Media

Hizbullah 'cyber army' spreads disinformation, IRGC propaganda

By Sultan al-Barei in Riyadh

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Al-Manar TV's Telegram channel is one of the main platforms through which Hizbullah disseminates disinformation that suits its agenda and that of its sponsor, the IRGC. [Al-Manar]

The Lebanese Hizbullah's "cyber army" has become increasingly active in recent years.

Experts speaking with Al-Mashareq said the "army" keeps the region in permanent tension by spreading disinformation that ultimately serves Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

They described it as "a threat that must be eliminated".

On August 2nd, British publication The Telegraph published an exposé on the cyber army, which said Arab nationals receive intensive training in Beirut and return to their home countries to perform assigned tasks for Hizbullah.

In the training sessions, which have been ongoing since 2012, trainees learn how to digitally manage photos and large numbers of fake social media accounts, create videos, and avoid censorship on Facebook content, the report said.

Mazen Zaki, director of new media at the Ibn al-Waleed Studies and Field Research Centre in Egypt, described The Telegraph exposé as accurate, saying it revealed that citizens of various countries -- including Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia -- are trained by Hizbullah's cyber army.

Zaki said this is dangerous, since the cyber army's co-ordinated attacks would be "effective and hard to trace quickly".

Groups like Hizbullah's cyber army have specific objectives, he said. They flood online platforms and spread false information that supports the Lebanese militia and its allies.

The support for Hizbullah is clearly visible online before, during and after every speech by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, he added.

Hizbullah elements, bots promote agenda

Zaki said Hizbullah-affiliated online posts attempt to steer public opinion and cover up any real news that is not aligned with Hizbullah's agenda.

"Hizbullah's cyber army not only disseminates fake news but also supports it with fabricated photos and videos that circulate on social media, and unfortunately, some journalists and readers do not verify the posts and take them as real news," he said.

Mohammed Jamal, a social media and online promotion expert, told Al-Mashareq Hizbullah puts a lot of effort into online operations and messaging apps, focusing on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Promotion is carried out in two phases on social media, he said. First, Hizbullah elements start a campaign with a large number of specific tweets, and then bots promote the agenda.

A bot is a type of software that can be programmed to autonomously perform actions on a social media platform that mimic those of a real person.

Jamal said the campaigns act rather rapidly, sometimes too fast for social media administrative staff to intervene or stop them. Eventually, social media platforms shut down fake accounts and hide their posts.

Cyber battle needed

"Hizbullah uses its cyber army to push the IRGC's agenda by disseminating its political and religious ideas," Hassan Afifi, a lecturer at Cairo University's faculty of media, told Al-Mashareq.

"The IRGC used to print brochures and newspapers, then moved to cassette and video tapes. Then came the internet era with chat rooms, blogs, satellite TVs and social media," said Afifi.

Even Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently was in the limelight after experts said that a large number of his Twitter followers were bots.

A massive, modern online media structure should be established and run by journalists and new media experts to counter Hizbullah and the IRGC's online efforts, Afifi said.

"A cyber battle is no less important than a military battle. In fact, some consider it even more important because it involves countering the manipulation of minds."

Efforts must be made to counter Hizbullah's cyber army in order to stop the serious effects of online propaganda and disinformation, Afifi said.

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