Over the past few months ordinary Iraqis have noticed a dramatic uptick in the number of Facebook pages inviting them to subscribe or “like” a site. Most of these new pages are political in nature, and they try to either persuade or change opinions about certain local politicians; Iraqis have likened the phenomenon to an “electronic army”.
Often these new pages mobilise thousands of new followers and likes in just a few days. They do this by posting clickbait – that is, topics that ordinary Iraqis are particularly interested in, such as about soldiers on the front line fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State or news about the plight of the displaced and wounded. Some use cartoons, others post pictures of well-known Iraqi female artists, actors and media personalities.
At first, it can be hard to tell if a page has political ambitions. The names of the pages may well have nothing to do with politics. But it is clear there are professionals behind the social media outlets and following up on further posts can enlighten: The Facebook page owners will either defend or denigrate certain political and religious personalities, or parties.
For example, one Facebook page called Video Only with more than 150,000 followers and another called Politics And Opinion, with 48,000 followers, only criticizes the Iraqi Prime Minister and leading cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr and his political wing. They leave everyone else alone.
Another page named Thieves has over 100,000 followers and focuses on making nasty comments about former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Only a few pages reveal their true intentions immediately. These include one Facebook page called Clear al-Abadi, which supports the prime minister and has more than 250,000 followers and the Fans of Muqtada al-Sadr page, with more than 370,000 followers. But most of them do their best to appear neutral.
But as soon as there is some contentious political debate, they show their true colours, publishing false news and rumours to tarnish the reputations of their opposition, whoever that may be. Additionally every new political stoush sees more Facebook pages created.
Of course, a Facebook page for propaganda is not necessarily unusual. The problem is that in Iraq, the Facebook pages will often publish rumours and even outright lies to achieve their aims. They may even fabricate whole stories and these may, depending on the number of followers, be widely publicized.
An example was the recent visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to the US. The Facebook pages that don’t like al-Abadi posted updates saying that he had signed an agreement with US officials that would see the often-controversial Shiite Muslim militias abolished and the establishment of permanent US military bases inside the country.
When former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki released a statement on Iran’s support of Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State, the Facebook pages opposed to him published updates accusing al-Maliki of being an Iranian spy.
This problem is compounded because local media outlets then notice the Facebook updates and notes and spread them further. Sometimes this is because the news outlets themselves are partisan – many media outlets in Iraq are funded by particular political parties or religious organizations – and other times, it is because they simply believe the falsehoods and do not verify the information independently.
The undercover methods used by the ever-increasing number of Facebook pages make it almost impossible to identify those behind the lies and rumours, no matter how dangerous they are. Several Iraqi politicians have come out in interviews and accused their opponents of being behind what may best be described as the Iraqi version of online “troll factories”. Additionally Iraqi laws on this subject tend to be outdated, compared to current technologies, which makes it even more difficult to control the onslaught of fake news, rumours and lies.
And the problem of disinformation and mercenary, partisan “electronic armies” is only likely to worsen as the Iraqi federal elections draw nearer.