This is the first article of a two-part series on a hashtag campaign supporting Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar during his campaign to take Tripoli.
While Twitter may be an ideal tool for following news and conversation around the globe, it also serves as a battlefield in its own right, as Libya’s ongoing hashtag war demonstrates.
When General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), announced his offensive to capture Tripoli from the UN-backed Libyan government on April 4, 2019, a wave of Twitter hashtags and bots supporting his intentions flooded the platform. These activities raised many questions regarding the orchestrators of the social media campaign and the role of select Arab media outlets in amplifying it.
Origins of the Hashtag Campaign
The DFRLab identified more than 10 active hashtags striking the same rhetorical chord: hailing Haftar’s military campaign while simultaneously attacking the UN-backed government and its allies around the world.
One of the earliest examples involved a pair of hashtags — #SecuringTheCapital and its Arabic equivalent, #تأمين العاصمة. These hashtags first emerged on Twitter on March 6, 2019, just under a month before Haftar’s move against the capital, having secured most of the territory around Tripoli. At that point in time, LNA forces were actively securing southern regions of the country in preparation for a final assault on Tripoli. The Twitter account that posted the hashtags, @Hamid_J_Lamami, published them alongside an image of the twisted gun statue outside UN headquarters and the text “Securing the capital to welcome the Army (LNA)” in Arabic.
The pair of hashtags was not the account’s only attempt to start a pro-Haftar campaign trend on Twitter; it also published tweets accompanied by the lengthy hashtag #PeopleOfLibyaWantTheLibyanArmyToSecureTheCapital. This hashtag, however, failed to catch on. Nonetheless, @Hamid_J_Lamami’s campaign using #SecuringTheCapital and its Arabic equivalent achieved some success: despite the account only having 121 Twitter followers, the hashtag appeared more than 1,800 times over the next 10 weeks, according to the social media monitoring tool Sysomos. In the grand scheme of things, these numbers indicated a modest success — but they were also an early indicator of bigger things to come.
A Hashtag Proxy War Against Tripoli, Qatar, and Migrants
Beginning around 5:00 p.m. Libya time on April 6, numerous media outlets reported that General Haftar had announced his formal push toward Tripoli. Within a matter of hours, a wave of pro-Haftar hashtags burst onto the scene.
One of the most popular hashtags, #ندعم_الجيش_العربي_الليبي (“We support the Arab Libyan army”), first appeared on Twitter at 7:40 p.m. local time. The hashtag has appeared in more than 51,000 posts since then, peaking that same day with more than 20,000 occurrences, according to Sysomos.
According to Sysomos, the top three countries using the hashtag were Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia, all of which are aligned with Haftar. While the specific percentages associated with each country are not 100 percent reliable due to the fact that users can set their Twitter accounts to any location, the sheer scale of tweets from countries aligned with Haftar suggested at least a strong interest in his Tripoli campaign.
Many of the tweets using the pro-Haftar hashtag included language highly critical of the UN-supported Government of National Accord (more commonly known as the “GNA”) and its allies, including Qatar, a regional rival to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Using the Sysomos word cloud generator, the DFRLab discovered that many of the words and phrases used in conjunction with the hashtag were highly negative toward the UN-supported Libyan government, using words such as “terrorists,” “criminals,” and “Ikhwan” — the Arabic word for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is allied with the Libyan government. The word cloud also includes Egyptian slang such as “فشخوا” (“fucked”).
The hashtag could be found on tweets coming from verified accounts based in the Gulf, some with a significant number of followers from other verified Gulf accounts also with high numbers of followers. One notable example came from the verified account of Hamad al Mazrouei, an Emirati political operative and influential Twitter user with close personal connections to the UAE’s royal families, including the crown prince.
Similarly, a tweet from Emirati media personality Faisal Al Zaabi stated that Haftar’s campaign against the UN-supported government would heal Libya from the Qatari “virus,” while another tweet from pro-Egyptian government journalist Mohammed Al Dasti said Haftar should hit Tripoli hard to prevent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from supporting “terrorists” — a reference to the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.
Additionally, some accounts used the hashtag in conjunction with misidentified photos as a tool for spreading pro-Haftar disinformation. One widely circulated example showed a group of detained men disguised in women’s clothing. According to the tweet, the photo showed the humiliating capture of leaders from the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, who are among Haftar’s chief rivals. The photo, however, dated from January 2019 and showed the arrest of a group of male undocumented immigrants in Libya disguised as women, not of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.
How the Hashtag Went Viral
The first known tweet to use the hashtag #ندعم_الجيش_العربي_الليبي (“We support the Arab Libyan army”) came from an account named @moud666, with the display name Mahmoud. An Instagram account with the same account name was associated with a user named Mahmoud Othman, though, apart from that overlap, there was no way to conclude that the Twitter and Instagram accounts belong to the same individual.
Approximately 80 minutes after @moud666’s tweet, another account named @MasterLocalZone used the same hashtag with a request in Arabic to make it trend on Twitter. In the same tweet, @MasterLocalZone also thanked those who helped popularize another hashtag in support of Egypt’s transportation minister. The tweet was retweeted 24 times and coincided with the time of day at which the hashtag began to proliferate on Twitter.
Interestingly, @MasterLocalZone’s Twitter bio described the account as a “hashtag launcher” since November 2013. A review of the account’s Twitter history suggested that it had routinely organized online campaigns in support of the Egyptian government, attacking any opposition to it either domestically or in the region. Given that the Egyptian government is an active supporter of General Haftar, it is perhaps not surprising that the account decided to amplify the hashtag.
While it is difficult to determine what, if any, relationship existed between @moud666 and @MasterLocalZone, a Twitter search of both account handles turned up two tweets in which the accounts referenced one another. The two of them appeared to have begun a Twitter exchange on February 1, though this exchange did not pick up in earnest until the third week of April. Most notably, @MasterLocalZone tweeted on April 26 to congratulate his compatriots for helping make the pro-Haftar hashtag become the most trending hashtag in Egypt. “God is great — first place in Egypt,” the account wrote in Arabic. “Congratulations guys.” In response, @moud666 wrote back, “Alf mabrouk (‘one thousand congratulations’)…This was sincere teamwork.”
The Arabic Media Echo Chamber, Riding the Hashtag Wave
Looking further into the spread of the pro-Haftar hashtag, it became clear that regional Arabic media outlets played a significant role in amplifying it.
Al-Ain, the UAE-based news broadcaster, was among the first of several regional outlets to embrace the hashtag, publishing a pair of tweets on April 5 covering Haftar’s assault on Tripoli that featured it. In total, the two tweets garnered more than 240 retweets.
While Al-Ain’s tweets used the hashtag without added editorial commentary, Egypt’s ElBalad published an inflammatory tweet the same evening as Al-Ain posted its tweets, writing in Arabic, “#WeSupportTheLibyanArabArmy is sweeping Twitter. Twitter users telling Haftar: Cleanse it [Tripoli] from all the riff-raff.” ElBalad’s owner, Mohamed M. Abou El Enein, is a ceramics tycoon and current chairman of the Egyptian conglomerate The Cleopatra Group. He was closely associated with the Mubarak regime prior to the Arab Spring. Today, he and his media empire are aligned with the current President of Egypt Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
Online personalities and media outlets were not alone in amplifying Haftar’s campaign against Tripoli.
The second article in this series will examine the use of bots and inauthentic Twitter accounts to post content supportive of Haftar’s attack.
Mohamed Kassab is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab), based in Egypt.
Andy Carvin is Senior Fellow at @DFRLab, based in Washington, D.C.
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