In war-torn Iraq, political rivals wage battles online
Baghdad - As battles waged by Iraqi forces against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Mosul appear to be heading to an end, politicians in the war-torn country are turning their rhetorical guns on each other on various online platforms.
With general and local elections scheduled for 2018, politicians are already using what they sometimes refer to as “electronic armies” to promote themselves or have a dig at their competitors on social media.
Sometimes the members of these electronic armies use their real social media accounts but at other times it is assumed they hide behind fake identities. There have been a number of pages and groups set up to support one political group or another.
“They are electronic militias, not armies,” said Hiwa Othman, a member of the Iraqi Media Net Trustees Board. “These electronic militias do nothing but attack each other.”
Alya Mahdy, a political researcher who monitors online accounts, said the phenomenon began during the 2010 general elections but that it was not so extreme.
“Every leading politician has his own [electronic army], trying to win the war against whom he thinks are his foes,” Mahdy said. “They are competing for bigger roles in the political arena post-ISIS and over coming elections. For this end, they are ready to do anything.”
Mahdy said the most active accounts are those that belong to supporters of former Prime Minister and current Vice-President Nuri al-Maliki, followed by the accounts of supporters of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Several high-profile parliamentarians enjoy significant support from dedicated online activists, said Mahdy, adding that in many cases the electronic armies receive salaries from the politicians.
Mahdy said some of the groups engage in sectarian rhetoric as they promote Shia or Sunni politicians. “They are pouring the oil on the sectarian fire as they try to guarantee the votes for the coming elections,” she said.
Political analyst Raheem Shimmary warned that sometimes these electronic armies were involved in spreading false information, which means the public is likely to be misled as the online posts are not subjected to fact-checking.
There are reportedly 14 million Iraqi users of Facebook, which Shimmary said was fertile ground for political rumours and fighting in Iraq. These users sometimes “engage in political conflicts that draw their attention away from real corruption scandals,” he said.
Shimmary also pointed to Maliki as the Iraqi politician who has the biggest electronic army while at the same time issuing statements that criticise social media pages that are allegedly fabricating news and publishing rumours.
A recently leaked video, purportedly showing six young men working as members of Maliki’s electronic army, has been frequently shared on Facebook. Local media reports alleged that thousands of dollars are being paid monthly to activists to praise one politician and attack another.
There are other occasions of irony in which high-profile politicians who have electronic armies of their own criticise rival politicians for using their electronic armies. In one instance, Member of Parliament Hanan al-Fatlawi lashed out against the prime minister’s electronic army for allegedly fabricating rumours against her on social media.
She wrote on her official Facebook page: “It appears that Abadi’s electronic army has gone completely bankrupt…it is living in a state of hysteria and didn’t find anything better to do other than fabricating and say cheap lies.”
Fatlawi also took aim at the source of funding for these pages: “They spread [lies] using their pages which are financed by money from poor people, not from the inheritance of Abadi and his family.”
Her attack on the prime minister drew condemnation from commentators on Facebook, including Member of Parliament Ebtisam al-Hilali, who said that Abadi’s online supporters are Iraqis who defend his record in office and are not paid. Abadi’s electronic armies exist only “in the mind of losers,” charged Hilali.
Husam Ali, an Iraqi observer, said the online wars were confusing public opinion and not allowing for accurate debate on important topics to take place.
“Social media became the newest political platform in Iraq,” Ali said. “The cyberwars are helping the current political status quo, as well as corruption, to continue.”
Iraqi social media users should be protected by law from such misinformation, Ali said.