Feodora - stock.adobe.com

Mounting Russian disinformation campaign targeting Arab world

Researchers have found evidence of a broad Russian disinformation campaign targeting Arabic-speakers in the Middle East and North Africa

The UK’s Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) has warned of a mounting Russia-backed disinformation campaign targeting Arabic speakers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), spreading propaganda and false narratives to win over hearts and minds in its war on Ukraine.

The CIR conducted extensive open source research, social media and analysis and digital investigations to establish the extent of the campaign, which has been ongoing since the earliest days of the war, when Russian news channels in the MENA region started to spread fake news, propagating the debunked claims that Ukraine has been running secret biological weapons labs, among other things.

“While following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the US and UK acted quickly to counteract the flow of Russian propaganda and the European Union banned its state-sponsored TV channels, RT and Sputnik, from the airwaves, in the Arabic-speaking world and across Africa, Russian misinformation has continued unabated,” said CIR US vice-president Nina Jankowicz.

“Furthermore, our research on social media sites like Twitter has uncovered numerous reports from outlets aimed at Arab and African audiences blaming the global food and energy crises on baseless conspiracy theories related to the EU and the United States, rather than Russia’s subterfuge at Ukrainian ports and subsequent refusal to cooperate.”

CIR said that given that many countries in the global south have not dispatched foreign correspondents to Ukraine, Russian propaganda, such as the biological weapons narrative, is able to spread unchallenged and is frequently reprinted as truth in local newspapers and further amplified across social media.

Much of the social media analysis on Facebook and Twitter seems to show that Egypt has become a hub and a force multiplier for this campaign. Jankowicz said: “Today, RT Arabic has the second-most popular news website in the region, outperforming even Al-Jazeera.”

Dounia Mahlouly, a lecturer in global digital studies at SOAS, University of London, who worked with CIR on its research, said that the Russian campaign was proving remarkably successful at spreading Moscow’s preferred messaging throughout the region.

“In the Arab youth survey at the end of last year, one-third of North Africans believed it was Nato responsible for the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with only 17% attributing blame to Russia,” she said.

“This shows that while the audience has legitimate frustrations about certain double standards in the Western media coverage of the war in Ukraine, Russia is now capitalising on these frustrations and promoting its own brand of ‘white saviour’ narrative through a mass disinformation campaign in the region.”

Global operations

MENA is not the only region where people are falling victim to falsified narratives around the Ukraine war. Last year, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate accused Meta of allowing organisations controlled by Chinese state media outlets – including CGTN, Global Times, Xinhua News and T-House – to use its platform to spread disinformation and propaganda to hundreds of millions of followers.

Some of the spurious claims made by Chinese media include anti-semitic conspiracy theories alleging links between Ukrainian premier Volodymyr Zelensky and financier George Soros, and claims about links between Ukrainian neo-Nazi groups and the US.

In Europe, despite restrictions on the ability of Russian media to continue broadcasting, Moscow’s social media disinformation campaigns have centred several distinct narratives.

Speaking to Computer Weekly in 2022, Craig Terron of threat intelligence specialist Recorded Future said that the most common narratives had included attempts to undermine and divide the Western coalition by stirring up historical differences between Germany, Poland and Ukraine, and trying to paint Ukrainian refugees and their impact on host countries in a bad light.

Read more about disinformation

Read more on Hackers and cybercrime prevention

Data Center
Data Management