Exclusive: Inside Hezbollah's fake news training camps sowing instability across the Middle East




  • In World
  • 2020-08-01 15:31:10Z
  • By The Telegraph
Exclusive: Inside Hezbollah\
Exclusive: Inside Hezbollah\'s fake news training camps sowing instability across the Middle East  

The three-storey run-down building on the outskirts of Beirut blended in among the nondescript apartment blocks and businesses lining the busy street.

But when Mohammed stepped through the door he was greeted by an opulent interior filled with advanced technology and the blinking lights of specialist computer equipment.

The young Iraqi had entered a 10-day fake news training camp run by Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah which would equip him to spread fear and division around the Middle East.

It would teach him how to build up networks of false social media profiles that he would later use to spread propaganda and disinformation online, sowing confusion and sometimes death in his home country.

His experience is not unique.

A Telegraph investigation can today reveal that Hezbollah has trained thousands of Iran-backed social media activists, helping create so-called "electronic armies" across the region.

This newspaper can disclose that since at least 2012, Hezbollah has been flying individuals into Lebanon for courses teaching participants how to digitally manipulate photographs, manage large numbers of fake social media accounts, make videos, avoid Facebook's censorship, and effectively spread disinformation online.

Students have come from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria, according to interviewees that spoke to The Telegraph on the condition of anonymity.

The camp highlights Iran's malign influence in the region, and the lengths it is willing to go to spread its revolutionary ideology around an increasingly fractured Middle East, analysts say.

The portrait of Hezbollah's digital training operations is based on more than 20 interviews with politicians, analysts, social media specialists, a member of Iraq's military psychological operations unit, a member of the Iraqi secret service, and several former members of electronic armies.

These included two detailed interviews with people who had been directly involved with the logistics of sending people on Hezbollah courses in Lebanon over multiple years and had an intimate knowledge of how they operated.

Before arriving in Lebanon, Mohammed had been told that he was not allowed to talk to anyone about his trip to Beirut, and during the whole ten-day course the students were monitored by CCTV.

"When I landed I was nervous because of all the secrecy involved," he said, adding that he was greeted at the camp by an elderly Hezbollah imam dressed in traditional religious clothes.

The following day he met the specialists that would teach the different parts of the course, who were dressed casually or in suits and mostly did not have beards.

Some of the trainers did not join the staff and students as they took place in regular communal prayer sessions during the day.

"When I met the specialist trainers and realised how technical and in-depth the course was - I became very enthusiastic," he told The Telegraph from Iraq, where he continues to pass on his training to new recruits.

During the years that followed his first course in 2015, Mohammed would go on to send dozens of other people to receive training in Beirut in a variety of areas as he helped to create new teams of social media specialists and hackers.

"It is the illusion industry. Hezbollah is making millions of dollars from running these courses, but for the clients it is worth spending the money," he said.

Abdullah, who asked to withhold his full name, is a senior politician in one of Iraq's biggest political parties and has personally been involved in sending individuals to Beirut for training on how to create and run fake social media profiles.

"It became a business for Hezbollah. The people we sent developed their skills in Beirut and when they returned they started training activists inside Iraq," he said.

Similar training was being offered in Iran but not nearly as popular and easy to access, Abdullah said.

Hezbollah is listed as a terrorist organisation by eighteen countries, including the UK and the US, as well as the EU and the Arab League.

In a US report prepared for members of congress in 2011, Hezbollah's "training and liaison activities with Shiite insurgents in Iraq" was cited as a key reason behind its continued listing as a terrorist organisation.

Among the groups to access the training is Kata'ib Hezbollah, a powerful Iraqi paramilitary group with close ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The group has run large-scale, ruthless social media campaigns over 2019 using its social media networks to distribute high quality videos that aggressively target public figures perceived as enemies to its expansion.

A common technique used by all of the electronic armies is creating large networks of fake accounts that amplify certain messages by liking, commenting, and sharing each other's posts.

Mohanad al-Semawee is the head of Iraq's Digital Media Centre (DMC) an independent media monitoring and analysis centre, believes that the impact of social media misinformation in Middle East countries like Iraq, which lack strong governmental and journalistic institutions, is far greater than in Europe and the US.

"The overall effect of the surge in fake profiles that are spreading false information is hugely damaging to Iraq - and it is getting worse all of the time."

"False statements and messages inciting violence, which spread online can easily lead directly to deadly violence in real life in Iraq," he said.

The killing of the Iraqi security expert Hisham al-Hashimi on July 6 sparked outcry on social media with thousands of Iraqis reposting messages saying that US companies Facebook and Twitter should take some responsibility for his death.

Al-Hashimi was subjected to an online smear campaign via social media for months before his death, accusing him of ordered the assassination of Shia Muslims.

His death prompted calls for social media platforms to do more to control the spread of disinformation.

In May this year, Facebook removed a network of 324 pages, 71 accounts, five groups and 31 Instagram accounts, which had spent a total of $270,000 (£213,000) on Facebook ads. The pages were followed by about 4.4 million accounts and had been exhibiting signs of "coordinated inauthentic behaviour", according to Facebook. This network, which focused on Iraqi Kurdistan, used fake accounts to post online, impersonate local politicians and parties as well as managing pages that masqueraded as news outlets.

In Iraq, false news stories published on social media for political ends regularly result in serious consequences, including violent clashes and loss of life.

Joel Gulhane, Middle East and North Africa analyst at The Risk Advisory Group, said: "[Hezbollah] has demonstrated its ability to provide support for ideologically aligned groups in the region in other ways for years, so that it would also share this approach in the region does fit with its previous behaviour."

"The use of disinformation to disrupt and erode the truth is largely aimed at making people lose confidence in the truth as well as energising negative sentiment around particular issues."

Efforts to combat the surge in disinformation online failed to materialise last year when legislation stalled.

"There has been no movement since early 2019," said Aro Omar, an associate at the Iraqi law firm Al-Tamimi and Company. "The Iraqi parliament, when it has convened, has been focused on more pressing issues such as protests, government debt and the drop in oil prices. It has been a secondary concern."

This story was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project.

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