LONDON: An investigation has revealed Hezbollah’s role in training recruits from across the Middle East to spread online misinformation and sow political unrest and violence across the region.
The Lebanese militia has created Iran-backed “electronic armies” of social media activists trained to spread politically charged misinformation, the Telegraph newspaper reported.
Since 2012, Hezbollah has been flying recruits from across the region into Beirut to receive specialist training in how to digitally manipulate photographs, manage large numbers of fake social media accounts, make videos, avoid Facebook censorship, and effectively spread disinformation online.
These individuals then return to their countries of origin and train their networks with the skills acquired in Lebanon’s capital.
The Telegraph interviewed a number of individuals directly involved with the program. Mohammed, who attended a course, said he was surprised at how technical and effective the course was.
“It is the illusion industry … for the clients it is worth spending the money,” he said.
Mohammed remains in Iraq, where he trains others in the tactics taught by Hezbollah.
Abdullah, a senior politician from one of Iraq’s biggest political parties, was directly involved in sending many recruits to train in Beirut. He explained that the training not only helps expand the influence of Iran and its allies, but has become a cash cow for the Lebanese militia.
“It became a business for Hezbollah. The people we sent developed their skills in Beirut and when they returned they started training activists inside Iraq,” he said.
Abdullah also said that similar training was available inside Iran, though it was less popular and accessible.
While Hezbollah cashes in on the lucrative program, countries like Iraq pay the price. Fake news stories shared on social media for political ends regularly result in serious consequences, including violent clashes and loss of life.
One high profile case was the murder of Hisham Al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security expert researching the post-Daesh role of Iraqi militias such as Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah.
He was subject to a protracted smear campaign online that accused him of ordering the assassination of Shia Muslims, and was shot dead in July.
Many suspect Kataib Hezbollah to be behind the campaign in the months before Al-Hashimi’s murder.
Their operatives received misinformation training from Hezbollah, and ran a number of other large-scale and ruthless social media campaigns throughout 2019 to distribute high quality content defaming their political opponents.
“False statements and messages inciting violence, which spread online can easily lead directly to deadly violence in real life in Iraq,” Mohanad Al-Semawee, the head of Iraq’s Digital Media Centre (DMC), said.
“The overall effect of the surge in fake profiles that are spreading false information is hugely damaging to Iraq — and it is getting worse all of the time.”
Hezbollah is listed as a terrorist organization by eighteen countries and international blocs, including the US, UK, the Arab League and the EU. Their “training and liaison activities with Shiite insurgents in Iraq” — such as Kataib Hezbollah — was cited as a key reason behind the continued terrorist designation of the group by Washington.