The political crisis in Tunisia has triggered a surge in social media propaganda and manipulation, mainly from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), most of which have tried to distort the narrative to prove Tunisian President Keith Said’s decision to suspend parliament and remove the prime minister.
Soon after the news of Said’s unprecedented move on Sunday, the label “Tunisians rebelled against the Brotherhood” began to become popular on Twitter.
But as with any content on social media, especially in the Middle East, it is unclear whether this trend represents organic public opinion. If so, whose opinion is it?
Analyze social media
Analysis of social media data and conversations reveals many insights, such as who is writing an article on a particular topic, and whose voice is influential on that topic.
It can also indicate where these people are and whether they are real people or robots. These fake accounts are designed to manipulate public conversations through censorship and intimidation and trend manipulation.
An analysis of 12,000 tweets from 6,800 unique Twitter accounts revealed that these tweets came from influencers in the Gulf region who worked together to describe the president’s actions as resistance by the Tunisian population to Islamic parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The largest party in the Tunisian parliament is the Islamic Baath Party, which accused President Said of launching a “coup.”
However, most users who tweeted with hashtags reported that their location was in Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
In addition, the top 10 most influential accounts on the label are all Gulf influencers who are also located in Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
These accounts include UAE Khalid bin Dhahi, Saudi influencer @s_hm2030, Saudi cartoonist Fahad Jubairi, UAE writer Mohamed Taqi, and a UAE patriotic account called emarati_shield.
The narrative they promote tried to describe the president’s extraordinary measures as a popular revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Saudi influencer Monther al-Shaykh is the most influential account in the entire hashtag. He even called the fired prime minister “Khamenei of Tunisia”, demonizing him with Saudi Arabia’s supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is on par.
The anti-Muslim Brotherhood narrative in particular clearly reflects the foreign and domestic policies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which are ruthless in suppressing Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East.
Al-Shaykh is known for its huge role in monopolizing the Arabic Twitter narrative. He has earned a reputation as a major influencer in spreading false information and nationalist propaganda on Arab Twitter.
When analyzing the hashtags after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, a learn Harvard scholars Alexei Abrahams and Andrew Leber recorded that on labels related to Khashoggi, al-Shaykh’s retweets accounted for 8% of all retweets—365,000 users on the label.
Last year, al-Shaykh and numerous UAE journalists tried to spread false accounts of the coup in Qatar. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Bahrain and Egypt, imposed a blockade on Qatar in June 2017. But in January of this year, the blockade country agreed to restore relations with Qatar.
Many other accounts spreading propaganda about Tunisia are also regular participants in regional false propaganda campaigns.
Cartoonists Fahad Aljubairi and s_hm2030 were very active after the suspected Pegasus spyware infection caused many Gulf accounts to spread private hacked photos to discredit Al Jazeera’s famous Doha news anchor Ghada Oueiss in the Arabian Peninsula.
Robot and sock puppet
In addition, the most influential one of the 6,800 accounts on the hashtag has the handle @7__e7 and the name Fairuz.
An analysis of the account showed that the account’s post was reposted hundreds of times, indicating that it was fake, and her tweet on the hashtag contained an unrelated “comic” video about a person falling from the car when backing up. Come down.
However, although Fairruz is technically one of the most influential accounts on the label, none of the accounts that reposted her is authentic.
10/ The GIF below shows how fast (high speed) the network around Fairuz can tweet. Look at the yellow cluster at the bottom. It went from fairuz’s initial tweet to being reposted more than 200 times in five minutes.This shows manipulation #Tunisia #False information pic.twitter.com/52xSuM15gm
-Mark Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) July 26, 2021
Analysis of the accounts revealed that they were sock puppets-fake accounts that were hacked or programmed to automatically forward content.
An example is the account of a 14-year-old Filipino girl and another person named Emma Roberts, who has a picture of the Smurfs as their display image.
It is common to use hacked Twitter accounts for advertising and marketing, but it is also used for publicity in the MENA area, especially during major political events.
Fake accounts with high repost rates often appear in the popular tweets section of Twitter, which increases the prominence of publicity to those who read the news.
Fairuz’s tweets received more than 200 retweets within five minutes, and the speed is so fast that it strongly indicates automation.
Fairruz’s account was suspended by Twitter last night after a post about her became popular.
Years of analysis of propaganda labels revealed a list of familiar names and influencers who formed the Gulf Twitter elite, mainly located in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This elite monopolizes Arab political discussions on Twitter with a metaphor of supranationalism.
These influential people are supported by trolls and robots who spread propaganda and intimidate critics.
The label “Tunisians protest against the Muslim Brotherhood” does not represent any evidence claims or grassroots movements. It does not mean that no Tunisians hold this view.
However, it is clear that the Tunisians on Twitter did not collectively report that they were rebelling against the Brotherhood.
Instead, it is a propagandist speaking on behalf of Tunisians, trying to convince local and international audiences that the Muslim Brotherhood represents an existential threat and that liberation from them is a reason to return to authoritarianism.
This digital manual emphasizes that social media is usually not a democratized space with equal voices, especially in the Middle East, where authoritarian regimes have been frightened by their well-known ability to monitor and digitally track dissidents and their willingness to kill and arrest critics. People fell silent.
Usually, this silence creates a vacuum, which is then filled by co-opted influencers who repeat the government’s talking points and distribute national propaganda with little controversy.