Using fact-checking to combat Libya’s social media war

The conflict in Libya is a model example of how fake news can fuel violence. DW Akademie has been supporting the Libyan fight against disinformation.

“The first casualty when war comes is truth.” This famous quote is attributed to former US politician Hiram Johnson. The senator made the comment in 1917, at the peak of the First World War. More than 100 years later, in the context of the ongoing violent conflict in Libya, his observation couldn’t be more to the point. However, there is one big difference: In 1917 there were mainly newspapers and magazines to inform — or to misinform — citizens. In 2020 any politician, armed group, paid influencer or internet troll can shape public opinion via social sedia with their version of truth — or simply with blatant lies. In the Northern African country of Libya, Facebook has become the most popular communication medium. More than two thirds of all Libyans have a Facebook account and regularly use the network to stay informed — a fact that all conflict parties have learned to use to their advantage.

Two conflicts in one

Libya has been struggling with political instability and security challenges ever since long-term dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011. The attempted democratic transition proved increasingly difficult as armed groups built local power bases. In the past years, the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) in the eastern part of the country has been battling forces aligned with the Tripoli-based, internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Even though talks on ending the countries long-lasting conflict have intensified in recent months, any cease-fire deal has proved to be short-lived so far.

While the confrontation on the actual battlefield has greatly varied in intensity in past years, the virtual battleground on social media has become increasingly contested. Walid al-Saqaf, a senior lecturer at Södertörn University in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, called the disinformation campaigns on social networks strategic weapons.  “They can aim at putting the ‘enemy’ in bad light or to lift the morals of the own group — often with false or exaggerated ‘news,'” the media technology expert explained.

Increasingly advanced methods

The disinformation attempts are often far from sophisticated. Noman Benotman is one of Libya’s most prominent influencers. The London-based Libyan has more than 500,000 followers on Twitter and has been criticized for inciting hatred. In one Facebook post Benotman accused foreign powers of attacking the Libyan city of Sirte. The supposed “video proof” turned out to be a clip of the popular video game AC-130 Gunship.

However, many observers are worried that the methods of Libyan fake news-producers are getting increasingly sophisticated. Regarding its strategic location in an oil-rich region along the Southern Mediterranean shores, many Arabic and international actors have been accused of having their own geopolitical interests in Libya. There are frequent reports in local and international media of armed groups receiving logistic and financial support from outside the country.

Moath Althaher is the founder of Fatabayyano, one of the leading fact-checking platforms in the Arab world. The Jordanian has witnessed in his everyday work how the distributors of disinformation content get more and more advanced in producing what he calls a “flood” of fake news in Libya and other countries in the region. For him the problem has been even further exacerbated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the rumours that have been spreading about the virus.  “The biggest challenge for us fact-checkers at the moment is to stay ahead in terms of methods and technology,” Althaher said. In the field of artificial intelligence and the detection of video fakes, in particular, he sees rapid technological advances.

New efforts to counter the ‘flood of fakes’

In the case of Libya, the fight against the so-called information war has just begun. Until recently, not a single professional fact-checking platform existed in the Northern African country. In early 2020, more than 40 Libyan TV, radio and online journalists from all regions of the country were trained in comprehensive four-week-courses on methods and state-of-the-art fact-checking tools. The courses were divided into four parts (source evaluation, verification, presentation of findings and fact-checking as teamwork) and implemented by DW Akademie in an EU-supported project to strengthen professional journalism in Libya.

Several fact-checking platforms have sprung up in Libya as a direct consequence of the trainings: Among them tscly.org, a platform that works with more than a dozen fact-checkers in all regions of the country and reaches around 98,000 Libyan Facebook users with their posts and articles, and the Tripoli-based platform falso.ly, run by the Tripoli-based Libyan Center for Freedom of Press (LCFP). Walid al-Saqaf was involved in the design and implementation of the trainings from the very beginning. He is proud of what has been achieved — especially since the concepts of independent journalism and fact-checking are still new in the Northern African country.

However, the expert also points out that there is still a long way to go. He says the culture of critical media use has to spread way beyond the core target group of journalists. After decades of dictatorship, many Libyan media users have little experience with scrutinizing what they see and hear online. “There is a need to build a culture of media literacy,” al-Saqaf said. “People ought to be more sceptical. They have to build their capacity to recognize disinformation and not believe any content blindly.”

By Jan-Philipp Scholz