Fake news war: In Libya, battles also rage on social media

While few Libyans trust the TV channels, they now also sift through images, fake news and propaganda online. (Reuters)
Updated 18 April 2019
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Fake news war: In Libya, battles also rage on social media

TRIPOLI: On Libya’s front lines, fighters often hold a gun in one hand and a smartphone in the other, using their cameras in the propaganda war.

Since eastern commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to seize the capital Tripoli, most Libyans have watched the fighting on social media.

Facebook has become the main online battleground, where both sides weaponize photos and video footage — both real and fake.

Images of wounded, killed or imprisoned fighters are immediately published by one side or the other as they try to prove their supremacy on the battlefield.

When rockets slammed into residential areas in the south of the capital Wednesday, killing six people, both sides, predictably, blamed each other.

While few Libyans trust the TV channels, they now also sift through images, fake news and propaganda online, from both Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and forces backing the unity government (GNA).

Last week, GNA spokesman Col. Mohamad Gnounou even accused Haftar’s forces of “infiltrating certain places, taking pictures and then withdrawing” so they could claim online to be in control of a particular site or neighborhood.

This week, an American who had become an unlikely celebrity in Libya took to the internet to deny reports by LNA that he had piloted a Libyan fighter plane as a GNA “foreign mercenary pilot.”

In his own short video post on Twitter, he held up a US newspaper to date the clip and assured viewers that “I am currently here in the US ... I am not in Libya.” Warring factions have used fake content to discredit their enemies or hit their morale.

“It is true that we have a huge wave of misinformation spread through social networks,” said Libyan analyst Emad Badi.

“Each party has invested considerably to influence the media to adopt a narrative that is favorable to them.” Last week, three videos circulated — all purportedly shot at the same time, in the same place on the front line, but with completely different messages.

 

 

In two of the films, one side claimed that its rivals had laid down their weapons and surrendered.

A third clip, whose authorship remains a mystery, showed the unlikely scene of fighters halting combat and embracing each other, crying “united Libya.”

One Internet user quipped that “whatever the real version of the facts, a united Libya triumphed for at least a few moments.”

Social media users have sought to fill the vacuum left by mass media, as each Libyan television station has long chosen its side and tends to broadcast videos or photos without verification if they appear to support their stance.

“There’s no point in turning on the TV,” said one young Libyan, Karim, his eyes fixed on his phone, as he sat on the terrace of a seaside cafe in Tripoli.

“Libyan channels are either late or so biased that it’s comical if you’re not on the same side.”

Some Internet users have taken on the role of military experts, pointing to maps and images of specific weapons to support their take on the truth.

Not surprisingly for a country riven by multiple conflicts since the fall of late dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya also has armies of online trolls who spread hatred and incite violence.

“Anonymity on social networks encourages some people to engage in aggressive and hateful speech and even incitement to crime,” said Mayss Abdel-Fattah, 26, a sociology student at the University of Zawiya.

“These ‘bad’ users of social networks feel that no-one will come to hold them accountable, which is very often the case in Libya.”

Despite the toxic posts that flood social networks, there are also rays of light that cut through the online fog of war.

A group of young Libyans in 2016 launched the “SafePath” group which now has 162,000 members on Facebook and provides a crucial public service: It updates users on which roads to avoid because of fighting.


Missile deal signals hot summer for Turkey’s transatlantic ties

Updated 9 min 14 sec ago
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Missile deal signals hot summer for Turkey’s transatlantic ties

  • Turkey says buying Russian weapons system is aimed at meeting Turkey’s defense needs

ANKARA: Turkey has until next month to cancel a multibillion dollar S-400 missile system deal with Russia, or face harsh US penalties, CNBC reported on Tuesday. 

If Ankara does not cancel in favor of buying the US-made Patriot missile defense system instead, it may also be removed from Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet program, costing thousands of jobs. Turkey is currently producing about 800 parts for the world’s most advanced fighter.

The delivery of 100 F-35s to Ankara may also be halted, and other defense and industrial cooperation projects with the US may be put at risk.   

In his latest visit to Turkey in early May, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said its procurement of the S-400 was a national decision. 

However, the system, which cannot be integrated alongside other NATO systems and carries fears around data collection, has been a major source of disagreement between Ankara and Washington. 

The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) used to impose sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia, could be used against Turkey should the deal with Moscow proceed, though it is thought not until Ankara takes physical delivery of the missiles, which is expected to take place in July.

Sanctions could include prohibitions on banking and foreign exchange transactions, and the denial of export licenses. 

Individuals involved may also be subject to visa denials and exclusion from the US, as well as partial freezing or confiscation of assets.

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, says CAATSA would hurt Turkish interests, but would also limit US President Donald Trump. 

“He could technically veto (CAATSA), but the language in the legislation is not as straightforward as other waivers included in sanctions legislation. It is not a question of if Turkey will be sanctioned, it is how, and using which of the 12 available sanctions,” he told Arab News. 

“Turkey would do itself a lot of favors if it stopped saying this was a done deal and delayed acquisition to allow for more talks. But that is Ankara’s choice to make.” 

Turkish military personnel have already traveled to Russia for training on the S-400 system, but Ankara does not believe the deal will affect its involvement in the F-35 program. 

Turkish officials are also evaluating an offer made by the US in late March to sell them the Patriot system, with a decision expected by early June.

In a statement on Tuesday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the country was meeting its responsibilities under the F-35 project and added that buying the Russian system aimed at meeting Turkey’s defense needs. 

“Turkey prepares itself for the possible implementation of CAATSA sanctions. In our meetings with the US, we perceive a general rapprochement on issues including the east of the Euphrates, F-35s and Patriots,” he said. 

Besides pushing Turkey away from the Atlantic alliance, the potential CAATSA sanctions would also hit the Turkish economy, which is already in recession, with the Turkish lira losing more than 40 percent of its value over the past two years.

Timothy Ash, a London-based economist, said Ankara would be taking a huge gamble if they thought Trump would block sanctions, telling Arab News it would be “catastrophic for the Turkish economy.”

Trump already doubled US tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum last year, over the detention of an American pastor on espionage charges in the country. 

“There will be very real and very negative consequences if Turkey goes through with its plans to buy the Russia system,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.

An expected state visit by Trump to Ankara in July has not been officially confirmed.