In February 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi presided over a potentially momentous shift in the history of Arab news media. On the sidelines of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s official visit to Cairo, the country’s oldest state-run newspaper Al-Ahram signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Director General of the Russian-backed media group Rossiya Segodyna, or Russia Today. While attention focused on Russian investments in Egypt’s Zohr gas complex, Russian construction of an industrial zone near the Suez Canal and Russian-built nuclear reactors, it was not until September 18, 2018, that it was revealed that Al-Ahram had agreed to turn over a percentage of the paper’s digital platform, Bawaba al-Ahram, to Sputnik, one of Russia Today’s largest subsidiaries.
By spring 2019, Sputnik had published approximately 700 articles on the Egyptian site, far more than any other contributing source. Appearing as a translation or reprint of concurrent material on Sputnik.com or RT.com, the relatively brief articles typically addressed geopolitical issues of interest to Russian policies in the Middle East. Every article generated a common number of LinkedIn followers and would be quickly reposted across a range of nondescript blogs and forums. This strategy was effective in helping drive traffic to the Kremlin-backed sites, using what researchers describe as a “ping pong” effect in which the “coordinated use of complementary websites” serves to “springboard a story into mainstream circulation.”
Russian efforts to embed and normalize the consumption of Kremlin-based media in the digital ecosphere of the Arab world have been increasing for years. Russia, of course, is not alone in this game. But Russian efforts have been particularly successful of late. RT Arabic currently ranks among the top three “most-watched news channels in six Arabic countries [Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, and Iraq]” according to a 2015 Nielsen poll. The regional consumption of Russian-state media on the whole may be even more substantial than the TV ratings indicate in part because the sheer quantity of content spread by RT and Sputnik across social media dwarfs its competition. In 2018, Arabic.RT.com was the highest ranked news organization in virtually every Arab country, according to Alexa indexing. In Egypt, RT ranked some 248 points above its nearest competitor Al-Arabiya.
Russian-style influence operations are also being replicated throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In August 2019, Facebook announced the discovery of nearly 3,000 false and misleading posts linked to hubs in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The posts deployed what Facebook describes as “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” a strategy comparable to ping-ponging in which “groups of pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are or what they are doing.”
Yet while the strategic deployment of misinformation has effected virtually every major flashpoint in the Arab world, the phenomenon has become particularly acute in the context of the current battle for the Libyan capital of Tripoli—which pits the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its supporters in Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and France against the Government of National Accord (GNA) whose backers include the United Nations (UN), Great Britain, Italy, Qatar and Turkey. While this information war has included most major Arabic-language state-based media outlets, RT appears by far to be the most influential generator of content, with Russia mobilizing immense amounts of black and grey propaganda on behalf of the LNA and its shadowy leader Khalifa Hifter. [Continue reading…]