— When a new bout of fighting between rival militias engulfed the
Libyan capital in recent days, badly shaking the fragile United
Nations-backed government, some combatants picked up rifles and rocket
launchers and headed into the streets.
logged on to Facebook.
rockets rained on parts of Tripoli, hitting a hotel popular with
foreigners and forcing the airport to close, and 400 prisoners escaped
from a jail, a parallel battle unfolded online. On their Facebook
pages, rival groups issued boasts, taunts and chilling threats — one
vowing to “purify” Libya of its opponents.
“keyboard warriors,” as Facebook partisans are known in Libya, posted
fake news or hateful comments. Others offered battlefield guidance. On
one discussion page on Thursday, a user posted maps and coordinates to
help target her side’s bombs at a rival’s air base.
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the traffic light at Wadi al Rabi, it is exactly 18 kilometers to the
runway, which means it can be targeted by a 130 mm artillery,” the
user, who went by the handle Narjis Ly, wrote on Facebook. “The
coordinates are attached in the photo below.”
media enjoys outsize influence in Libya, a sparsely populated yet
violently fractured country that is torn by a plethora of armed groups
vying for territory and legitimacy. They battle for dominance on the
streets and on smartphones.
Facebook, by far the most popular platform, does not just mirror the
chaos — it can act as a force multiplier.
groups use Facebook to find opponents and critics, some of whom have
later been detained, killed or forced into exile, according to human
rights groups and Libyan activists. Swaggering commanders boast of
their battlefield exploits and fancy vacations, or rally supporters by
sowing division and ethnic hatred. Forged documents circulate widely,
often with the goal of undermining Libya’s few surviving national
institutions, notably its Central Bank.
is coming under scrutiny globally for how its platform amplifies
political manipulation and violence.
July, the company began culling misinformation from its pages in
response to episodes in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and India where online
rumors led to real-life violence against ethnic minorities.
Wednesday, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, will
defend the company’s efforts to limit disinformation and hate speech
before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where she will testify along
with Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive.
insists it is assiduously policing its raucous Libyan platform. It
employs teams of Arabic-speaking content reviewers to enforce its
policies, is developing artificial intelligence to pre-emptively
remove prohibited content, and partners with local organizations and
international human rights groups to better understand the country. A
spokeswoman said: “We also don’t allow organizations or individuals
engaged in human trafficking or organized violence to maintain a
presence on Facebook.”
illegal activity is rife on Libyan Facebook.
New York Times found evidence of military-grade weapons being openly
traded, despite the company’s policies forbidding such commerce. Human
traffickers advertise their success in helping illegal migrants reach
Europe by sea, and use their pages to drum up more business.
Practically every armed group in Libya, and even some of their
detention centers, have their own Facebook page.
removed several pages and posts after The Times flagged them to the
spokeswoman on Sunday. But others remained.
most dangerous, dirty war is now being waged on social media and some
other media platforms,” Mahmud Shammam, a former information minister,
said last week as fighting ripped through the Tripoli suburbs. “Lying,
falsifying, misleading and mixing facts. Electronic armies are owned
by everyone, and used by everyone without exception. It is the most
made his declaration, naturally, on Facebook.
Force for Unity,
helped Libyans unite in 2011 to oust Moammar Gadhafi, who for decades
had forbidden people to buy fax machines or even printers without
then, the platform was prone to abuse.
vicious hate campaign directed at suspected Gadhafi supporters, and
which was fanned by incendiary social media posts, led to African
migrants being jailed or lynched, and caused all 30,000 residents of a
town called Tawergha to flee for their lives. Today, most Tawerghans
live in refugee camps.
social media echo chamber played out in deadly ways for them,” said
Fred Abrahams, an associate director at Human Rights Watch.
influence today is largely a product of Libya’s dysfunction. The
country has no central authority and most of its TV stations and
newspapers are tied to armed groups, political factions or foreign
powers like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
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Many Libyans spend long hours stranded inside their homes because it
can be dangerous to go out. The electricity can be off for 12 hours a
day. So they turn to Facebook to find out what’s going on.
phone might be the only thing that is working,” said Jalel Harchaoui,
a Paris-based analyst with North Africa Risk Consulting. “People are
traumatized after the years of fake news under Gadhafi. They thirst
Some 181 million people use Facebook every month across the Middle
East and North Africa, the Facebook spokeswoman said. She replied to
questions by email on the condition of anonymity in line with Facebook
policy, which the company said was mainly for security reasons. For
Libya’s armed factions, that reach makes the platform a powerful tool
for propaganda and repression.
the eastern city of Benghazi, which is dominated by the strongman Gen.
Khalifa Hifter, a special online unit affiliated with his militia, the
Libyan National Army, scours Facebook for signs of dissent or for
suspected Islamists. Some have been arrested and jailed, and others
forced to flee the city, according to human rights groups.
are similar pressures in Tripoli, where the Special Deterrence Force,
a militia led by a conservative religious commander, Abdulrauf Kara,
patrols Facebook with a moralizing zeal reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s
once-feared religious police.
year his militia detained 20 participants in a Libyan version of
Comic-Con, the comic book conference. The militants said they were
outraged by photos on Facebook showing young Libyans dressed as
characters like Spider-Man and the Joker. Some detainees said they
were beaten in custody.
August 2017, a writer named Leila Moghrabi was hit by a blizzard of
Facebook attacks over a collection of short stories and poetry she
edited. “I wish you get killed, not arrested,” read one typical
message. Three Muslim clerics denounced Moghrabi in thundering sermons
that circulated on Facebook; next came word that the Special
Deterrence Force was coming to arrest her.
leapt into a car with her husband and children and drove to Tunisia,
where they live in exile. “We literally left everything behind,” she
said by phone.
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Others never made it to the border. Jabar Zain, a 30-year-old activist
who was prominent on Facebook, has not been seen since he was abducted
by a militia in September 2016, according to Amnesty International,
which said he was targeted because of statements he made on Facebook.
Amnesty has documented several such cases.
2014, suspected Islamists in Benghazi shot dead two secular teenage
activists, Tawfik Bensoud and Sami al-Kwuafi, after their names
appeared on a hit list that circulated on Facebook.
fighting in Tripoli during the past week was the worst in years,
leaving at least 47 people dead, including children, and more than 130
wounded, according to health officials. At least 400 prisoners escaped
from a jail on Sunday after inmates overpowered guards. The chaos
poses a growing threat to the U.N.-backed unity government, which has
declared a state of emergency in the capital.
boasts and threats foreshadowed the fighting.
Tripoli seemed calm this year, public unease grew toward the four big
militias that control the city under the umbrella of the fragile unity
government, which is headed by Fayez Seraj. The militia commanders are
widely viewed as unaccountable and corrupt, using their access to the
Central Bank to buy U.S. dollars at the official rate, which is five
times cheaper than the street price.
commander, Haitham Tajouri, drew attention by posting photos to
Facebook flaunting his lavish lifestyle — foreign vacations, designer
suits and an armored SUV — at a time when many Libyans were wallowing
in economic hardship.
ostentatious displays helped fuel resentments among rival groups
seeking to share in the pie. They boiled over last week when a militia
known as Kaniyat from a town called Tarhouna, 45 miles southeast of
Tripoli, launched an assault on the capital.
Kaniyat’s fighters engaged in artillery battles in the southern
suburbs, it sought to tap into public anger by denouncing its rivals
as the “Islamic State of public money” and promising to “cleanse” them
factions are motivated by more than what they see on Facebook, said
Harchaoui, the analyst. But, he added, “it can be the final straw.”
Monday afternoon, Facebook suddenly went down in Tripoli.
local internet provider, Libya Telecom and Technology, which insisted
it had not blocked Facebook, said it was investigating.
employs Arabic-language reviewers who weed out illegal and forbidden
content on its Libyan pages — part of a global team that works in over
50 languages, the company says.
work hard to keep Facebook safe and to prevent people from using our
tools to spread hate or incite violence,” the spokeswoman said. The
company engages with academics and civil society groups to “better
understand local issues and context so we can take more effective
action against bad actors on Facebook,” she added.
Libyans are adept at circumventing such controls. Users often take
screenshots of contentious posts, and redistribute them as images if
the original text is removed by Facebook’s moderators.
Facebook prohibits firearms trading between individuals, numerous
pages present themselves as online weapons bazaars. On the page
“Libya’s Weapons Market,” sellers advertise machine guns,
anti-aircraft guns and artillery shells. Last month, for instance, one
user posted an image of a Russian PM machine gun. “Message me if you
are serious about purchasing,” the message said.
Monday, Facebook said it had removed those posts, as well as two other
pages cited by The Times that advertised the services of human
traffickers sending illegal migrants by boat to Europe.
are investigating to understand why we didn’t take action sooner,” the
has developed tools that scan for prohibited content, which human
moderators can then remove. These programs flagged 85 percent of the
“violent content” that was removed or given a warning label in the
first three months of 2018, the spokeswoman said.
the programs struggle to identify subtler violations such as hate
speech or violent threats, which are mostly reported by everyday
users. This can make removal slow, particularly in areas where locals
may be less inclined to report the posts.
2011, Facebook reflected the “extraordinary” opening up of Libyan
society after four decades of dictatorship under Gadhafi, said Mary
Fitzgerald, an independent researcher on Libya. “Everyone was on
Facebook. There was a very rambunctious conversation, and a lot of
as the years went on, the people driving the conflict began to “talk
about how social media is one of their most important weapons,” she
said. That bred a deep ambivalence among many Libyans toward the media
they consume so voraciously.
many times over the past seven years,” she added, “I heard people say
that if we could just shut down Facebook for a day, half of the
country’s problems would be solved.”