Tunisia’s political crisis has sparked a flurry of propaganda and social media manipulation emanating mainly from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), much of which attempts to distort the narrative to justify the government’s decision. Tunisian President Kais Saied to suspend parliament and dismiss the prime minister.
Shortly after Saied’s unprecedented decision was announced on Sunday, the hashtag “Tunisians revolt against the Brotherhood” began circulating on Twitter, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.
But as with everything on social media, especially in the Middle East, it wasn’t immediately clear if the trend represented organic public opinion. And if so, whose opinion was it?
Analyze social networks
An analysis of social media data and conversations shows a number of insights, such as who was writing about a particular topic and what voice is influencing that topic.
It can also show where these people are and whether they are genuine people or bots, which are fake accounts designed to manipulate public conversations through censorship, intimidation, and trend manipulation.
An analysis of 12,000 tweets from 6,800 unique Twitter accounts on the hashtag “Revolt of Tunisians against brotherhood” revealed a concerted effort by Gulf-based influencers to portray the president’s actions as a popular Tunisian revolt against Islamist parties. such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The largest party in Tunisia’s parliament is the Islamist Ennahdha party, which has accused President Saeid of staging a “coup”.
However, the majority of users tweeting with the hashtag indicated that their location was either Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.
Additionally, the top 10 most influential accounts on the hashtag were all Gulf influencers also based in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.
These accounts included Emirati Khalid bin Dhahi, Saudi influencer @s_hm2030, Saudi cartoonist Fahad Jubairi, Emirati writer Mohamed Taqi, and a patriotic Emirati account called emarati_shield.
They pushed narratives that sought to portray the president’s extraordinary measures as a popular revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi influencer Monther al-Shaykh, the most influential account in the entire hashtag, even called the sacked prime minister ‘Khamenei of Tunisia’, putting him on a par with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah. Ali Khamenei, whom Saudi Arabia has demonized.
The specifically anti-Muslim Brotherhood narrative clearly reflects the foreign and domestic policies of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which have been relentless in their crackdown on Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East.
Al-Shaykh is known for his outsized role in monopolizing Arab Twitter stories. He has earned a reputation as a top influencer spreading disinformation and nationalist propaganda on Twitter in Arabic.
By analyzing hashtags in the aftermath of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, a to study by Harvard scholars Alexei Abrahams and Andrew Leber documented that on a Khashoggi-related hashtag, al-Shaykh retweets accounted for 8% of all retweets – and there were 365,000 users on that hashtag.
Last year, al-Shaykh, along with numerous UAE-based journalists, attempted to spread a false narrative that there had been a coup in Qatar. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Bahrain and Egypt, imposed a blockade on Qatar in June 2017. But in January this year, the blockading countries agreed to restore relations with Qatar.
Many other accounts spreading propaganda about Tunisia also regularly participate in regional disinformation campaigns.
Cartoonist Fahad Aljubairi and s_hm2030 have been very active after a suspected Pegasus spyware infection led many Gulf-based accounts to spread private hacked photos to smear Ghada Oueiss, a prominent Doha-based news anchor on Al Jazeera Arabic.
Robots and puppets
On top of that, one of the 6,800 most influential accounts on the hashtag had the handle, @7__e7, and the name Fairuz.
Analysis of the account, whose posts have been retweeted hundreds of times, showed it to be fake, and its hashtag tweets contained an unrelated ‘comedy’ video of a person falling out of a car while walking back.
However, while Fairuz was technically one of the most influential accounts on the hashtag, none of the accounts retweeting her were real.
10/ The GIF below shows how the network around Fairuz is tweeting at high speed (high velocity). Look at the yellow cluster at the bottom. This ranges from fairuz’s initial tweet to over 200 retweets in a five-minute window. It’s a sign of manipulation. #Tunisia #disinformation pic.twitter.com/52xSuM15gm
— Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) July 26, 2021
They were puppets — hacked accounts or fake accounts programmed to automatically retweet content, analysis of the accounts showed.
One example was the story of a 14-year-old Filipina girl and another person named Emma Roberts, who had a photo of a Smurf as her display image.
The use of hacked Twitter accounts for advertising and marketing purposes is common, but it is also used to spread propaganda in the MENA region, especially during major political events.
Highly retweeted fake accounts often appear in Twitter’s top tweets section, increasing the propaganda’s visibility to those reading the news.
Fairuz’s tweet garnered over 200 retweets in five minutes, a speed so fast it strongly indicates automation.
Fairuz’s account was suspended by Twitter last night after a thread about him went viral.
Years of analysis of propaganda hashtags have revealed a familiar list of names and influencers who form a Gulf Twitter elite based largely in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. This elite monopolizes Arab political discussions on Twitter with hyper-nationalist tropes.
These influencers are complemented by trolls and bots who spread propaganda and intimidate critics.
The hashtag “Tunisians protest against the Muslim Brotherhood” did not represent any convincing demand or popular movement, which does not mean that there are not Tunisians who share this opinion.
It is clear, however, that Tunisians on Twitter were not reporting en masse that they were revolting against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Rather, they were propagandists who spoke on behalf of Tunisians, trying to convince local and international audiences that the Muslim Brotherhood posed an existential threat and that their release justified a return to authoritarianism.
This digital handbook highlights that social media is often not the space for democratization where voices are equal, particularly in the Middle East where authoritarian regimes, as well as their known ability to digitally monitor and track dissidents, coupled with their willingness to kill and stop critics, scared people into silence.
Often this silence forms a vacuum, which is then filled with co-opted influencers who repeat government talking points and distribute state propaganda with little dissent.