Smoke billows from burning tires amid as supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr clash with Iraqi anti-government protesters in the southern city of Nasiriyah, on November 27, 2020. (Photo by ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

Hate Speech, Social Media and Political Violence in Iraq: Virtual Civil Society and Upheaval

With over half of Iraq’s population active on social media, technology has been an important site of community building and political mobilization, particularly around the “October Revolution” that erupted in 2019. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter parallel civil society on the ground and provide a safe space to air grievances about the growth of political corruption. Despite bringing people together, the anonymity of the internet has enabled the dehumanization of the “other.” Political and militant groups have used Iraqi media to propagate hate speech, coercively dominate public discourse, and silence popular voices.

Since 2003, political parties and militant groups have spread divisive ethnosectarian rhetoric on news and social media. Al-Qaeda, militant groups, and the political elite thrived on this divisiveness. Like al-Qaeda, ISIS also used social media to declare others apostates through their use of takfiri language, perpetuate ethnosectarian divisions, and recruit fighters. Since Iraq liberated its territories from ISIS control, non-state and hybrid militant groups emerging from the war have weaponized social media to target opposition. Over the past year, these groups have especially targeted activists, protesters, and journalists involved in the October uprisings.

Information Ecosystem and Impacts 

Growing more emboldened since Iraq’s defeat of ISIS, armies of online trolls have shed the Internet’s cloak of anonymity. Militias emerging from the war have created their own Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, posting openly about their targets and boasting about prior attacks. Politicians and militia leaders have sought to discredit the protest movement by claiming its organizers are foreign agents, funded by the United States, and “jokers” hell-bent on destruction—a reference to the 2019 American film.

Militias have developed unified branding and messaging across a full range of social media platforms. The most extreme and incendiary rhetoric is mainly reserved for Telegram; online militias purposefully redirect traffic from mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter via links to their Telegram channels. Affiliated with Iran-linked militias, Sabereen News is an exceptionally prolific spreader of threats and violent incitement. This Telegram channel often posts photos of individuals with their names and locations, using blatant language—“you’re next” and “watch out”—to encourage vigilantism.

YouTube, in particular, is host to countless videos that share the names and photos of activists. Dramatic video montages accuse those featured of being Zionists and American spies. Targeted hit lists are also spread through memes on Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram. These graphics denounce those listed as financed by and acting as agents of political enemies (namely, American and western states). Sometimes, militias will post the personal phone numbers and home addresses of their “enemies,” inviting their followers to find them.

The impact of these hit lists is immense. Iraqis put on such lists are immediately forced into hiding, shuttering their social media presence and leaving their homes, often with nowhere else to go. This forced itinerancy and insecurity has severe impacts on mental health and well-being; many never feel safe in their homes again and flee abroad to uncertain futures.

Gender also plays a dominant role in online abuse. Gendered character assassinations have targeted women by hijacking and distorting hashtags. Militia affiliates turned the popular trending hashtag #بناتك_يا_وطن (“the homeland’s daughters”)—launched in solidarity with the February 13 women’s marches—into #عاهراتك_يا_وطن (“the homeland’s whores”). Militias also fabricated baseless accusations online, alleging promiscuity at protest sit-ins and tents. Sexual defamation has dangerous consequences, especially for women and girls who are at risk of “honor killings.”

Online threats and incitement often manifest in physical and material violence. In August, an online smear campaign targeted journalists from Dijlah TV station, eventually festering into a physical attack. The campaign came after an affiliate of the TV channel aired a musical program during Ashura, a solemn holiday of mourning and commemoration for Shia.

While many Iraqis peacefully condemned the callous airing of the program, militias instigated an online backlash and encouraged violence against the TV station and its journalists. Names and photos of journalists from the channel were posted on Facebook and Telegram, calling for violence against them. Even after several journalists publicly resigned from the TV station and went into hiding, threats ensued. A barrage of online threats and violent incitement targeted Zaid Al Fatlawi and Karrar al-Asaf, both journalists with the TV station. While al-Asaf received death threats online, three militiamen attempted to carry out an attack on Al Fatlawi at Dijlah TV’s office. He was not there at the time.

Rab’a Allah’s October 16 Facebook post calling for demonstrations at KDP’s headquarters

On August 31, angry protesters attacked and burned Dijlah TV’s offices in Iraq. Journalists formerly affiliated with the TV station believed the protesters were encouraged by mendacious and violent rhetoric parroted throughout social media. Indeed, posts on social media read: “it has become a duty for every honorable Iraqi to demolish the buildings of Dijlah channel and burn all of its cameras.” Others accused Dijlah TV of being a “terrorist channel.”

Even political parties, who themselves often participate in the abuse of activists, protestors, and journalists, are not safe from such direct incitement online. On October 16 Rab’a Allah, a group that some experts believe is affiliated with Kata’ib Hezbollah, posted a photo on its Facebook page showing of a row of lighters with a message reading: “All brothers must prepare to demonstrate in front of the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), located in Karrada Street 52 near the Inquiry Square, tomorrow, Saturday 10/17/2020 at ten in the morning.” 

On October 17, Rab’a Allah affiliates stormed and set fire to the KDP headquarters in Baghdad, along with burning the Kurdish flags to the condemnation of many Iraqis. Later that day, the Rab’a Allah Facebook group posted an image of a man crossing out the KDP’s name, in addition to previously-crossed out “Dijlah channel” and “the American Embassy.” “Alhurra channel” appears next on the list. The Facebook page later posted images and videos of the KDP headquarters on fire. 

These posts remain on Facebook alongside other disturbing content from the group. Among them are recent threats made against Deutsche Welle, the German state-owned broadcaster. The first threat against DW, posted on November 17, shows a similar image of a man crossing red lines over the names of TV channels and political parties. “Previous targets”—the KDP Dijlah TV and the US Embassy—are crossed out to his left. On the right, “next targets” include “DW Channel” which he is seen crossing out. The caption reads: “We will write the name of Rab’a Allah on your wall soon,” with a fire emoji.

The next day, the page posted an image of a building with the DW logo on fire with a celebrating silhouette wearing a Rab’a Allah sweatshirt. The caption on the photo reads: “Soon, your headquarters will be on fire.”

Rab’a Allah Facebook posts showing a man crossing out DW (left) and threatening an attack on its headquarters (right).

Despite reporting the posts as violent threats, the content remains online. Facebook has determined that the posts do not violate their community standards.

Muhammad Saleh al-Iraqi calls upon “brave” followers to “cleanse” Habbouby Square to resume normal life and uphold the state.

While online hate speech targets Iraqi journalists, its greatest targets have been protesters and activists. In November 2020, thousands of Muqatada al-Sadr’s followers were told to cleanse” Nasiriyahs Habbouby Square protest sit-in—at the direction of Muhammad Saleh al-Iraqi, a pseudonymous social media account through whom Sadrs commands are disseminated to followers online.

In response to this direct order, Sadrs militia Saraya al-Salam, launched a three-day campaign of physical violence against protestors in Nasiriyah, killing seven, with no response from security forces. Both Sadr and Saleh posted messages in praise of the violence, with the former claiming protestors are foreign agents.

The following day, Saleh shared a post that repeated the praise, this time blaming Jokers”— a pejorative term for protestors—for what transpired, alleging that they did not adhere to peaceful protest methods and only serve foreign interests. He also distinguished them from Tishreenis” or legitimate,” peaceful protestors in an effort to divide the protest movement.

Since then, Sadrists have launched online hate campaigns against prominent activists, accusing them of committing the very violence to which they had been subjected. In online posts across social media platforms, Sadrists named activists directly and shared their images, threatening them and falsely accusing them of instigating violence and attacking security forces. As online hate speech continues, several activists, including lawyers and academics, have been targeted by threats from anonymous accounts directly inciting violence against them. 

Posts from Sadr’s (left) and al-Iraqi’s (right) accounts praising violence in Habbouby Square.

A Culture of Impunity

Iraqi activists have complained that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have allowed abusive rhetoric to fester on their platforms unchecked. While some examples of hate speech on Iraqi social media use language subtle enough to perhaps evade moderation, many others clearly violate these companies’ community standards. The volume of unmoderated hate speech found on Iraqi social media networks suggests that these mammoth platforms simply neglect Iraq.

Facebook reportedly has about 15,000 moderators worldwide, some of whom are full Facebook employees, while many more are contract workers. Of these 15,000 moderators, it is impossible to determine how many moderate Iraqi networks, as there is no publicly-available breakdown of Facebook moderators’ linguistic skills, let alone any information on the dialectic breakdown of its Arabic content moderators. Because hate speech is deeply contextual, moderation requires intimate knowledge of the social, economic, political, and ethnic dynamics of the country and region. The unique structure of Arabic, with its many dialects, complicates the work of both human and automated moderation. In addition to this lack of transparency, Facebook has not taken any additional measures to protect its Iraqi users, despite an explosion of online violence directed at the country’s vulnerable populations.

Iraq’s state institutions are also complicit in systematically censoring activists, protesters, and journalists. In October of 2019, the Iraqi government enforced a complete internet blackout to silence protests and ordered the closure of twelve broadcast news outlets for their coverage of the protest movement. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) regularly also raids Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) offices and suspends broadcasts for its coverage of protests in the Kurdish region.

The desire to silence protests has motivated the introduction of legislation that does not confront hate speech and, instead, threatens freedom of expression. When Iraq witnessed mass protests in 2011, Iraq’s cabinet proposed an “Information Technology Crimes Bill” to parliament. Human Rights Watch warned that this legislation may be used to restrict free speech and, as a result, pose a severe threat to journalists, whistleblowers, and peaceful activists. The law did not pass, but Iraq’s parliament reintroduced the same draft legislation in 2019 when protests erupted throughout the country. The draft law, referred to as the Cybercrime Bill, was not voted on in 2019 and was reintroduced again under the same name in November 2020. Multiple drafts of the Cybercrime Bill seem to be an institutional effort to silence dissent and restrict free speech. HRW, MENA Rights Group, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting have all condemned these draft laws.

Following widespread outrage, the bill has been stalled. As of this writing, there have been attempts to re-draft, but nothing has been introduced in parliament for a reading. At least one leaked version has removed the only subsection that had previously addressed online provocation of ethnosectarian violence, thereby denying victims of hate speech and online threats safe public spaces and legal support. The bill effectively polices online behavior, instead of protecting civil liberties.

Conclusion

Iraqi state institutions and large social media companies have a role to play in combating hate speech online and the subsequent physical violence that materializes too commonly. Incendiary rhetoric promoted by political leaders inspires militant groups and other civilians. Politicians should end their reliance on exclusionary practices and, instead, listen to the legitimate grievances of Iraqi civil society to combat online threats and hate speech. With the participation of and assistance from human rights and legal experts, the Cybercrime Bill could be redrafted to outline legal limits to hate speech and legislate protections for civil rights and freedoms. Social media platforms also must invest adequate resources to moderate violent language on networks targeting vulnerable communities.