Identity Politics 2.0: Cyber Geopolitics and the Weaponization of Social Media

This paper is part of ACW’s fourth book, titled The Arab World Beyond Conflict.

In the months leading up to the attacks against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, the country’s military received training in Russia and was responsible for setting up troll factories with fake accounts and a large-scale disinformation campaign on Facebook. The purpose was to spread anti-Rohingya propaganda including incendiary comments, falsehoods, and incitement, accusing them of being terrorists and illegal immigrants and circulating fake photos purportedly of Buddhists massacred by the Rohingya. The psychological digital warfare went even further with the military accounts spreading false news among both the Rohingya and the Buddhists about nonexistent mutual attacks, thus heightening fear and urgency of action.1 The United Nations concluded that Facebook had played a “determining role” in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar,2 which the organization called a genocide.3

Such hateful disinformation has become endemic around the globe. The intersection of identity politics and social media provides a potential for devastating consequences, especially in relation to human rights and democracy. In the Arab world, identity-based securitization and ethnic sectarianization have played a major role in fueling or justifying conflict and injustice. With the rapid growth of social media use among Arabs and the absence of the rule of law and inclusive social and state institutions, the future looks bleak. From hate speech to disinformation campaigns and targeted attacks, the geography of warfare is shifting. Social media’s unique designs and business models as well as technological advancements provide the potential to intensify conflict, rapidly escalate tensions, enable human rights violations, and incite further identity-based violence.

Identity Politics: The Double-Edged Sword

The election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States has intensified identity politics and polarization. These have flooded media and political conversations not only in the United States but around the world. On the one hand, with identity playing a major part in the grievances of marginalized communities and with unequal power structures continuing to affect minorities, identity politics becomes a platform to confront, recognize, and address disparities. On the other hand, shifts brought on by globalization have increased identity politics on the right, especially among middle-class white populations, leading to resentments over perceived lost economic opportunities, affronted dignities, and threats to status, lifestyle, and even existence. The resulting global rise of populist nationalism and the shift from multiethnic democracies and multilateralism to internally focused narrow identities that vilify minorities have caused many to question the utility of identity politics and to view it as detrimental to liberal democracy.4 The impact of this discourse was evident in increased extreme-right attacks, most recently on the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue and the Christchurch, New Zealand mosques.

But identity has long been at the center of violence and politics especially in authoritarian contexts, where human rights protections, inclusive citizenship, and rule of law are absent. In Arab countries, identity-based conflict continues to reemerge and be reshaped by shifting geopolitical agendas. For example, the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) was primarily a result of the marginalization of Sunnis in Iraq after the US invasion and the rise of dominant Shia groups. IS has used this narrative of “saving Sunni brothers and sisters” and restoring the dignity of Muslims globally to recruit fighters from all over the world. Additionally, the popular uprisings that swept the region in 2011 were born out of political and economic marginalization and social inequality as well as brutal crackdowns on opposition movements. Injustice makes the marginalized identities more salient and invokes anger, polarization, and political action—peaceful or otherwise.

The processes by which group identity instigates conflict can be attributed to group-based marginalization, whether real or perceived.5 When members of ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic groups feel threatened, they retreat to tribalism. Similarly, powerful political elites have used identity delineations to deny rights and control populations and resources. Social psychology research has shown the thin line between identity politics and genocide;6 through a gradual process of inter-group dynamics, the demonization of the out-group as a threat to the in-group can lead to the dehumanization of out-group members and the belief that violence against them is a virtue and a moral obligation to protect the in-group. Some of the most atrocious crimes and genocides in history started with hateful disinformation about a community.

But identity politics in itself is not the problem. Perhaps the most useful classification of identity politics is that of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, who propose two versions. The first is an inclusive identity politics where the collective community is united yet recognizes the injustices experienced by certain groups within it and the need for political processes to resolve them. The second version is based on politics of fear with a binary, zero-sum, “us vs. them” perspective.7 The problem lies in the upsurge of the latter rather than the former.

In the Arab world today, the zero-sum exclusionary identity politics is prevalent. Much of the region’s conflict is based on inter-group competition, group-based marginalization, ethnic tensions, and fear of an existential threat, all of which create a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and counter-violence. While identity has long been a fixture of political discourse, the explosion of social media tools has intensified division and expanded the domain of conflict to the digital sphere. Due to the role of identity in instigating conflict, its manifestations and dynamics on social media are of vital importance when addressing conflict and strife.

The New Battlefield:  A Typology of Identity-Based Conflict in Cyberspace

In the 21st century, one cannot address conflict without discussing its manifestations in the cyber sphere. With 164 million internet users in the Middle East8 and Facebook as the most popular news source among young Arabs,9 social media domains are increasingly becoming central spaces for political discourse and participation in the Arab world, presenting a new realm of politics, identity dynamics, rights abuses, and conflict.

Initially, new communication tools were celebrated as “liberation technologies” for their ability to connect people and support political mobilization. The Arab Spring has revealed the positive role communication technologies and social media can play in the political process, namely in enabling the public sphere and aiding revolutions and activists in the process toward democratization.10 The aftermath of the Arab Spring, however, has exposed the limitations and dangers of social media in this arena. In the last decade, both state and non-state actors, including repressive regimes and violent groups, have established strategies, acquired cyber capabilities, and invested resources to advance their geopolitical agendas through these new media platforms.

In the last few years, social media introduced new spaces for identity politics, hate speech, and conflict. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is IS recruitment efforts starting in 2014. Much of its recruitment (and arguably its existence) can be credited to the internet, drawing more than 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries11 through employing sophisticated social media strategies and capturing the digital sphere. Today, although the Islamic State’s feat has drastically diminished, the digital battleground it uncovered is in its early phases and this new information ecosystem will surely affect democracy and human rights in the Arab world.

Certain characteristics of social media platforms allow them to more readily enable inflammatory identity-based conflict. While propaganda and regime control over information and communication tools are not new phenomena, what makes social media tools alarmingly susceptible to being used as weapons of wars and identity conflict are several of their unique features.

	1. Mass Disinformation Warfare

Disinformation campaigns are widespread on social media, with potentially serious and harmful consequences. As prejudice is the first step on the path of perpetrating genocide, hateful disinformation about members of certain groups can easily influence politics, trigger violence, and even lead to war crimes. In fact, online manipulation and disinformation tactics influenced elections in at least 18 countries in 2017.12

Perhaps the most known example of this is Russia’s disinformation campaigns during the 2016 US presidential elections. Led by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, paid Russian troll armies posed as angry American supporters of the two candidates, created Facebook groups, posted false news and inflammatory content against the other candidate, and spread polarized and divisive discourse. Social media platforms were named by the US Justice Department as playing a critical role in Russian interference in the elections, with 150 million Americans targeted.13 But well before that, Russia led similar online disinformation campaigns in Crimea and eastern Ukraine,14 provoking Russian ethnic minorities and instigating ethnic tensions with the purpose of instituting pro-Russian and friendly politicians. What Russia has managed to do through social media is to mobilize other countries’ own citizens to sow division and chaos and undermine the very notion of truth: to destabilize its adversaries from the inside. Ultimately, social media helped pave the way for Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the breakout of war in eastern Ukraine.

Similar systematic campaigns and dedicated state resources have started to develop in the Arab world. The Gulf crisis of June 2016, for example, was sparked by the UAE hacking of the Qatar News Agency and publishing propaganda and false comments attributed to the emir of Qatar, which served as a pretext for conflict. In fact, in the weeks leading up to the onset of the crisis, Qatar’s adversaries created a targeted online campaign with thousands of Twitter bots tweeting coordinated propaganda against Qatar.15 In this case, disinformation campaigns and social media played a vital role in generating an international diplomatic crisis, which almost led to war. More recently, in the wake of the Khashoggi murder in October 2018, Saudi Arabia employed a network of Twitter bots pushing pro-Saudi talking points and propagating false information about Jamal Khashoggi and his murder; these tactics were meant to shut down critics and justify and legitimize the murder.16

To be sure, propaganda and disinformation for political ends are not new phenomena. What is novel here is the scale of campaigns that social media enables and the apparent authenticity of information sources. With festering ethnic tensions in the Middle East and the power of social media in disseminating political disinformation and targeting identity, the consequences are potentially devastating. A repetition of the Myanmar scenario is not implausible.

	2. Homophily

The social media sphere is characterized by homophily, or the tendency of people to seek out those similar to themselves. Research shows that people seek news sources that confirm their views and beliefs,17 resulting in digital “echo chambers” and identity-based silos. Additionally, false rumors tend to travel faster than the truth,18 most likely due to their often-sensational nature and extremist claims. Thus, identity-based messages and disinformation, in particular, are spread further and faster on social media. Notably, the business models of social media platforms greatly perpetuate this problem through two interlinked features. First, as an advertising-based business model that relies heavily on user engagement (e.g., likes, clicks, shares), the algorithms elevate posts that garner more engagements in the news feed to create more revenue. Second, in order to multiply this effect, the algorithms feed their users content with which they are more likely to engage, i.e. messages they agree with.

The combination between human nature (desire for like-minded content) and the social media business models ensures a hyper-partisan environment, which does not help in “connecting people” as Facebook’s mission statement had posited. Instead, such platforms act as confirmation bias machines. This characteristic of social media domains is particularly important because identity markers have very strong mobilizing power, where images of group-based injustice trigger anger, which is in turn an action-inducing emotion. The anonymity feature also adds a level of protection, enabling the most vicious and partisan messages. This is of great significance for the Arab world as it provides swift fodder for political polarization and ethnic conflict, which can ultimately lead to group-based violence and war.

	3. Discrediting the Notion of Truth

Given the overarching profit focus of social media companies, the value of information on their platforms lies not in their truth or accuracy, but in their ability to confirm preexisting beliefs and to gain engagements. The resulting ideological segregation leads to perpetuating biased narratives and mutual mistrust. The combination of disinformation and homophily presents a dangerous dynamic, one where facts are no longer objective or—even worse yet—relevant.

To add fuel to the fire, accessibility has made it easier for anyone to create and disseminate content. Social media has given malicious actors and previously fringe views a mass communication platform. With relatively cheap tools and minimum skills required, almost any user can create content and manipulate images. They can even produce doctored videos, known as “deepfakes.” It is now easier than ever to lead disinformation campaigns and post inflammatory content, regardless of its truth, and sow discord and chaos. When anyone can have the power to produce “information” without gatekeeping in this post-truth world, conflict is expected to be on the rise.

In many countries in the Arab world where freedoms of speech and expression are constrained, the cyber space has become the new public sphere. However, the large scale of troll posts inflates certain perspectives and distorts public opinion, where bots can manipulate trends and engineer public sentiment. During the Gulf crisis, bots were used to create an illusion of internal opposition to the regime in Qatar;19 thus, social media can spur coup rhetoric and silence those who may think their views are in the minority. Arab governments’ monopoly over resources and authority has given them the upper hand in the cyber battlefield. These autocratic and repressive regimes have reclaimed the power to determine truth and manufacture public opinion, undermining the prospect of liberation that communication technologies had promised.

	4. Cyber Espionage and Targeted Attacks

Governments across the world have become effective at developing and implementing digital tools to advance their political agendas. Israel has spearheaded these efforts with its Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which recruits pro-Israel organizations to spy on US citizens20 and attacks Israeli critics online. One Israeli intelligence firm, Psy Group, conducted surveillance of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) activists in the United States under Project Butterfly, which was tasked with creating defamation campaigns against movement activists using fake social media accounts.21 From accusations of terrorism and alleged ties to Hamas, to using criminal background records and private information, the name-and-shame techniques have been effective in intimidating some activists into silence.

The Israeli espionage industry has in fact sold cyber capabilities to authoritarian regimes around the world, which in turn used them to target human rights activists, persecute LGBTQ individuals, and silence critics.22 Saudi Arabia was among the countries that enlisted the services of Israeli firms to spy on its citizens and target critics with smear campaigns on social media. In fact, the company NSO Group was behind the hacking of the private messages of Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz and his communication with Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi criticizing the Saudi crown prince. Khashoggi was brutally murdered two months later at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. “The hacking of my phone played a major role in what happened to Jamal,” Abdulaziz said.23

Similarly, the UAE created Project Raven to hack smartphones of rivals and critics using a program developed by US intelligence veterans called Karama, which allows hackers to access any iPhone by simply inputting the phone number or associated email address into the software. By employing US government-trained hackers, the UAE carried out cyber-attacks against hundreds of individuals and governments in the Arab world, Europe, and the United States including journalists, scholars, human rights activists, and media personalities it deemed associated with Qatar.24 The Egyptian regime has also used surveillance of activists, phishing attacks, hacking, and employing tens of thousands of bots to orchestrate attacks and character assassinations against dissidents.25 Cyber technologies have enabled further violations of privacy, freedom of the press, and human rights as well as the targeting of journalists, thus expanding grievances and escalating conflict.

This new cyber arms race is only getting started. Authoritarian regimes and violent groups have now greater tools at their disposal and new opportunities presented by social media for surveillance, control, intimidation and silencing critics, fanning ethnic tension, disinformation, hate speech, industrial scale propaganda, and genocide. In the Middle East, with the presence of existing strife and vast regional agendas, cyber geopolitics can manifest intensely and rapidly. With low economic and political costs, coupled with high damaging potential, cyber capabilities are increasingly being used in geopolitical competition in the Arab world to initiate, accelerate, and escalate conflict. The dangers of social media are real, especially in autocratic settings like in the Arab world, and they must be addressed with serious comprehensive efforts.

The Case for Civic Education and Digital Literacy

As we aim to move beyond conflict in the Arab world, social media and identity politics must be part of the solution. In order to remedy the negative and damaging effects of social media in fanning the flames of division and conflict, the roots of the problem must be addressed.

First, the technological features that intensify the negative facets of identity politics should be revised. Social media companies, especially Facebook, have come under intense scrutiny in the last few years for their role in amplifying political divisions, fake news, privacy violations, and violent conflict. In response to demands from the United States and the European Union, Facebook and Twitter began implementing minor measures to protect privacy, monitor content, and delete fake news and fake accounts and messages that incite violence. However, there are 2.32 billion Facebook users around the world and this number is growing; these users are posting in hundreds of languages, rendering these efforts unsustainable, at best. More importantly, granting these corporations the power to police speech is very dangerous. While instituting some accountability among social media firms is important, making them the sole gatekeepers of information remains problematic. In essence, the immense power of information and determining truth cannot be highly concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations, whose priorities are more monetary than moral.

It must be recognized that these corporations are business entities, and the structure of such global monopolies leaves little space for human rights and democratic accountability; on the contrary, their business interests lie with powerful, often autocratic, governments. For example, Facebook deleted accounts of Palestinians and pro-Palestine activists at the direction of the Israeli government and its flawed definitions of incitement,26 virtually allowing repressive regimes to censor and silence the narratives of marginalized, oppressed, and powerless communities. Furthermore, unless social media companies change their business models that rely on algorithms that perpetuate hate speech, which is unlikely, the problem will persist. With the added concern of market dominance and lack of choice (for example, Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp), official pressure is necessary. Therefore, regulation might be essential to force tech firms to implement real changes in the foundational structure of their businesses.

In the wake of the Christchurch massacre and its livestreaming on Facebook, Australia moved to pass laws that hold social media executives accountable for content on their sites. The United Kingdom has also proposed regulations that would allow the government to fine companies for hosting harmful content and false information. However, such regulations can endanger free speech and grant governments sweeping powers over online information, which would be especially damaging in the Middle East. The very governments currently committing the greatest cyber abuses in the Arab world are more concerned with their political control than protecting human rights online.

As such, an international multilateral cyber body akin to UN human rights and war crimes agencies would best serve the interests of human rights and protection of individuals in the cyber sphere. Moreover, the transnational nature of the medium lends itself to such transnational measures. As this domain is increasingly becoming a preferred tool of war, international and multilateral regulation of cyber space is required to combat misuse and prevent harmful abuses by all entities responsible including states, organizations, and individuals, in addition to tech companies and executives.

The second part of the solution must be at the societal level. Principally, Arab governments must be pressured to resolve inequalities and group-based marginalization that fuel conflict online and offline. But until then, civil society organizations and educational institutions in the Arab world should be involved, supported, and required to design and implement digital literacy campaigns and civic education programs. Media and digital literacy programs can raise awareness about human biases and the role of social media algorithms in perpetuating them, as well as help identify disinformation and evaluate the credibility of news sources online, among other things. In addition, there needs to be a serious international and domestic effort to advocate for pluralist societies through civic education programs and a push for the institutionalization of the concept and practice of inclusive citizenship in the legal, political, and educational systems of Arab countries.

As the internet becomes more entrenched as a vital component of the public sphere, the future of democratization in Arab states will depend on it significantly. Social media platforms have played a central role in the rise of disinformation and hate speech, division, and group-based violence. With the imminent advancement in innovative technologies, especially artificial intelligence, the world will have to confront a new set of challenges on the path toward human rights, democracy, and conflict prevention. Only a comprehensive and multifaceted approach, one rooted in civic education, can ensure that technology is being used for good.

< Table of contents

1 Paul Mozur, “A Genocide Incited on Facebook, With Posts from Myanmar’s Military,” The New York Times, October 15, 2018, https://nyti.ms/2RRHfPm.
2 Tom Miles, “U.N. investigators cite Facebook role in Myanmar crisis,” Reuters, March 12, 2018, https://reut.rs/2Dn9BsB.
3 Human Rights Council, “Report of the independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar,” 2018, https://bit.ly/2BQmCiK.
4 Francis Fukuyama, “Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, August 14, 2018, https://fam.ag/2PnwndM.
5 Tamara Kharroub, “Understanding Violent Extremism: The Social Psychology of Identity and Group Dynamics,” Arab Center Washington DC, September 25, 2015, https://bit.ly/2YeUTPW.
6 Rowan Savage, “Modern genocidal dehumanization: a new model.” Patterns of Prejudice 47, no. 2 (2013): pp. 139-161.
7 Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (London: Penguin Press, 2018).
8 “World Internet Users Statistics and 2018 World Population Stats,” Internet World Stats, June 30, 2018, https://bit.ly/2CEWi66.
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10 Tamara Kharroub, “Cyberactivism in the Middle East,” Arab Center Washington DC, September 30, 2015, https://bit.ly/2Fyvw4z.
11 UN Security Council, “Greater Cooperation Needed to Tackle Danger Posed by Returning Foreign Fighters, Head of Counter-Terrorism Office Tells Security Council,” November 28, 2017, https://bit.ly/2Bxe2kS.
12 “Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy,” Freedom House, 2017, https://bit.ly/2yZcOku.
13 Sheera Frenkel and Katie Benner, “To Stir Discord in 2016, Russians Turned Most Often to Facebook,” The New York Times, February 17, 2018, https://nyti.ms/2zmlnUJ.
14 Julia Summers, “Countering Disinformation: Russia’s Infowar in Ukraine,” October 25, 2017, https://bit.ly/2hSR8PR.
15 Marc Owen Jones, “Propaganda, Fake news, and Fake Trends: The Weaponization of Twitter Bots in the Gulf Crisis,” International Journal of Communication 13 (2019): pp. 1389-1415.
16 Ben Collins and Shoshana Wodinsky, “Twitter pulls down bot network that pushed pro-Saudi talking points about disappeared journalist,” NBC News, October 18, 2018, https://nbcnews.to/2J5DIJw.
17 “People Sometimes Seek the Truth, But Most Prefer Like-minded Views,” ScienceDaily, https://bit.ly/2YconOi.
18 Craig Silverman, “Recent Research Reveals False Rumours Really Do Travel Faster and Further Than the Truth,” First Draft News, May 6, 2016, https://bit.ly/2DfndJ5.
19 Owen Jones, “Propaganda.”
20 Alain Gresh, “How Israel Spies on US Citizens,” The Nation, August 31, 2018, https://bit.ly/2N7BQV5.
21 Adam Entous, “How a Private Israeli Intelligence Firm Spied on Pro-Palestinian Activists in the U.S.,” The New Yorker, February 28, 2019, https://bit.ly/2ECREdl.
22  Hagar Shezaf and Jonathan Jacobson, “Revealed: Israel’s Cyber-spy Industry Helps World Dictators Hunt Dissidents and Gays,” Haaretz, October 20, 2018, https://bit.ly/2J4UgRT.
23 Josie Ensor, “Israeli software company ‘shared hacked messages’ from Khashoggi with Saudi, lawsuit claims,” The Telegraph, December 3, 2018, https://bit.ly/2QtbyOH.
24 Joel Schectman and Christopher Bing, “American hackers helped UAE spy on Al Jazeera chairman, BBC host,” Reuters, April 1, 2019, https://reut.rs/2DoxS4i.
25 Hossam el-Hamalawy, “Egypt’s dirty war (part II): Surveillance for all,” The New Arab, February 1, 2019, https://bit.ly/2un3Dpc.
26 Glenn Greenwald, “Facebook Says It Is Deleting Accounts at the Direction of the U.S. and Israeli Governments,” The Intercept, December 30, 2017, https://bit.ly/2luY17y.