Conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon in the Middle East. Many governments and influential organisations in the region – if not all of them – have long thrived on the power of disinformation and propaganda, which not only confuses enemies but keeps citizens in a state of pliant uncertainty.
The wide horizons of the internet make it easier than ever before to mask ulterior motives. That Russian stories spread by legions of Twitter bots and trolls managed to so spectacularly derail the 2016 US election has conclusively proved that we are living in a post-truth era.
The impact the new fake news ecosystem could have when the Middle East’s appetite for half-truths meets increasingly sophisticated methods of spreading political disinformation, however, are not yet known – and could have devastating consequences.
The possibility for fresh disruption in the increasingly polarised region is immense, said Dr Jean Marc Rikli, a research fellow at King’s College London and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. “The potential explosive power of fake news sites is even more important in societies that are unstable or weak or divided along sectarian lines in the first place,” he said. “When fake news targets that aspect of identity it has a very strong mobilising power.”
In Lebanon, many are already on edge give the precarious situation in Syria and media drum-beating for another round of war between Hezbollah and Israel. It is common for Lebanese to share news updates and other messages via WhatsApp and SMS, copying and pasting the text to others in their contact lists. Given the context, however, one fake news story which circulated recently raised more than a few eyebrows.
“Urgent”, read the message, which purported to be from Reuters news agency. “Hezbollah kidnaps top-ranking Mossad intelligence officers in Israel’s elite class.”
The Arabic text went on to quote an unnamed Israeli intelligence officer who said that Israel had decided to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon as a result of the Mossad kidnappings. “We will not be responsible for the results because of the Lebanese people’s embrace of the Hezbollah terrorist,” the falsified quote read.
In the Dombas, threatening SMS messages are periodically sent to the phones of Ukrainian Armed Forces soldiers, in the hopes they will be intimated into deserting their positions
While the language of the supposed news alert – not wholly written in a dry news tone, and missing several elements of a typical news story – was an obvious fake to anyone with media literacy, the content is worrying. It’s not clear how many people received it, whether there’s an identifying strand between the recipients of occupation, class, geography – and perhaps most alarmingly, where it came from. It could be the work of a prankster who got hold of a subscription list, or bigger actors, with more ambitious motives, could be involved. Without knowing the intended audience, it is impossible to identify the sender.
The Israeli intelligence services are far too sophisticated to ever fall for a fake news story such as the Mossad kidnap text, said Ben Nimmo, an information defence Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. But Hezbollah’s secretive intel agency is unlikely to be as well resourced or staffed – and the text has similarities with “pinpoint propaganda”, which Mr Nimmo’s research has found in Ukraine to be information warfare akin to a “high-tech version of dropping leaflets onto enemy battlefields”.
In the Dombas, threatening SMS messages are periodically sent to the phones of Ukrainian Armed Forces soldiers, in the hopes they will be intimated into deserting their positions. While the source is without a shadow of a doubt Russia, the texts originate from traceless cell site simulators, which impersonate local mobile telephone signal masts.
There is no incentive for a new Hezbollah-Israel war on either side – both the Lebanese militant group and the Jewish state are deeply preoccupied with the war in bordering Syria – but all it might take is the wrong official or unit stationed on the border to receive, and believe, a similar message for all hell to break loose. After all, it’s anchored in a realistic – and therefore believable – context: the necessary conditions for the 2006 war were fanned by a number of unsuccessful Hezbollah attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers in 2005.
“The most powerful [fake news reports] are those that rely on something existing and then diverge from the truth,” Dr Rickli said. “It is the same mechanism as lies – the most powerful ones are those that are building on something real.”
There are several conflicts in the Middle East which already run hot. But what we may be seeing, given recent events, is the emergence of fake news tactics which are not just aimed at sowing confusion and distrust among populations, but influencing events on a state level. The current diplomatic crisis in the Gulf is a case in point: the three-month-old standoff sprung, in part, from the publication of a false news story planted by hackers on a Qatari news agency.
At the time, Qatar said that how quickly its neighbours picked up on the fake comments about Iran and Israel from Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani – and the fact several regional outlets kept running the false remarks even after Qatar had issued a statement explaining the hack – showed that something was amiss.
Recently divulged US intelligence appears to back up Qatar’s allegation the story was planted by its regional rivals: officials believe that senior members of the UAE’s government discussed the planned hacks on 23 May, the day before they occurred, and either carried out the cyber attack themselves or used a third party. An earlier FBI investigation found that the hack was the work of Russian hackers – whether they were from the government, or freelancers hired by a third party, is unknown.
The Gulf dispute is ongoing, and its huge geopolitical implications are yet to be fully understood. If the US intel is correct, this is an instance of fake news being used to directly influence events in the Middle East.
“[Creating] ‘alternative realities’ is the ultimate goal of post-truth politics,” Dr Rickli said. “These Cold War-style tactics utilising the ‘force of politics’ rather than the ‘politics of force’ could be used to great effect in the region.”