragmentation of the Syrian public health system, precipitated by the regime’s deliberate targeting of health facilities and besiegement of cities, has severely hampered the flow of information exchange and the maintenance of operational monitoring systems. This impaired communication contributes to the spread of misinformation, making it challenging to implement effective public health strategies and perpetuating the long-term health consequences of denialism. 

The conflicting narratives produced by different actors surrounding major public health crises, ranging from the regular chemical attacks overwhelming local health facilities to major outbreaks paralyzing the entire system at large, make it difficult for providers to navigate and respond effectively.

Firstly, the weaponization of health information creates an environment where facts are elusive, and misinformation becomes a strategic tool. For healthcare providers, this means navigating a landscape where the very information crucial to their work is distorted, manipulated, and weaponized for political ends. From the identification of chemical agents used to the implementation of safety protocols, providers must navigate a landscape of uncertainty where the veracity of information directly impacts the effectiveness of their response. Inconsistent information about the nature of the outbreak, preventive measures, and treatment protocols undermines providers' ability to mount an effective response.

The paralysis of the healthcare system during major outbreaks is vividly demonstrated by the Syrian government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Conflicting narratives regarding the prevalence of the virus and the effectiveness of preventive measures, coupled with the lack of transparent communication, hindered the implementation of a coordinated response. The regime initially refused to acknowledge the pandemic had reached its borders and silenced dissident voices, even while northern Syria was experiencing a severe wave outpacing undersupplied health facilities. The healthcare system's ability to effectively manage the pandemic was compromised, exacerbating its impact on the population.

Secondly, organized online disinformation campaigns supported by pro-Russian and pro-government media have specifically targeted frontline rescue workers and doctors, amidst other human rights defenders denouncing the regime’s crimes.

The primary disinformation strategy employed by the Syrian regime involved portraying these individual as either terrorists or foreign operatives, sowing further distrust and fear amongst the population. As discussed above, the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, were repeatedly falsely accused by state-controlled media accounts to have themselves used chemical weapons in Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo, even though no institution confirmed their implication in any capacity other than being rescuers and first responders.

Both Russia and Syria are known for providing unreliable information to distract from the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, resorting to conspiracy theories and the manipulation of satellite imagery or fake material.

These accusations nevertheless contributed to the erosion of public trust in healthcare systems, in addition to fear of association, hindering the implementation of crucial public health measures and vaccination campaigns. As affected communities, by diseases or chemical attacks, struggled to reconcile their experiences with the official state-promoted narrative, their willingness to seek timely medical assistance was hindered. This carries significant implications for health-seeking behaviours, vaccination rates, and adherence to public health guidelines. 

Accountability as a public health emergency

The exploitation of distorted health narratives for political ends undoubtedly fractures the bond between healthcare providers and the communities they serve. In the specific context of Syria, the manipulation of these narratives has reflected the prioritization of political objectives over public welfare. 

Under international humanitarian law, the Syrian regime has an obligation to refrain from attacking medical facilities and personnel as per Security Council Resolution 2286 (2016) and to refrain from the use of chemical weapons. By not only breaching these but also spreading misinformation aimed at undermining public health response to the public health crises it is contributing to, the Syrian regime has effectively intensified the impact of its attacks on public health. Yet, holding war crime perpetrators accountable in the context of strategic disinformation is challenging.

The lack of a transparent and truthful narrative obstructs international efforts to pursue justice for the victims, reinforcing a culture of impunity that perpetuates the cycle of human rights abuses. Concerns surrounding the continued use of chemical weapons in Syria are salient, especially given the lack of concrete legal and political consequences.

With access to the field being severely restricted and survivors’ testimonies purposefully discredited by pro-government forces, legal pathways to justice seem obstructed. However, the leading efforts of Syrian legal experts, activists, and rights groups are laying the groundwork for an initiative aiming to establish a treaty-based tribunal putting on trial actors reported to have used chemical weapons to harm civilian populations. This would constitute an essential step towards not only closing the impunity gap and deterring future use, but also lifting the veil on the real scale and extent of the harmful health consequences caused by these attacks.

Show More

Disinformation and Misinformation in Sudan: A Parallel Virtual War

Hamid Khalafallah

The outbreak of armed conflict in Sudan on April 15th, 2023, has undermined hopes for a peaceful and democratic transition in the country. The protracted conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has killed at least 12,000 people, displaced over 7.4 million, unleashed a devastating humanitarian catastrophe and now poses a further risk of destabilizing the entire region.

Moreover, the war has taken a dangerous turn in Darfur, where it quickly escalated into a civil war with reports of ethnic cleansing. More than nine months into the conflict, the warring factions continue to fight with no plans to hold back, while none of them are able to establish a definite military advancement. Additionally, there are no prospects for an imminent political solution.

On top of the physical dangers posed by bullets and shells, a parallel war is taking place on social media platforms where Sudanese citizens are being bombarded with competing propaganda campaigns. These virtual spaces have been flooded with messages aiming to polarize people and align them with either side of the conflict.

The online disinformation and misinformation campaigns have strongly impacted the course of the war: they have exacerbated an already complex and volatile situation, made it increasingly challenging to get an idea of the situation on the ground, stoked tensions between different communities, and now risk dragging the country into a full-blown civil war.

Background on disinformation in Sudan

Internet services were first introduced in Sudan in the late 1990s; today, it is reachable in almost 90% of the country’s geographical area, but Sudan still lags in terms of internet usage, with reports showing that internet penetration is at approximately 30 per cent, with around 14 million internet users across the Sudan. Nevertheless, the internet, and particularly social media, still played a key role in Sudan in terms of shaping politics in the country, as  demonstrated by the frequent internet blackouts implemented by the Sudanese authorities to limit citizens’ access to information during periods of political turmoil.

Both misinformation—often the unintentional sharing of inaccurate details due to a lack of verified sources— and disinformation—the deliberate spread of false content— are not new to Sudan and have played roles in deepening divides, perpetuating stereotypes, and undermining trust in official sources.

In particular, organized online disinformation campaigns in Sudan can be traced to the post-2019 revolution context. Following the overthrow of the regime of the National Congress Party (NCP), led by Omer al-Bashir, by a nationwide revolution in April 2019, the digital sphere became flooded with dozens of new websites. According to the Freedom House report regarding Freedom on the Internet, these websites were established as part of the Electronic Jihad Unit, affiliated with the NCP. The unit was part of the security service and mainly aimed at monitoring digital spheres and managing online propaganda campaigns. The report also highlights that the unit operates from offices in Sudan, as well as Qatar and Turkey.

In the weeks leading up to the military coup in Sudan in October 2021, a systematic campaign was organized on Sudanese social media, flooding it with rumors and disinformation about political and security issues. An analysis conducted by Beam Reports outlined at least 20 propaganda campaigns that circulated on social media in the weeks before the coup that included either fabricated or misleading news. They were meant to mislead public opinion and disseminate disinformation for the purpose of testing public opinion and monitoring potential reactions. The analysis shows that various actors have engaged in perpetuating these campaigns, including the NCP, SAF and RSF.

Moreover, in the weeks preceding the start of the conflict in April 2023, NCP figures disseminated disinformation campaigns on social media, where they fueled tensions between SAF and RSF and openly called for ‘armed action.’ As will be illustrated below, these campaigns continued after the war erupted.

A War of Narratives

As is the way with modern conflicts, social media is also a part of the battleground, transforming into a hotbed of misinformation and disinformation. The war in Sudan is not an exception, as it is spawning contradicting propaganda from both warring factions. In parallel to fighting on the ground, SAF and RSF have engaged in a more subtle and nuanced virtual war on social media and traditional media platforms. In an effort to win hearts and minds, the violence on the ground has been accompanied by a deluge of disinformation flooding Sudan’s digital public sphere. Both warring sides have increased the volume of photos, videos, interviews and statements being circulated by their representatives and social media accounts, in what is obviously an attempt to polish their images and whitewash their role in derailing Sudan’s transition to democracy. Reports have shown that the RSF and SAF have extended networks engaging their respective campaigns, both internally and externally (with the latter including Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Ethiopia).

Both the RSF and the SAF are attempting to present themselves as guarantors of stability and defenders of democracy and civilian rule. However, the way they portray this narrative differs. The RSF depict themselves as fighting against the Islamists who are associated with the NCP and who have allegedly hijacked the SAF. They claim to be the guardians of democratic rule in Sudan. On the other hand, SAF (supported by NCP associates) claims to be protecting the unity and stability of the Sudanese state, and fighting against the “mutiny” of the RSF. These competing narratives by the warring factions, in addition to the NCP, are being utilized by these actors to manipulate and control public opinion, as well as advance their respective agendas.

The RSF’s propaganda and disinformation campaigns are noticeable across all social media platforms, given the RSF’s digital prowess. The RSF heavily relies on X (formerly Twitter), where it spreads its agenda, targeting both local and international actors. The RSF account has published daily statements and footage for the past month, claiming victories here and there, as well as attempting to rebrand the paramilitary outfit as a pro-democracy group committed to the principles of peace, freedom and justice. They have also been consistent in posting content in English, indicating the paramilitary’s strategy of trying to appeal to Western audiences and the international community in general. In addition to their official accounts, the RSF have been accused of hijacking at least 900 dormant X accounts to disseminate their propaganda and disinformation campaigns. The RSF has also formerly utilized Facebook as one of its disinformation platforms, until its accounts got removed in August 2023 for violating Facebook’s Dangerous Organizations and Individuals policy. Facebook has previously removed 943 fake accounts that amplified RSF statements by pretending to be Sudanese news outlets.

The SAF’s utilization of social media platforms for disinformation, on the other hand, is relatively limited. They mainly use X to refute RSF narratives and boost army morale with false claims of victory. The SAF have also been accused of using bots and trolls to boost its own disinformation: Valent Projects examined 12,545 tweets using a pro-SAF hashtag, and found out that the top 5% of the account have classic indicators of bot/troll activity, including generic account names, mass posting and account registration around the time of the 2019 revolution. They also suggested that only 10% of the examined tweets seemed to be by authentic accounts supporting the SAF. Valet Projects report claimed that the pro-SAF tweets showed large-scale manipulation to mislead Sudanese and international observers into thinking there is wide support for SAF escalation; meanwhile, authentic Sudanese voices have been calling for an end to the violence. Nevertheless, the SAF still mainly relies on traditional media, including the government-owned and operated National Broadcasting Corporation (radio and television). The SAF also has a great influence on the privately owned Sudan News Agency (SUNA), which has been publishing pro-SAF narratives.

As stated above, the RSF’s usage of social is remarkably more advanced than SAF. This predates the current war and has been the case for a couple of years, as the RSF have been heavily investing in developing their social media presence. This is part of a continuous broader public relations campaign that aims to rebrand the RSF and whitewash their involvement in atrocities and human rights violations. Various reports have documented how the RSF have been hiring international communications and public relations firms to assist them in polishing their image through dangerous misinformation. These contracts included firms in Canada, France and the UAE. Furthermore, RSF campaigns have shown clarity and consistency, which allowed them to build stronger narratives. In contrast, SAF’s messaging has been rather contradictory and confusing, which has made it less effective in shaping public opinion.

Furthermore, the NCP members, or the Islamists, have also increased their propaganda since the eruption of the war. A report by the Sudan Conflict Monitor suggests that NCP-affiliated accounts are using a coordinated social media script to incite hatred and sow divisions. Generally, their narrative is in support of SAF and against RSF. Moreover, they have been coordinating campaigns against political leaders and civilian groups, accusing them of colluding with the RSF in attacking the SAF and attempting to take power. They have also described all actors taking a neutral stance and calling for the end of the war as traitors. More dangerously, their propaganda and disinformation campaigns have been advocating for the SAF to recruit jihadists and not partake in peace talks with the RSF. In order to further perpetrate their disinformation campaigns, NCP social media accounts published a list of “trusted sources” who are mostly SAF or NCP affiliated, asking the Sudanese public to rely on them for news.

Three trends can be observed among the disinformation campaigns propagated by the aforementioned actors:

  • Anti-SAF and/or pro-RSF campaigns that spread fake news and statements about SAF and its leadership, and disseminate support for the RSF. The main narratives pushed by these campaigns focused on fabricating SAF losses and claiming RSF victories, as well as denying the RSF’s involvement in atrocities and blaming the SAF for it. These campaigns also claimed societal support for the RSF in their battle against the allies of the former regime.

  • Anti-RSF and/or pro-SAF campaigns that target RSF leaders and their troops and fabricate SAF victories. The Pro-SAF narratives continue to claim fake victories, such as the SAF’s Commander in Chief stating in April that the fighting would be over within a few hours and that it was only a matter of cleaning up what remained of RSF fighters. Another key message they pushed was claiming that all human rights violations were exclusively committed by the RSF. Also, SAF allies, including officials and journalists, consistently fabricated news about the death of RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemedti.

  • Anti-civilian groups and politicians’ campaigns that attacked civilians and their initiatives to end the war. The main message behind these campaigns was labelling these civilian groups and leaders as traitors who are conspiring to benefit foreign countries, and claiming that their peace initiatives are acts of treason. The campaigns also accused civilian groups of supporting one of the warring factions over the other (mostly RSF).

Just throughout the months of August and September, Beam Reports published reports that counted at least 45 disinformation campaigns, classified as either fake or misleading news. The most popular method consisted of fabricating statements by different actors to serve their respective agendas; these campaigns were also observed to peak around the announcement of political initiatives or peace talks, proving the intentionality and the scale of these disinformation campaigns.

Impact of the disinformation campaigns

In the aftermath of the conflict’s outbreak in Sudan, the disinformation campaigns polarized Sudanese society in an unprecedented way . Moreover, they have posed serious dangers and put millions of vulnerable lives at risk. During times of conflict or displacement, those seeking to flee areas affected by the conflict tend to turn to social media for up-to-date guidance and resources, only to find fake accounts that exploit their panic and mislead them. When trying to access necessities like food, water and medication, Sudanese citizens caught in the crossfire have often relied on information from official sources on social media as a lifeline. The disinformation campaigns have compromised these resources. Various citizens have reported that they planned their movements in conflict-affected areas according to information online, only to find that it was part of the disinformation campaign, ultimately endangering their lives.

The dangerous online disinformation campaigns in Sudan are spreading rapidly in the absence of independent reporting to counter it. Journalists have been struggling to report from the ground, particularly in conflict epicenters, given the high security risks and limited access to internet and electricity. Additionally, the SAF’s captivation of the state’s media platforms and its usage of them for pro-SAF propaganda have extremely affected citizens' trust in the state’s institutions. With limited independent media coverage and compromised official media reporting, citizens are left with no options but to turn to propaganda-filled social media platforms.

Finally, the continuation of the virtual war on social media threatens to hinder efforts to find a peaceful resolution. Such disinformation campaigns have been standing in the way of any peace initiatives. For instance, a report by the Arabi Facts Hub analyzed a trending hashtag that was propagated by pro-SAF accounts stating that a truce is an act of treason, creating a public opinion against a ceasefire agreement between SAF and RSF. Hence, countering this trend is crucial. Although there are some initiatives to fact-check news and combat misinformation and disinformation, their impact is rather limited. Such endeavors necessitate rigorous fact-checking mechanisms that require international collaboration to expose and combat the deliberate spread of deceitful information, as well as accountability mechanisms for social media companies that allow such campaigns on their platforms. This would foster a more informed and discerning society amidst the turmoil. One example of such actions is Facebook removing the RSF pages from their platforms, yet much more needs to be done to counter the ongoing misinformation and disinformation war.

Conclusion

To sum up, the outbreak of armed conflict in Sudan has unleashed devastating physical violence and humanitarian crises, described as one of the fastest growing crises in the world currently and the worst that Sudan has ever seen. Moreover, it has sparked a dangerous parallel war of disinformation and propaganda campaigns spreading across social media. Both of the warring factions, the SAF and RSF, have engaged in widespread disinformation efforts to shape domestic and international opinions to their advantage. Additionally, associates of the former NCP regime continue to perpetuate divisive narratives online. These deliberate campaigns have polarized Sudanese citizens, exacerbated tensions, and endangered vulnerable communities; they threaten to damage the Sudanese social fabric beyond repair. With limited independent reporting, citizens increasingly turn to these propaganda-filled platforms, which also creates a fertile environment for the spread of unchecked misinformation. Thus, countering disinformation and misinformation is crucial through rigorous fact-checking mechanisms, international collaboration, and holding the actors involved in it to account. Exposing and combating the spread of deceitful propaganda can help foster a more informed society in Sudan amidst the turmoil. This must be an integral part of initiatives aiming to end the war in Sudan, as tackling the virtual war is key to paving the path to peace.

Show More

Digital Racist Backlash Against Black African Migrants: Tunisian Nativism and the Great Replacement Theory

Houda Mazioudet

When populist Tunisian President Kais Saied made an inflammatory speech on February 21, 2023, about the danger posed by irregular black African migrants in its evil design to replace indigenous Tunisians and strip them of their Arabic-Islamic identity, few doubted at that time this discourse with xenophobic and racist undertone could have an impact on large sections of a disenchanted population, that now considers any person of African descent as a national peril.

Emboldened by a relatively unknown political party established in 2018, the Tunisian Nationalist Party (TNP) built a digital populist platform that appealed to the popular masses.

Just as Saied’s popularity was built since 2012 when he shot to fame around social media pages mainly Facebook- ironically for someone who is has almost no knowledge of social media technology - so has grown his digital authoritarianism by proxy as it were. His populist mantra of “the People Wants” reverberated on social media with the mushrooming of several Facebook, Twitter and TikTok accounts that played on the “fear of a black peril” threatening the Tunisian nation.

This racial backlash ironically grew after a decade of a tumultuous democratic transition, in which black racial politics developed amidst a climate of denial of racism and resistance to a supposed, imaginary Afrocentric ideology hellbent upon turning Tunisia into a black colony. This paper attempts at analyzing digital racist rhetoric of TNP and several social media pages that take cue of European far rights groups, with which they share the Great Replacement Theory of black African wanting to colonize Tunisia (and by extension North Africa).

Additionally, such hate speech social media pages resorted to disinformation and misinformation campaigns aimed at inciting cultural wars between Tunisians and black African migrants as new invaders, by manipulating the ideology of Afrocentrism, equating it with Zionist ideology that colonized Palestine. How and when did this form of hate speech develop in Tunisian social media? What type of relationship do these groups entertain with Saied? What impact do they have on the rising anti-black African migrants in Tunisia since 2018 and the exacerbating xenophobic atmosphere since late 2022?


Background to the emergence of social media groups targeting black African migrants with hate speech and misinformation:

 This article focuses on the impact of hate speech, misinformation and disinformation of some Tunisian Facebook pages and YouTube channels. Given the growing number of such groups since 2018 when law 50-2018 criminalizing racial discrimination was passed, some are ad-hoc groups, others are official social media outlets and one is an official political party, the Tunisian nationalist party have been mushrooming and gems even more popular since Tunisian president inflammatory racism speech in February 2023. The case of the TNP is particular as its presence in different social media outlets (Facebook, X, YouTube, TikTok, Telegram, etc), endowing with a popularity among some sections of the Tunisian population, which has become very sensitive to the conspiracy theory about the plan of sub-Saharan Africans to displace Tunisians through the Great Replacement theory. 

Case of TNP and the political normalization of anti-immigrant and anti-black racism

Relying on misinformation, hate speech and disinformation about alleged criminal activities (which some occurred by most have been blown out of proportion), the TNP has spanned a narrative about an Afro-Zionist conspiracy that will turn Tunisian into another Palestine with a Western European-supported campaign of making Tunisia the new homeland of black Africans using Afrocentric ideology (which the TNP likens to the Zionist ideology that was behind the occupation and the settling of Palestine by world Jewry) as their Trojan Horse to destroy Tunisian Arabic-Islamic identity. Throughout 2023, TNP has been waging a vicious campaign targeting civil society organizations which it accused of being complicit in facilitating the colonization of Tunisia by black African migrants. These organizations include black Tunisian organization Mnemty. 

Moreover, is its Tik-Tok channel, TNP made a video based on historical revisionism about the inferiority of Black Africans, who were brought as slaves from West Africa during the era of Hammouda Pasha, this latter the head of the party, Sofiane Ben Sghaier recently hailed him a national hero of Tunisian independence from foreign interference and kicked West African ex-slaves for their alleged corruption in 1800. Their settlement in Tunisia goes back to Ali Bey 1st (1735-56) who brought them from the country of Sudan (kingdoms of Bornou-Khanem, Mali in particular) to work as his special guard and gave them permission to set up their own clubs and associations. But with time they began plotting to pervert the Tunisian state through social clubs with administration and special courts. They later proved to be corrupt and fallen spreading vice and lewdness in Muslim Tunisian society. 

Targeting black Tunisian activists with racist attacks 

TNP’s supporters on Facebook had attacked Mnemty’s president Saadia Mosbah as well as Tunisia’s first black MP, late Jamila Ksiksi as traitors to the nation due to their support of the right of black African migrants in economic and social protection from the Tunisian state against race-related violence. Additionally, a black Tunisian host to the private radio station IFM, Ghofrane Binous has received violent backlash from many supporters of TNP and other “white” Tunisians opposing black African migrants' presence in Tunisia due to her actuation of direct anti-black racism emanating from fellow radio host, who espoused the great replacement theory of black African migrants' plan to colonize Tunisia. In one heated debate she blasted Nejib Dziri about his unhinged racism in embracing the theory about black African migrants’ plan of colonizing Tunisia and their being behind criminal activities in the country.

The rise in hate speech against black Africans included former government officials, including Tunisian ministry of interior the open racism of another radio host and former security official, Khalifa Chibani about black African migrants and his espousal conspiracy theory about their representing a security threat to Tunisian sovereignty. She faced a vicious online attacks including threats to deport her to sub-Saharan Africa and racist slurs. Ksiksi and Mosbah also suffered such racist attacks too. 

Rise in xenophobia of Tunisian Facebook and YouTube in connection to black African migrants:

Several Facebook pages dedicated their work on warning about the danger of “colonization of Tunisia by black African migrants”. They have become active in inciting anti-black campaigns against both regular and irregular black African migrants, with a strategy revolving around collaborating with Tunisian police to report black African migrants living and working illegally in Tunisia and denouncing those helping them. This is a sad reminiscent of “long history of collusion between law enforcement and white supremacists in the West”, argued Yasmine Akrimi in an article for Nawaat online newspaper, while highlighting some Facebook pages that were formerly affiliated with police unions waging uncirculated campaigns accusing black African migrants of running prostitution networks, with ringleaders of illicit and fraud activities. 

The rise in hate speech against black Africans included former government officials, including Brigadier-General Khalifa Chibani, former spokesman of the General Administration of National Guard, who during a heated debate with a Tunisian civil society activist who worked on Tunisian radical militants with jihadist groups in the Levant, about black African migrants and his espousal conspiracy theory about their representing a security threat to Tunisian sovereignty. 

 Rise in xenophobia of Facebook and YouTube channels related to black African migrants:

Several Facebook pages dedicated their work to warning about the danger of “colonization of Tunisia by black African migrants”. They have become active in inciting anti-black campaigns against both regular and irregular black African migrants, with a strategy revolving around collaborating with Tunisian police to report black African migrants living and working illegally in Tunisia and denouncing those helping them (Akrimi. 2023). This is sad reminiscent of “long history of collusion between law enforcement and white supremacists in the West”, argued Akrimi while highlighting some Facebook pages’ formerly affiliated with police unions campaigns of accusation of black African migrants of running prostitution networks and ringleaders of illicit activities including fraud (Akrimi, 2023). 

Turning black migrant dehumanization into anti-black racism and role of politicians in enabling it

Most of the Facebook posts from Tunisian members use dehumanizing language about black Africans, depicting them as invaders, but who also engage in killing cats to eat them, as rapists, frauds and terrorists linked to Boko Haram jihadist group. A Tunisian MP from Sfax, Tunisia’s second city, Fatma Mseddi even posted on the same day Saied made his racist speech, a photo on her Facebook profile of a West African tribal chief purporting to be Sfax next mayor. This action was decried by internet users that a representative of the people in the Tunisian parliament is inciting racial hatred by ridiculing black Africans as inherently savage. Tunisian weatherman re-shared the photo. 

One YouTube channel that attracts racist vitriol against black African from many Tunisians, called Bila  Kinaa (Arabic for without mask) has been making controversial videos about black African migrants, showing their violence towards security forces and engaging in illicit activities, including a weird video about their building a mosque where they would pray that God does not make rain. Alternatively, it interviewed a Tunisian who was hosting black Africans who lost their homes after the speech in his restaurant to have free meals. The video received some insults from Tunisians, with people posting racist comments about black Africans using the Tunisian N-word. 

 This channel is notorious for doing street vox pop interviewing ordinary Tunisians and often giving voice to those whose open racism raises no eyebrows adding to the normalization of anti-black racism. 

Another YouTube channel, New Media TV interviewed a “white” Tunisian lawyer who bragged about his slave holding grandfather with many Tunisians condoning his rhetoric. The video made turns on social media and CNN even shared it in the aftermath of black witch-hunt due to President Saied’s racist speech. 

Ironically, TNP doubled down on its rhetoric using these openly racist Tunisians to support its position that Tunisians are not racist just scared for their country's safety and sovereignty against the invasion of black Africans. Its president, Sofiane Ben Sghaier was invited on some Tunisian TV channels (such as Carthage Plus and public national TV, Watania TV) where he warned about the danger of the settlement of black Africans in Tunisia. 

Its YouTube channel has been active making videos spreading fake news and disinformation about Afrocentric groups from west Africa and the Caribbean making plans to make Tunisia a settlement for   blacks from sub-Saharan Africa.

On misinformation, Chibani and Mseddi went as far to declare on private radio stations such as Diwan FM and Shems FM that they had proofs that many black African migrants who infiltrated Tunisia coming from Algeria included Boko Haram fighters. On November 27 2023, MP Mseddi went on to accuse black African African migrants -who clashed with security forces over the later preventing them from leaving Tunisia from a small town in Sfax on rickety boats, leading to the serious wounding of one police official- of having shouted Allah Akbar during the clashes, hinting at their belonging to a terrorist organization of Boko Haram.

Some Amazigh activists have been engaging in the last few years in misinformation cloaked in an anti-black African and immigrant rhetoric targeting black Tunisian activists and conspiracy theory about their intent to colonize North Africa (Tunisia) as Amazigh nation by black Africans and the renewed pride in the Amazigh character of Tunisia by some of these activists.  A Facebook page called “Fighting African Colonization of Tunisia: la Résistance des Nationalistes”, (in Arabic مقاومة الاستعمار الأفريقي في تونس)). 

as its name suggests has a nationalist message that purports “to prevent Tunisia from facing the same scenario as Palestine”, adopting an alarmist and messianic message mixed with conspiracy theory about the threat of black African migrants to Tunisia’s demographics. One of its administrators often makes Facebook live sessions with the Tunisian flag alongside the Amazigh flag.

In June 2023, it made an electronic petition to sign and disseminate to deport illegal immigrants (black Africans) “to confront settlement and demographic change in order to protect national, health and territorial security and sovereignty and to support Tunisian president’s stance in applying the law….in order to reject racism and take into account the humanitarian side and defend the homeland”.

The group which garnered support from some Tunisian Amazigh activists, adopts the same rhetoric of TNP, whose message about sovereignty and unconditional support of Saied since his February 2023 racist speech resonates with the populist president’s nativist and conspiratorial rhetoric about the danger of black Africans to Tunisia’s Arabic-Islamic identity.

The irony is that both TNP’s rhetoric about the Tunisian umma (nation in Arabic) and la Résistance Tunisienne Facebook group’s Amazigh identity as the core of Tunisian identity intersects, despite the enmity between Tunisian Arab nationalists and Amazigh activists over the former’s racism. But in the face of the imminent threat from an outside enemy, black Africans, their past enmity is put aside and their forging of a new alliance to fight black African threat.

Their opportunistic alliance includes their publication of several videos about the violence of black African migrants in some Tunisian cities especially Sfax, Tunis and Kasserine with a lot of disinformation, inciting average Tunisians against regular black African migrants who have never engaged in any criminal activity. 

Show More

The Manosphere and the Rise of Violent Misogyny Online

Ninar Fawal

It might be tempting to view the emergence of Arab misogynistic “red pill” movement as a mere reproduction of European or American discourses within a widening global manosphere. Yet a closer look reveals that, while adopting the symbols and labels of other red pill movements, the Arab manosphere adapts its arguments into a broader culture war between what it perceives as the “liberal West” and Arab countries. In this way, online misogyny is not a phenomenon that is isolated from other trends: instead, it is repackaged into wider conspiratorial traditionalist discourse on the internet that specifically caters to the current sociopolitical context in the Middle East and North Africa. This traditionalist discourse is concerned with modern societal ills and advocating for the return of traditional social, economic, political structures – and most importantly, gender politics.

The global manosphere and its influencers

The manosphere movement is amorphous – oscillating between different labels, sub-groups, and platforms – but it agrees upon a number of premises and foundational principles: namely, misogyny, anti-feminism, and anti-liberalism more broadly.

It is characterized by far-right, conspiratorial extremism, and has found loyal (largely male) followers all around the world. It is dubbed the “manosphere, literally, for its focus on men and its defence of their perceived interests.

According to a recent analysis of millions of posts in a number of forums in Reddit, the online manosphere can be divided into four general groups: “pick-up artists,” “men’s right’s activists (MRAs),” “men going their own way (MGTOW),” and “incels.”  Pick-up artists advice men online on how to pick up men and decry the perceived “feminization” of men today; MRAs argue that men are routinely discriminated against; MGTOWs support withdrawal from women and society and is often associated with extreme misogyny; and incels are generally characterized by intense resentment towards women, and is a community that has often been associated with mass murderers such as Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian.

One core belief in the broader manosphere movement is that of the “red pill.” The concept references the film The Matrix, wherein the protagonist Neo is invited to choose between a red pill and a blue pill. The former reveals the truth about the world they inhabit and the “matrix” that controls it, the latter, a continued blissful ignorance. The manosphere movement borrows from this premise, but with an important twist. For many of its followers, the matrix is an imagined liberal, feminist world order perpetuated by a nefarious, shadowy entity. The red pill, on the other hand, is “waking up” to this reality. In this sense, feminism is institutionalized and structural, and is, as a result, the root cause of the societal, economic, political, and spiritual ills that befall men and larger society.

If the manosphere movement has been bubbling in different corners of the internet like Reddit, 4chan, 8chan, and the like, then Andrew Tate helped bring it out into the mainstream platforms of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and importantly, Tik Tok. A former British-American kickboxer, he is now one of the most googled people on Earth, with more than 11.6 billion views on TikTok. Tate’s journey to fame has largely been dependent on the physical and sexual abuse of women: he first gained notoriety in 2016 after he was kicked off the British reality show Big Brother due to a video emerging of him physically abusing a woman.

In 2018, he launched a $450 video course on how to attract women (and coerce them into sex work) which he dubbed the PhD (Pimping Hoes Degree) program. In 2021, he founded another grift by the name of Hustlers University – the website inviting you to “escape the matrix” – now registering over 200,000 students.

One year later, his content exploded online – with platforms like Tik Tok actively promoting his and other manosphere content. His most infamous comments include blaming victims for being sexually assaulted, comparing women to dogs as to assert ownership over them, and fantasizing over murdering a woman with a machete if she accused him of cheating. 

Another well-known manosphere-related influencer is Jordan Peterson, who has found popularity particularly among young men in the Middle East and North Africa. A Canadian psychologist and former professor at the University of Toronto, his best-selling book 12 Rules of Life primarily focuses on self-help content, packaged in a conservative, traditionalist framework. On gender politics, he is staunchly anti-feminist – opining in a New York Times profile that “the masculine spirit is under assault” – and largely gained notoriety for his panics about gender identity.

One of the widespread phenomena within the manosphere movement is the dominance of pseudoscience theories. Coupled with gender essentialism, these communities often misuse evolutionary psychology to justify their violent misogyny. For example, what is known as the “dual mate strategy hypothesis” which is a hypothesis that examines the female ovulatory cycle in mammals and its impact on mating preferences. This hypothesis was used by manosphere circles to reinforce myths that women actively cheat with good-looking men, known in the community as “alphas,”  in order to “obtain good genes” because her biology compels her to. Indeed, this is one example of “evidence-based misogyny” that scholars observe in manosphere communities online, where statistics, studies, and other forms of evidence, real or otherwise, are used to bolster narratives of men’s supremacy and their vicitimization in society. This accompanies a broader conspiratorial narrative that gender equality feminism are key components of the “culture war” designed to harm boys and men.  

Growing Arab audiences of the manosphere

As these ideas and rhetoric grew in popularity globally, the Arabic manosphere has also found increasing online presence and engagement. The emergence of this manosphere is, on one hand, a result of translating the content of well-known manosphere influencers, some of whom have emphasized their fondness of Islam and Muslims.

On Youtube, there are countless translated videos of Andrew Tate, which can bring in hundreds of thousands of views. When Andrew Tate converted to Islam in 2022, some Arabs online reacted positively. One religious figure praised how Tate’s conversion led to the conversion of his fans.

Another YouTube personality with 1.12 million subscribers made a video mocking feminists’ reaction to Tate’s conversion. Many of Tate’s videos are translated by a Youtube Channel called Alasna ala al Haq, or Are We Not Right? which defines itself in its description that it seeks to shed light on “Islam’s incompatibility with liberalism, feminism, and other modern lifestyles.”

In one of the translated videos, Tate explains the reasoning behind his conversion, stating that Islam reflects his personal beliefs that God is a strong and fear-inducing figure, unlike what he perceives is the permissiveness of Christianity. At other times, he tied his conversion to the “decline” of the West. He also stated that “I’m going to find myself a nice Islamic wife, and I’ll build up a big pile of rocks… as soon as I catch her cheating, there’s going to be no delays, insha’ Allah,” implying that he is prepared to stone his wife if she is caught cheating.

Another channel, called Hayat Tate or the Life of Tate, dedicates its account to translating videos of the influencer, mainly consisting of YouTube shorts. Similarly, Jordan Peterson has long flirted with Muslim audiences, both in the Arab world and elsewhere, stating once that he was happy with the size of his Arab audience, and that Muslim fans would leave comments on his videos asking when he would convert to Islam.

Manosphere influencers reach out to Arabs and Muslims

The other factor influencing the emergence and the spread of the Arabic manosphere is the new ideas and influencers it produced in its effort to adapt to the Middle East and North African context.

In this way, there is a juxtaposition of liberalism and feminism with Islam to counter what is perceived as the former two’s increasing encroachment on Arab societies. For example, Western criticisms of Qatari’s “Arab and Muslim social norms” in the lead up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup ignited fierce debates (and largely, backlash) on gender, feminism, and particularly LGBTQ+ matters in the Arab manosphere.

This, in turn, allowed for increased engagement with manosphere figures. For example, this is a translated YouTube video of Andrew and Tristan Tate discussing Qatar’s treatment of LGBTQ+ issues went viral, boasting 1.9 million views. In April 2022, the Saudi media company Thamanyah's podcast, Finjan, which is one of the most popular podcasts in Arabic, interviewed the British-Egyptian influencer Mohammad Hijab.

Hijab is a friend of Tate and well known by his opposition to feminism and women’s liberation movements. He and Tate held a live discussion where they discussed the latter’s conversion to Islam (the original version reached 3.5 million views, and Arabic translations of the conversation were also highly watched).

In this discussion, they spoke about Tate’s conversion, Tate’s anti-women comments, and how feminism and gender equality has a “hidden agenda” that negatively impacts women’s physical and mental health, a citing a mixture of studies, surveys, and anecdotes. The conspiratorial undercurrent to this conversion once again described gender equality as a project of the (Western) elite juxtaposed to traditional Muslim societies.

Jordan Peterson videos, similarly, get translated into Arabic and garner millions of views: one such video, which is a compilation of Peterson critiquing gender equality, punctuated by comments in Arabic by the uploader, has 2.2 million views. It examines themes of perceived unfairness in the workplace, which aligns with Peterson’s rhetoric on men’s disadvantaged nature today, as well as rhetoric that positions feminism as being incompatible with childrearing and the nuclear family. Peterson, however, has fallen out of favour with his Arab audience recently due to, initially, his address to his Muslim audience about sectarianism and the Abraham Accords, which was perceived as condescending and ignorant. And then, after October 7, his comments on Palestinians further angered his Arab and Muslim audience. Tate, on the other hand, continues to capitalize on his embrace by Muslims after his conversion.

The Arab manosphere

As a result of the recent explosion of these narratives and influencers, Arab content creators now also produce their own red pill or red pill-influenced content. Sometimes, the content is less niche and encapsulates anti-feminism in general, proliferated through figures such as Faris Al Hammadi, a popular internet personality and religious influencer from the United Arab Emirates who supported Tate’s conversion to Islam. Al Hammadi, like Hijab, often peddles content that focuses on the supposed incompatibility between Islam and gender equality. In July 2023, for example, he tweeted that:

Allah orders men to be merciful towards women. And orders women to be obedient towards men. Mess around with this equation, you’ll end up destroying a society.

Other forms of content are more directly about red pill concepts and ideologies. The Moroccan YouTube channel ossagi | أوساجي  boasts 1.63 million subscribers and says it seeks to help the viewer improve their mindset, personality, and overall life.

Its self-help style videos are numerous, echoing prominent figures like Jordan Peterson; its explainer video on the red pill movement shows how the ideology uncovers the oppressive force of feminism and its goal of enslaving men. Similarly, a Moroccan podcast called the “Testosterone Podcast,” under the YouTube channel ilyass Lakhrissi, has garnered hundreds of thousands of views on topics regarding masculinity and anti-feminism.

There have also been red pill influencers selling courses, similar to Hustlers University: a Jordanian man by the name of Coach Kareem offers a number of services, including consultations on relationship issues and opportunities to give lectures on the “history of feminism” and “biological and psychological differences” between men and women. Moreover, across Facebook, there are a number of groups dedicated to red pill content, both public and private: Red Pill Arabic, for example, has 184,000 followers and espouses misogynistic, manosphere-related views; The Real world أندرو تيت has 273,000 followers. One of the former’s more popular posts describes women’s “biological clocks” and warns men from their deceitfulness while employing the “dual mating strategy” hypothesis, directly referencing terminology popular in red pill online forums. Other significant groups includeأندرو تيت بالعربي, red pill islamic 💊💊 (النخبة) ريد بيل إسلامي, and Escape The Matrix - الهروب من المصفوفة (ETM), all of which peddle similar extreme misogyny and men’s supremacy, both using religious and non-religious justifications (for example, one post references the hadith that the minority of inhabitants in heaven are women).

Conclusion

Anti-feminist content has indeed always existed online, in all languages and speaking to all social and cultural contexts. This new crop of influencers, however, have had particular influence and popularity online in recent years.

Indeed, what is particularly alarming about the manosphere, aside from the overt and covert violence of its influencers and ideologies, is it its sheer virality of both its original and translated content, as well the ability of worldwide content creators to adapt its messages to their own audiences.

Indeed, the Arabic manosphere’s positioning of feminism as antithetical to Islam is both a response to perceived Western influence as well as a mirroring of the West’s own recent culture wars on gender and sexuality, which has dominated American political culture. Still, the proliferation of gender misinformation and disinformation is critically not solely a manifestation of culture war, and while it tempting to think that trends online are frivolous and unimportant, this dehumanization of girls and women could indeed could potentially impact rates of femicide, domestic violence, and the restriction of rights and freedoms for women and girls (already, schoolteachers in English-speaking countries are sounding the alarm on the impact of Tate’s videos on violent incidents in elementary schools).

While Tate is one person who remains under custody, the social movement he helped popularize is still very much rampant on the online sphere – with more figures like him across the world ready to take his place.

Show More

LGBTQ+ Disinformation in Lebanon

Nader Durgham

On August 23, 2023, a queer-friendly pub in Beirut’s Gemmayze neighborhood was attacked by members of a Christian extremist group known as the Soldiers of God (“Jnoud Al Rab” in Arabic). The attack marked a significant spike in anti-LGBT rhetoric and violence in Lebanon, once seen as a country showing relative tolerance of the community in the Arab region. 

In the weeks leading up to the attack, anti-LGBT language dominated Lebanese social media spheres in levels unheard of in years. The atmosphere, in many ways, echoed the ongoing culture wars in the United States which heavily targeted LGBTQ+, and especially transgender people in the country. It also followed a trained of increasingly hostile attitudes against queer individuals across the Middle East. 

The hostile online sphere targeting the LGBTQ+ community was most importantly boosted by Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of powerful militant group Hezbollah, when he made a speech against the community in July of the same year. In that speech, Nasrallah claimed the spread of homosexuality was a “real danger” to Lebanon, and that individuals engaging in same-sex acts were “to be killed”.

In the weeks following this speech, Lebanese social media sphere were flooded with discourses surrounding the LGBTQ+ community, with many posts carrying hateful and inaccurate messages. The posts were not limited to supporters of Hezbollah or Jnoud Al Rab, but reached Lebanese officials, most notably the minister of culture Mohammad El Mortada. 

Mortada became a particularly prominent figure in the weeks-long disinformation campaign, dedicating several tweets attacking the LGBTQ+ community and engaging with online arguments with those disagreeing with him.

The influence of the campaign lead to the Lebanese ministry of education removing the snakes and ladders board game from schools due to the presence of a rainbow on the board, and events tearing up rainbow-colored leaflets across the country.

Official-level discourse

While Lebanese politics are often mired with divisions, our investigation found a unity across sectarian and political lines regarding the spread of misinformation surrounding the LGBTQ+ community in Lebanon. 

 In certain, but not all aspects, the campaign was influenced by the recent Quran burnings in several countries in Europe. While the retaliatory protests to these moves mostly took place in Iraq, they also spread to other Arab and Muslim-majority countries. As several Western embassies in Middle Eastern countries gained notoriety for flying rainbow flags during events such as pride month or the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, several protesters burned rainbow flags, viewing homosexuality as a Western construct and an infringement of their values.

Mortada, Lebanon’s culture minister, serves as a particularly prominent example of this case. He has previously accused the spread of homosexuality to be a Zionist and freemason plot. This comes in spite of several reports and content published by Palestinian queer organizations making a clear distinction between Israel’s image as an allegedly queer-friendly state, and the reality of occupation for queer Palestinians.

The minister, a Shia Muslim from the Hezbollah-allied Amal Movement party, shared a series of posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, discussing the opposition of Christianity to “sexual perversion,” and using Christian verses and art pieces to justify his active campaign against queer individuals.

Mortada went as far as comparing queer individuals to the devil, promoting the prospects of a “holy war” against them.

The minister asked for summer blockbuster movie “Barbie” to be banned in Lebanon, claiming it “promotes homosexuality and transgenders.” While the movie stars a trans actress, it makes no references or homosexuality or queerness in general. The country’s General Security Directorate then contradicted the minister’s claims by allowing the movie to be played in theaters.

Attempts to counter the heavily dominant anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes were also met with severe backlash and disinformation targeting pro-LGBT attitudes.

When Lebanese channel MTV released an advertisement calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality, the backlash reached the point of religious figures condemning the channel, and a high-ranking sheikh released a fatwa, or an Islamic ruling calling for the boycott of the channel.

Amidst this campaign, several Lebanese MPs proposed a draft law that would abolish article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code. The article prohibits sexual acts seen as “unnatural,” but has often been used to prosecute having relations with partners of the same sex.

The draft was met with wide rejections and uproar from religious and political bodies. Many online users referred to the MPs as “representatives of sexual perversion” and specifically targeted MP Mark Daou, who was particularly vocal in favor of the queer community.

The disinformation targeting Daou even involved a fellow MP claiming Daou escaped homosexuality by getting married earlier in the summer.

Following the pressure campaign, one MP retracted his signature from the draft law.

Several Lebanese lawmakers also expressed their opposition to the draft law. Most notably, Mortada, as well as anti-Hezbollah MP Ashraf Rifi worked separate draft laws that further restricts any same-sex acts. Rifi’s draft also penalizes “anyone who promotes, facilitates, hides, or incites others.”

The widespread disinformation campaign was further exemplified by representatives from 40 media outlets in the country visiting the minister of culture, asking him to pursue his campaign against queer people.

“A diversion.”

Daou, along with several activists in Lebanon’s LGBTQ+ community, claimed the intensified disinformation campaign over the summer was used as a “diversion” from the country’s more pressing issues. Indeed, Lebanon is currently dealing with one of the world’s worst economic crises in modern history, with its elites still unable to agree over a course of action to resolve it.

Lebanon has been without a president since October of last year and is facing one of the highest inflation levels in the world. The deep divisions among its political and religious elites, which in many ways extended and sometimes even worsened the crisis, seemed to have been set aside temporarily as all parties agreed to attack the queer community in ways that are similar to the what the US has witnessed in terms of increased targeting of queer and trans individuals.

Indeed, Lebanese social media was flooded with video originating from the US attacking queer and, most notably, trans individuals.

A Lebanese beer commercial featuring sympathetic representation of queer individuals even garnered reactions that compared it to the US’ Bud Light controversy, where the American beer brand’s inclusion of a trans public figure in their ad campaign turned them into a pariah for conservative Americans.

Nasrallah dedicating significant time from a speech to discuss the “dangers” of homosexuality on Lebanese society further cemented the topic’s place in Lebanese public opinion over the summer.

Indeed, following his call to boycott any alleged promotion for sodomy or homosexuality, X users were quick to take pictures of any product that had a rainbow on it and exposed the stores selling them.

A woman even went viral after she accused a bakery of promoting homosexuality by selling a rainbow cake, causing the bakery to reply saying homosexuality does not align with its values.

Any sight of image of a rainbow therefore became a legitimate target in the eyes of many, believing it to be a promotion of homosexuality.

The Soldiers of God

Jnoud Al Rab were key elements of the weeks-long campaign targeting queer people in Lebanon. The group rose to prominence in 2019, when they threatened to attack a concert in Byblos by Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila. The lead singer of the band, Hamed Sinno, is a gay man who was accused of offending Christian symbols in a Facebook post.

Jnoud al-Rab have since operated as an extremist Christian group in some areas of Beirut, with some politicians accusing them of operating in a militia-like manner. Detractors also refer to the group as the “Christian version of the Islamic State” (ISIS).

In June 2022, the group took down a rainbow-themed billboard in Beirut’s Achrafieh neighborhood. To them, the rainbow flag was a satanic symbol that needed to be rejected and condemned. 

Quoting anonymous sources from inside the bank, Lebanese outlet l’Orient Le Jour reported that these men are part of SGBL bank owner Antoun Sehnaoui, a claim which spokespeople from the bank deny.

While the group claims to fight “Islamist peril,” often focusing on Palestinian and Syrian refugees, they have found themselves in an odd marriage with Shiite armed group Hezbollah in the campaign targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

The August 2023 attack was the most direct attack the group committed against their targets. The attack came a year after interior minister Bassam Mawlawi issued a directive for security forces to ban any pro-LBGTQ+ events. The directive, labeled by Human Rights Watch as unlawful, was suspended in November 2022 by a court order. Mawlawi therefore issued a second directive banning any events in relation to or even addressing homosexuality.

While the violence was condemned by several people, including politicians representing the affected neighborhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, individuals and figures from different sectarian and political lines praised the attack. Mortada in particular said that Lebanon’s security forces should have stopped the event from taking place and shut down the venue.

While it is uncertain why the intense uptick in queerphobic discourse and violence took place, the general context of increased repression targeting queer individuals in the Middle East provides part of the explanation regarding its spillover in Lebanon. The use of queer individuals as “scapegoats,” as LGBTQ+ rights activists have accused officials of doing, would also be in line with previous campaigns targeting different vulnerable communities in the country, such as Syrian and Palestinian refugees. 

Show More