The self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and its allies attempted to re-take Gharyan — a city in north western Libya — in a new offensive on 26 August, although so far their opponents have been able to resist by relying on ground forces re-deployed from southern Tripoli frontlines.
During the offensive, there were signs that the LNA’s UAE allies were continuing its concurrent propaganda warfare campaign to shape the narrative surrounding the conflict.
Back in April there were indications that online bots were being deployed en masse from ISP addresses in Saudi Arabia. Facebook eventually confirmed on 1 August that the UAE had been engaged in a social media campaign using fake accounts, pages, and groups to manipulate the narrative surrounding Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s offensive and make it appear as if there was unified support for Haftar among Libyans.
Last week, there were indications that the LNA and its external backers were again engaged in such social media narrative manipulation tactics. On 28 August, for example, an image of a statement informing the Revolutionary Shura Council of Tripoli to fight Haftar circulated Twitter and Facebook. This stoked fears that hardline Islamists, including Salafi jihadi groups, were significantly involved in the anti-LNA fighting. Such involvement would bolster the LNA’s claim that its Tripoli offensive was intended as a counter-terrorism campaign rather than Haftar’s quest for political domination. Last week’s document was, however, fake as in fact Islamists actually only make up a tiny fraction of the anti-LNA camp.
On the same day, another fake document also circulated on social media which alleged that the Presidential Council had resigned and that it had handed over power to the defunct, interim eastern government in Bayda, led by rival premier Abdullah al-Thani. Reform of the Presidential Council to depose Prime Minister Fayez Serraj and appoint pro-Haftar figures has been a stated goal of Haftar’s when he has participated in previous political dialogue talks in France and Abu Dhabi. The two incidents also occurred just days after the Twitter account of the GNA’s media office was hacked.
This information warfare will have lasting effects on Libya. It will further diminish public faith in the media and the reporting on the conflict, and force them to resort to their own insulated communities for probably biased information about nationwide dynamics. Information warfare, like cyber-warfare, also risks quickly escalating and transforming into actual fighting and exacerbating the insecurity. Few, if any, governments are currently prepared to cope with the magnitude of the threats from unmanaged information warfare. Libya — with its divided and weak governance structures — is therefore at a distinct disadvantage.