In this series of articles, Al Jazeera examines how Twitter in the Middle East has changed since the Arab Spring. Government talking points are being magnified through thousands of accounts during politically fraught times and silencing people on Twitter is only part of a large-scale effort by governments to stop human rights activists and opponents of the state from being heard.
The Syrian revolution
Anas Qtiesh, a blogger, noticed them around the start of the Syrian uprising while he was monitoring what was happening on the ground.
On his blog in April 2011, a month after the revolutions took hold, Qtiesh noted how the anonymous accounts “verbally assaulted … anyone tweeting favourably about the ongoing protests or criticising the regime”.
In addition to outright attacks, the anonymous accounts, known as bots, were flooding activist hashtags with unrelated content like “photography, old Syrian sports scores, links to Syrian comedy shows, [and] pro-regime news”, diluting their messaging, said Qtiesh.
The bots were changing Twitter.
It was moving from a platform that activists were using to share information about the situation in their countries, to one where the heavy hand of government could be seen, as the bots monitored the discourse and flooding the public space with their propaganda.
The Arab Spring
“Social media was a breath of fresh air for the people after the start of the Syrian revolution,” Samer, a Syrian activist and author of The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from Islamic State, told Al Jazeera.
He had joined anti-government demonstrations early on in the eastern city of Deir Az Zor, joining protesters who used social media sites such as Facebook, Skype and, to a lesser degree, Twitter, to organise rallies.
“We cannot ignore the role of social media in expanding the protests and exposing the crimes and practices, as it was the means available to all,” Samer said.
According to the Arab Social Media report by the Dubai School of Government, published at the time of the Syrian protests, “the growth of social media in the region and the shift in usage trends played a critical role in mobilisation, empowerment, shaping opinions and influencing change” during the Arab Spring.
Governments were actively trying to prevent citizens from organising protests, much in the same way they would ban public gatherings and demonstrations, but they did not yet grasp the potential reach of social media.
A seemingly unworried then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak responded with a laconic “let them play” when asked in a TV interview about the role of social media in the protests against him in early 2011.
Weeks later, Mubarak was overthrown by the Egyptians.
“Governments would simply block whole websites, but we saw that fail in Tunisia, we saw it fail in Egypt because it put more people out onto the streets,” Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told Al Jazeera.
Although Facebook and text messaging were the most popular means of communication during the protests, Twitter played a more outward-looking role: getting information to an international audience.
According to York, Twitter’s biggest effect in Tunisia’s uprising was a result of exiled Tunisians sharing information on what was happening in the country, bringing it to the attention of international media.
When Twitter was shut down in Egypt, services like Speak To Tweet were launched, giving people a phone number they could call and record their messages, which were then transcribed and posted, allowing information out of the country and giving the world at large and media, in particular, access to what was happening on the ground.
Shifting the advantage
Governments soon caught on and started using social media to their advantage.
The Syrian government clamped down by tracking people spreading anti-government messages.
“Internet cafes were broken into and all visitors were arrested. Anyone who had registered using their services that day got their houses raided,” Samer said.
Other governments also started monitoring activists and opponents on social media, sometimes using fake Facebook accounts to track what was happening in activist groups.
“In 2011, governments weren’t really equipped to deal with these new platforms,” Mona Elswah, a researcher at the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University, told Al Jazeera.
The project researches how fake, often automated, accounts are used to manipulate online discourse.
“Assad in Syria learned from the Egyptians and Tunisians, he knew he could not shut down the internet … [or] block Twitter or Facebook,” she added.
“So he started using these platforms in order to monitor the protests” and arrest those deemed to be spreading anti-government messages on social media.
According to Samer, the al-Assad government started something else which would later be copied and perfected by other countries: smearing the opposition on this new platform.
“Rumours were spread … through the accounts of loyalists or intelligence elements or even through fictitious accounts,” he said.
ISIL on Twitter
During its rise to power in Iraq and Syria, the armed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group used Twitter as one of its main propaganda tools.
In 2014, as the group expanded rapidly, it used social media to spread its message and convince people to travel to the self-declared caliphate to fight for ISIL’s cause.
Eventually, this use of Twitter prompted the company to take action. ISIL’s visibility was hurting its brand.
In an attempt to stop the ISIL propaganda, Twitter clamped down hard on anyone spreading ISIL’s messages.
It seemed to work, as the number of pro-ISIL tweets decreased significantly in 2015, researchers found.
“While some of this limitation might be due to an overall drop in interest or support for ISIS, we believe it is largely attributable to suspensions,” researchers from George Washington University wrote in a report on ISIL’s Twitter propaganda.
Twitter’s fight continued in 2017 when it suspended some 25,000 accounts linked to ISIL after two researchers in the US alerted it to almost two million, mostly Arabic, tweets sent by those accounts.
But even in early 2019, when the group was waning and held almost no territory, its supporters used hacked Twitter accounts to push out pro-ISIL propaganda, sometimes using accounts with tens of thousands of followers, making them hard to weed out.
Interestingly, Twitter’s fight against ISIL actually taught others – namely Middle Eastern state actors infamous for cracking down on activists and human rights defenders – how to abuse the microblogging website.
Since the Arab Spring, Gulf states have continued clamping down on activists and invested heavily in state surveillance capabilities.
The region is home to some of the world’s richest regimes that are using every possible means to hold on to power and stifle dissent.
With its large youth population and near-ubiquitous internet penetration, the Gulf has seen Twitter grow at an exponential rate.
According to researchers Al Jazeera spoke to, the lack of freedom of expression, high internet penetration and massive financial resources are the perfect breeding ground for armies of fake accounts and automated Twitter propaganda.
“Manipulation exists, but … the use of Twitter in the region is absolutely different than in other countries, and the way Twitter is being manipulated is absolutely different,” Elswah told Al Jazeera.
“It exists to demobilise the opposition, to target whoever is confronting the government … a tool of coercion.”
Although it is happening in most countries in the region, the stranglehold governments have on the Twittersphere is clearest in Saudi Arabia, where its 10 million Twitter users make it the biggest Middle Eastern market, according to research agency Omnicore.
According to EFF’s York, Gulf states, Saudi Arabia especially, have learned from the Arab Spring.
“It’s amazing, if I say anything about Saudi Arabia on Twitter, I get attacked by hundreds of bots every single time,” she said.
Most of those seemed to be automated to send out prepared messages.
“I’ll get a reply … from a Saudi bot, and … when I search [online] for that text I’ll see other bots sending the exact same message to different people.”
Twitter exists to demobilise the opposition, to target whoever is confronting the government ... a tool of coercion.
Twitter’s findings seem to mirror York’s.
In April, Twitter deleted about 5,000 automated accounts for violating its policies against “manipulation”. The bots had been pushing a narrative attacking the Mueller investigation into US President Donald Trump’s possible links to Russia, and had been previously tweeting messages supportive of the Saudi government.
Months earlier, in the wake of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by people linked to Saudi Arabia’s government, researchers at the independent Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks propaganda online, found a separate network of pro-Saudi bots pushing conspiracy theories deflecting blame away from Saudi authorities.
According to human rights activists, these pro-Saudi bots spread more than conspiracy theories, starting a Twitter campaign attacking the Washington Post owner, Jeff Bezos, as the US-based daily wrote scathing articles about Saudi Arabia following the murder of Khashoggi.
The blockading countries put forward a list of demands to Qatar, including the closure of the Al Jazeera Media Network. Following that, Twitter hashtags appeared calling for “the closure of the ‘sow’ channel”, referring to Al Jazeera.
According to researchers at Bahrain Watch, a group monitoring corruption, arms control and digital security in Bahrain, those hashtags were mostly pushed by bots that “seem to exist solely for the purpose of spreading anti-Qatar, pro-Saudi, pro-Trump (and also anti-Iranian) propaganda”.
“On this particular network, there are around at least 2,000 individual unique accounts. Their activity reflects … Saudi foreign policy. They have previously condemned Al Jazeera, Iran, and supported Donald Trump,” the research concluded.
Organising thousands of accounts to send out the same talking points is easy, according to Oxford’s Elswah who told Al Jazeera it is simply a matter of money, which the Gulf countries have in abundance.
“Anyone who wants to manipulate content … a regime, political parties … hire people who can create bots … These people aren’t necessarily politically involved themselves, but they know how to write the code,” Elswah said.
Twitter fights back
What Twitter is doing to combat propaganda and bots is unclear, as the company only shares some of its data every couple of months and its algorithms for fighting fake accounts are secret.
In response to questions asked by Al Jazeera about the bots flooding its platform in the Middle East, Twitter said it has been strengthening its platform to prevent propaganda by automated accounts.
We are now identifying and challenging between eight million and 10 million spammy, automated accounts every single week.
“Twitter’s number one priority is to improve the health of the public conversation. Part of this work involves tackling spam and automated activity that disrupts a person’s experience on the service. To this end, we have expanded our rules and invested in better tools to help us stay ahead of malicious actors,” the company said in response to two pages of questions from Al Jazeera.
“We are now identifying and challenging between eight million and 10 million spammy, automated accounts every single week … Overall, 75 percent of these accounts are failing to pass these challenges and are ultimately suspended,” the statement said.
Although Twitter seems to be blocking more and more nefarious accounts that are reported, it is a publicly-traded company with shareholders who expect it to grow, creating a possible incentive to keep its user base increasing, according to experts. A stagnant or shrinking user base could devalue its stocks so, in a convoluted way, the company may be dependent on these fake accounts as well.
The upshot is that Twitter has become a place where activists feel unsafe and where their calls for action could land them in jail, or worse.
In the next part of this series, Al Jazeera will look at how Twitter bots influenced online conversation during the GCC crisis on both sides of the issue.