Thursday, 18 April, 2024


In a Worldwide War of Words, Russia, China and Iran Back Hamas

The conflict between Israel and Hamas is fast becoming a world war online.

Iran, Russia and, to a lesser degree, China have used state media and the world’s major social networking platforms to support Hamas and undercut Israel, while denigrating Israel’s principal ally, the United States.

Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq have also joined the fight online, along with extremist groups, like al-Qaida and the Islamic State, that were previously at odds with Hamas.

The deluge of online propaganda and disinformation is larger than anything seen before, according to government officials and independent researchers — a reflection of the world’s geopolitical division.

“It is being seen by millions, hundreds of millions of people around the world,” said Rafi Mendelsohn, vice president at Cyabra, a social media intelligence company in Tel Aviv, Israel, “and it’s impacting the war in a way that is probably just as effective as any other tactic on the ground.” Cyabra has documented at least 40,000 bots or inauthentic accounts online since Hamas attacked Israel from the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7.

The content — visceral, emotionally charged, politically slanted and often false — has stoked anger and even violence far beyond Gaza, raising fears that it could inflame a wider conflict. Iran, though it has denied any involvement in the attack by Hamas, has threatened as much, with its foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, warning of retaliation on “multiple fronts” if Israeli forces persisted in Gaza.

“It’s just like everyone is involved,” said Moustafa Ayad, executive director for Africa, the Middle East and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The institute, a nonprofit research organization in London, last week detailed influence campaigns by Iran, Russia and China.

The campaigns do not appear to be coordinated, American and other government officials and experts said, though they did not rule out cooperation.

While Iran, Russia and China each have different motivations in backing Hamas over Israel, they have pushed the same themes since the war began. They are not simply providing moral support, the officials and experts said, but also mounting overt and covert information campaigns to amplify one another and expand the global reach of their views across multiple platforms in multiple languages.

The Spanish arm of RT, the global Russian television network, for example, recently reposted a statement by the Iranian president calling the explosion at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza on Oct. 17 an Israeli war crime, even though Western intelligence agencies and independent analysts have since said a missile misfired from Gaza was a more likely cause of the blast.

Another Russian overseas news outlet, Sputnik India, quoted a “military expert” saying, without evidence, that the United States provided the bomb that destroyed the hospital. Posts like these have garnered ten of thousands of views.

“We’re in an undeclared information war with authoritarian countries,” James Rubin, the head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, said in a recent interview.

From the first hours of its attack, Hamas has employed a broad, sophisticated media strategy, inspired by groups like the Islamic State. Its operatives spread graphic imagery through bot accounts originating in places like Pakistan, sidestepping bans of Hamas on Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter, according to Cyabra’s researchers.

A profile on X that bore the characteristics of an inauthentic account — @RebelTaha — posted 616 times in the first two days of the conflict, though it had previously featured content mostly about cricket, they said. One post featured a cartoon claiming a double standard in how Palestinian resistance toward Israel was cast as terrorism while Ukraine’s fight against Russia was self-defense.

Officials and experts who track disinformation and extremism have been struck by how quickly and extensively Hamas’ message has spread online. That feat was almost certainly fueled by the emotional intensity of the Israeli-Palestinian issue and by the graphic images of the violence, captured virtually in real time with cameras carried by Hamas gunmen. It was also boosted by extensive networks of bots and, soon afterward, official accounts belonging to governments and state media in Iran, Russia and China — amplified by social media platforms.

In a single day after the conflict began, roughly 1 in 4 accounts on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and X posting about the conflict appeared to be fake, Cyabra found. In the 24 hours after the blast at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, more than 1 in 3 accounts posting about it on X were.

The company’s researchers identified six coordinated campaigns on a scale so large, they said, that it suggested the involvement of nations or large nonstate actors.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s report last week singled out Iranian accounts on Facebook and X that “have been spreading particularly harmful content that includes glorification of war crimes and violence against Israeli civilians and encouraging further attacks against Israel.”

Although the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denied the country’s involvement in the attack, the accounts have depicted him as the leader of a “Pan-Islamic resistance” to Israel and neocolonial Western powers.

A series of posts on X by a state-affiliated outlet, Tasnim News Agency, said the United States was responsible for “the crimes” and showed a video of wounded Palestinians. On Telegram, accounts have also spread false or unverified content, including one widely debunked account that CNN had faked an attack on a television crew.

Cyabra also identified an online campaign in Arabic on X from Iraq, evidently from Shiite Muslim paramilitary groups supported by Iran, including the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr. A network of accounts posted identical messages and photos, using the hashtag #AmericasponsorIsraelTerrorism. Those posts peaked on Oct. 18 and 19, amassing more than 6,000 engagements, and had the potential to reach 10 million viewers, according to Cyabra.

Israel, which has its own sophisticated information operations, has found itself unexpectedly on the defensive.

“Like its military, Israel’s social media was caught flat-footed and responded days late,” said Ben Decker, the CEO of Memetica, a threat intelligence consulting firm, and a former researcher for The New York Times. “The response, even when it got off the ground, was chaotic.”

Two Israeli government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said Israel was tracking the bot activity from Iran and other countries. They noted that it was larger than any previous campaign they had seen.

The war has heightened concerns in Washington and other Western capitals that an alliance of authoritarian governments has succeeded in fomenting illiberal, anti-democratic sentiment, especially in Africa, South America and other parts of the world where accusations of American or Western colonialism or dominance find fertile soil.

Russia and China, which have grown increasingly close in recent years, appear intent to exploit the conflict to undermine the United States as much as Israel. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which combats state propaganda and disinformation, has in recent weeks detailed extensive campaigns by Russia and China to shape the global information environment to their advantage.

A week before Hamas attacked Israel, the State Department warned in a report that China was employing “deceptive and coercive methods” to sway global opinion behind its worldview. Since the war began, China has portrayed itself as a neutral peacemaker, while its officials have depicted the United States as a craven warmonger that suffered a “strategic failure in the Middle East.”

Accounts of Russian officials and state media have shared that sentiment. Numerous pro-Kremlin accounts on Telegram abruptly shifted after Oct. 7 from content about the war in Ukraine to post exclusively on Israel, including an Arabic-language channel linked to the Wagner Group, the Russian paramilitary force that rebelled against President Vladimir Putin in June.

Putin, who met with Hamas leaders after the war began, described the wars in Ukraine and Israel as part of the same broad struggle against American global dominance. He also claimed, without evidence, that “Western intelligence services” were behind a riot Sunday that targeted Jews at the airport in Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim region in southern Russia.

“They’re in a conflict, a geostrategic competition, with the United States,” said Michael Doran, a former White House and Pentagon official who is now director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at the Hudson Institute. “And they recognize that when Israel, the U.S.’ primary ally in the Middle East, is wrapped up in a war like this, it weakens the United States.”

Credit: Yahoo News


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