On Monday, April 27, 2020, Facebook removed a cluster of 18 Pages for inauthentic behavior; these were not taken down for coordinated inauthentic behavior (such as that indicative of state involvement), but they did violate terms of service surrounding amplification through the use of inauthentic accounts. In this post we describe the network and its activity, as we had been observing these Pages in the context of our ongoing Libyan research.
The Pages were classified as “community” Pages, and shared identical Muammar Gaddafi nostalgia posts along with content supportive of his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. Given no indication that they were attributable to an outside actor, they provide insight into the strategies that Saif Gaddafi supporters are using, and the narratives they are pushing.
- The Pages were opportunistic in their narratives; while they spent time on nostalgia posts about Muammar Gaddafi, more recently they created posts about COVID-19 designed to denigrate Libya’s internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). The coronavirus posts included claims that coronavirus was a bioweapon created by the CIA.
- The Pages frequently linked to state media from other countries, including Russia’s RT and Sputnik, and referenced reporting from the Russian Foundation for National Values Protection.
- These Pages frequently shared the exact same messages at the exact same time.
- The Pages worked to create the impression that Saif Gaddafi has broad popular support among Libyans.
- The Pages often shared media from the anti-Turkish Oya Agency Press Facebook Page.
As shown below, these Pages posted at near identical rates. Additionally, using Facebook’s Page Transparency feature, we could see that most of the Pages had four administrators whose locations were listed as hidden. All of the Pages were created in the first quarter of 2019.
Post count for Pages in the cluster between October 2019 and April 2020. Source: CrowdTangle
Example of Pages sharing an article about Saif Gaddafi from Jana News Agency at the same time. The article notes that the US has called the International Criminal Court politicized. There is currently an ICC arrest warrant out for Saif Gaddafi for crimes against humanity.
The Pages in the cluster had names like “Muammar Sacrifices” and “The Libyan Colonel”. Several Page names referenced the Fatimid caliphate and the return of their rule; this was something Muammar Gaddafi had promoted during his rule in several speeches. He claimed that a second modern Fatimid caliphate would eliminate the Sunni and Shia divide between Muslims which enemies always exploited.
The Pages shared posts denigrating the Government of National Accord in coordinated posts. For example, on February 2020, many of the Pages simultaneously shared a post describing how bad the trash collection situation is in Tripoli.
A post from the Oya News Agency Facebook Page describing a lack of government services in Tripoli. The Pages in this cluster shared this post at the same time.
In one instance, the Pages shared a seemingly authentic TikTok video showing current Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Ahmed Maiteeq the deputy prime minister as condiment bottles dancing to a Khaleeji song about corruption in the government.
Screenshot from TikTok video
More recently, posts leveraged COVID-19 to denigrate the GNA. Coordinated posts on April 2, 2020 claimed that the GNA was over-stating the number of Libyans with coronavirus to distract people from news about fighting with the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).
Posts on April 2, 2020
Several Pages pushed the narrative that coronavirus was a bioweapon created by the CIA.
A March 12, 2020 post claiming that coronavirus is an American-made bioweapon.
Screenshot from a Page in the cluster called ماجدات الجماهيرية (Magdat Jamahiriya)
Sharing Russian Media
A handful of the Pages in this cluster shared an article from the Jana News Agency that described the results of an (alleged) poll conducted by the Russian Foundation for National Values Protection. (We wrote about Jana News Agency’s ties to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin here.) The Foundation for National Values Protection is headed by Alexander Malkevich, who was briefly the editor of USA Really, a propaganda site linked to the Internet Research Agency in 2018, and who is on the US sanctions list for interfering in its 2016 elections. The purported results of the poll were that if the elections were to happen tomorrow, Saif Gaddafi would win and only 4% of Libyans would vote for al-Sarraj.
This poll and its distribution are interesting on a number of dimensions. First, a Foundation for National Values Protection employee, Maxim Shugaley, has been imprisoned in Tripoli since May 2019 on allegations of meddling in Libyan politics in support of Saif Gaddafi. The Foundation and other Russian entities have been pressuring for his release since, and this alleged poll could be interpreted as a tool to push for Shugaley’s release. Second, we are unable to find the original release of the nominal poll results.
Other posts similarly tried to create the impression of widespread popular support for Gaddafi. For example, the post below says “there is no alternative to Dr. Saif Islam Gaddafi who is very popular in Libya.” (Gaddafi’s PhD from LSE has been tainted by allegations of plagiarism and the use of a ghost writer.) The text over his photo calls him “president.”
A post working to create the impression that Saif Gaddafi is very popular in Libya.
The Pages occasionally coordinated in sharing Russian state media content. In the below example, 14 of the 18 Pages shared this video from RT. The video is a call for justice in the name of Hisham Shoshan, a Libyan regime officer who was one of the first to be lynched by protesters for being an alleged mercenary at the beginning of the Libyan revolution.
Pages in the cluster simultaneously sharing an RT video
Oya Agency Press
The Pages frequently shared infographics from Facebook Page Oya Agency Press. (Oya is an ancient word for Tripoli, and this may be an attempt to re-brand a similarly named former newspaper.) Oya’s relationship to the cluster is unclear, as it was created more recently, and has administrators in Egypt. The Page frequently ran ads, including anti-Turkish ads and Muammar Gaddafi nostalgia ads. Its associated website, oya.news, says it is a “media platform that provides a news service around the clock, based on realism and brevity brimming with clarity and objectivity” (translated).
An infographic from Oya News Agency on February 20, 2020. It says, among other things, that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi has uncovered the poison of media on the state.
Oya tries to push the narrative that the GNA is relying on many foreign mercenaries. (We note that the LNA also uses foreign mercenaries.) One infographic claimed that the GNA was bringing in mercenaries from Mexico, Poland, East Asia, and Romania. There is no evidence to support this claim.
Oya also has a new YouTube account. One of its first videos showed Syrian fighters counting their money. This can be interpreted as an anti-Turkish video as Turkey hired Syrian mercenaries to fight in Libya in support of the GNA.
In conclusion, we have documented a cluster of Facebook Pages that pushed content to support Saif Gaddafi and undermine the GNA. Though these Pages are not tied to any government actors, they frequently drew on sources with ties to Russia - including Jana News Agency and the Russian Foundation for National Values Protection. The Pages tried to create the impression of widespread support for Saif Gaddafi, a possible future presidential contender, and worked to undermine the GNA.