The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has generated far-reaching implications for not only the European continent, but also for the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The MENA region has long been an arena for opportunistic world powers to compete for leverage, resources, and authority, and this conflict has been strategically used by Russia, a key player in the region, to steadily expand its influence and cement its position. Key to this expansion is the systematic manipulation of information, and the use of disinformation campaigns to shift perceptions, exploit existing divisions, and build support for Russia’s ambitions, while undermining the legitimacy of adversaries.
Fundamentally, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a physical confrontation that has produced devastating consequences, but unlike previous wars, this invasion is notable for the degree to which it is being waged online through image, video and text. Expanding on the reach offered by traditional media outlets, social media has played a key role in the chronicling of the invasion, particularly when it comes to how the conflict can be experienced and understood by global audiences (The Economist, 2022).
Social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok, Telegram, and Facebook have become pivotal sources of first-hand and up-to-date information on the war (OECD, 2022). Despite this potential boon, these platforms have simultaneously become vehicles for disinformation and false narratives. For clarity, this article will adhere to the European Union’s (EU) definition of disinformation, namely being a combination of false, inaccurate or misleading information that is deliberately spread with the purpose of instigating public harm or achieving economic, social or political profit (European Commission, 2022). Empirically, when exploring the tone of MENA online discourses on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, “anti-Western” and “anti-democratic” perceptions and (distorted) narratives are striking (Sleibi, 2022). These perceptions can be observed by simply searching for the term “ اوكرانيا” (“Ukraine”) on Twitter. Table 1 offers an impression of such sentiments with a summary of top Twitter posts in the MENA region on the aforementioned topic.
TABLE 1 Snapshot of Top Arabic Twitter Posts on the Topic of “Ukraine-Russia-MENA” (2022-2023)
|Translated Tweet Text – Summarized||Like Count||Retweet Count|
|Video – Irish Minister reveals the hypocrisy of the West. 5 days of war lead to sanctions on Putin, while no sanctions on Israel after 70 years.||33,344||13,779|
|US Secretary of State in the Security Council: “No country has the right to redraw the borders of another country as it does #روسيا in #أوكرانيا .” The interlocutor to the Minister: “What about Israel’s annexation of the Golan?” Minister: “Apart from international law… the Golan Heights is important to Israel.” When #أمريكا politics is practiced as the elegant art of depravity!||8,420||4,156|
|Ukrainians blowing up the Crimean bridge is considered a victory by the West and not terrorism, but a Palestinian doing the same to defend his homeland is a terrorist by the West. The world is truly ruled by double standards.||6,294||637|
|The most important good in the Ukraine war is the resounding collapse of the Western “humane” model. The war revealed that the West is a nation without people, “They are Europeans like us, they are Christians like us, we are not talking about Syrians fleeing, but Europeans.”||3,983||1,354|
Source: Retrieved by author using R and Twitter API v2
Largely, the invasion of Ukraine has been transformed by Russian state media, its various affiliate media outlets and its allies, into an online info-weapon that can sow division and conflict at the international level. Factors that assist in the success of this info-weapon are the global consequences of the invasion, and the need to hold an actor to the conflict accountable. In the MENA region, the invasion has generated several socioeconomic effects, primarily the disruption of trade (employment), weakening of essential supply chains to-and-from the region and massive surges in food and energy prices (Frugati, 2023). With this wartime context in mind, Russian disinformation campaigns seek to confuse audiences and undermine adversaries, presenting perspectives that favour the Russian State and implicate Ukraine and its “Western” allies in the woes of MENA populations.
Altogether, the consequences of disinformation can be dire, but the MENA information space further catalyzes the danger posed by, and effectiveness of, Russian disinformation campaigns. In recent years, governments in the region have pushed local populations to disproportionately rely on social media for news in the face of restrictive regime tendencies. This practice has then made populations more vulnerable to distorted narratives and disinformation. With these conditions in mind, the wartime context has provided a convenient veil behind which Russia-affiliated media arms can skew perceptions, and advocate for the “Russian” position, which is often then analogous to an “anti-Western” position. In essence, the wartime context, extensive media coverage and vulnerable information spaces are ingredients with which the Russian State simmers discontent in the MENA region and expands its sphere of influence.
Media in the MENA Region: Distrust, Censorship and Vulnerability
Over the last 3 decades, robust media freedom has become a rare luxury in the MENA region as authoritarian, semi-authoritarian and neighbouring regimes have worked to suppress critical narratives and spread homogenous, non-problematic and state-sponsored perspectives (al-Tahat, 2021). In broad contexts like the Covid-19 health crisis, and specific cases such as the overthrow “plot” which involved Prince Hamzah in Jordan, and the Saudi Arabian campaign to reshape the death of Jamal Khashoggi, MENA regimes have insisted on maintaining a strong grip on the media narrative with little room for contrast (Byman, 2022). Such restrictive practices have been seen to diminish trust in traditional MENA media institutions, and signal a willingness by governments to conceal facts from local populations and sponsor disinformation campaigns.
Generally, this drive to repress diversified media access has ensured a steady shift by local populations to social media as a source of information/news. Notably, the shift away from domestic media outlets has allowed for foreign outlets to compete for engagement in the MENA region, with both credible and untrustworthy news sources becoming household staples. Ultimately, this shift has made MENA audiences more vulnerable to foreign disinformation campaigns. Nonetheless, it should be made clear that alternative media options like social media are not inherently malicious, but that some do intensify and facilitate the spread of disinformation.
The manner by which information is spread on social media is the basis of why such platforms can widely propagate falsehoods. Social media offers a unique ability to instantly generate content and disseminate information globally, an act which has historically been monopolized by state entities and traditional media gatekeepers, especially in the MENA region. When confronted by a fast-moving information sphere awash in public distrust and competing narratives, alternatives thrive and foreign interference from governments like Russia becomes more likely. Mutating the practice of spreading information by “word of mouth,” the built-in sharing features of social media platforms permit the extensive spread of curated news content to audiences based on individual profile, position, and preference. Taking advantage of such features, and the adverse consequences of the invasion on local populations, the Kremlin amplifies and propagates its selected narratives in the MENA region.
Russian Disinformation: Strategy and Results
The Kremlin’s war of aggression against Ukraine encompasses a strategic disinformation campaign that has sought to exploit the vulnerable MENA information environment. In addition to being operational tools in Russia’s conventional assault against Ukraine, disinformation and the manipulation of information have acted as powerful weapons of influence in the social-media-dominated landscape of the MENA region. The info-vehicles driving such campaigns often include a coordinated combination of official Russian state media outlets, unofficial affiliate media organizations (i.e. Sputnik-Arabic, RT-Arabic), and a variety of associated and semi-independent Facebook/Twitter/Telegram/TikTok accounts (Council of the EU, 2022). The particular danger posed by such entities is their strong foothold in the region as sources of alternative news. Starting as early as 2007, Russian outlets have begun operating in the MENA online environment, with outreach efforts to Arabic-speaking audiences manifesting in the form of the aforementioned info-vehicles. Narratives pushed by Russia-backed entities are commonly false, or seek to obscure facts with a number of half-truths and inflammatory “whataboutisms” (responses which compare issues without tackling the underlying concern or question).
At their core, Russian disinformation campaigns seek to confuse and undermine. In this regard, social media platforms are optimal. First in their capacity to share large volumes of information that is difficult to verify, and second in the reliance of audiences in the MENA region on such outlets for news and knowledge. Broadly speaking, Russian disinformation campaigns have incorporated propaganda, historical revisionism, false claims and conspiratorial accusations in an attempt to saturate information spaces and cloud facts (OECD, 2022). Examples of such inflammatory or distorted narratives can be seen in Table 2 where top stories published by RT-Arabic and Sputnik-Arabic on the conflict are listed. To a degree, the pattern of claims observed can be framed as an attempt to entrench “anti-Ukrainian” and “anti-Western” perspectives while blunting the influence of actors such as the EU and the United States in the MENA region. In premise, the Kremlin is working to monopolize resources and opportunities within the region while undermining Western competitors.
TABLE 2 Snapshot of Top RT/Sputnik Arabic News Stories on Twitter (2022-2023)
|Translated Tweet Title||Like Count||Retweet Count|
|Lavrov: The United States is trying to dictate its policy to Algeria, but it “attacked the wrong person”||1,650||346|
|French independent journalist: I will shock my audience, but the truth is that Ukrainian forces are launching strikes against their own people.||1,104||382|
|Lavrov: How can Iraq threaten the security of the United States at a distance of thousands of kilometers, and when we said that Ukraine is on our border, they said, No, it does not threaten your national security, we know that they did not listen to us and were lying to us.||931||281|
|“We support Russia” – a big image of Putin in Baghdad.||776||107|
|Former Saudi intelligence chief: The United Nations and the West imposed sanctions on Russia because of the military operation in Ukraine, while no sanctions were imposed on Israel, which occupies Arab lands. This is an example of political hypocrisy and double standards.||660||110|
Source: Retrieved by author using R and Twitter API v2
Looking beyond just the actual content behind disinformation campaigns, the algorithmic design of digital ecosystems like Twitter, Telegram and Facebook also allow for the amplification of selected narratives and distorted Russian claims. Social media platforms have facilitated the construction of echo chambers that show a tendency of segregating factual news and unverified information, a practice which serves to reinforce confirmation bias mechanisms (Matasick, Alfonsi & Bellantoni, 2020). In this divided space, inflammatory content, cognitive biases and existing resentments prosper, allowing for the further spread of disinformation narratives. This effect is also compounded by the tendency of online users to spread false or misleading information faster than truth, specifically in the case of false political news or conflict-related claims. This results in a state of confusion, and feedback loops between online platforms and traditional media outlets that amplify unverified information fed by Russia-affiliated arms to MENA online spaces.
Furthermore, the wartime context has acted as a unique pretext for Russian media to exaggerate the Kremlin’s position, expand its viewership, and discredit Ukraine and Russia’s regional adversaries. Although independent statistics on the reach and popularity of RT-Arabic and Sputnik-Arabic are generally unavailable, alternative statistics can be used to observe their growth since the onset of the war on 24 February 2022. Chart 1 presents the increase of users subscribed to each outlet on Telegram over the last year, with RT-Arabic growing by a factor of 2.2 [85,200 to 172,900] and Sputnik-Arabic growing by a factor of 1.6 [18,500 to 29,600]. This is significant and stable growth, particularly when accounting for the fact that users on these platforms are likely to share and distribute published content to their broader network. A further demonstration of growth can be seen in Chart 2, which displays total monthly Telegram views for each outlet. Comparing results from the onset of the war to those in February 2023, it is apparent that content views have meaningfully increased by a factor of 1.5 for RT-Arabic [8,800,000 to 13,300,000] and a factor of 1.7 for Sputnik-Arabic [3,500,000 to 6,100,000]. Peak viewership for each outlet [RT-Arabic: 32,800,000 + Sputnik-Arabic: 6,400,000] further demonstrates the extensive following behind Russia-disseminated content.
CHART 1 Average Monthly Telegram Subscribers of Sputnik-Arabic & RT-Arabic (2022-2023) [1000s]
CHART 2 Monthly Telegram Views Sputnik-Arabic & RT-Arabic (2022-2023) [1,000,000s]
Evidently, the Russia-backed outlets have found notable success in attracting a larger audience, but this should not be immediately conflated with an absolute growth in regional influence. Taking into consideration the Kremlin’s long history of activity in the region, the adverse consequences of the invasion on populations, and the overreliance of Arabic-speaking audiences on social media as a source of information, the popular reach of Russian disinformation is likely to continue expanding, but guaranteed changes in audience perceptions/attitudes are harder to predict. Nevertheless, there is a distinct effort by Russian media affiliates to change the narrative in favour of the Russian cause, and continued escalation in the war on the European continent will only provide more material for disinformation campaigns. Without a clear countervailing narrative or tools to combat the flow of false claims and distorted information, a potential increase in Russian influence is not inconceivable.
The Path Forward and Challenges
Looking towards the possible responses to disinformation related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a number of existing measures seem promising, albeit with some caveats. Markedly, limiting disinformation might not curb the growth of Russian influence, but it is a viable stopgap. The EU and countries such as the United States and United Kingdom have instituted bans on Kremlin-backed outlets within their online environments (Council of the EU, 2022), while social media platforms operating in the above locales have also blocked user access to RT-Arabic and Sputnik-Arabic accounts. However, a lack of regional consensus and region-level regulatory mechanisms impede such restrictions from easily being applied in the MENA region. This is further evidenced by the repressive tendencies of MENA regimes which do not support international disinformation policies built upon fostering public trust in national institutions, and the protection of a free and open online space (European Commission, 2022). Moreover, despite the launch of multiple international moderation initiatives to tackle disinformation, their primary focus on “English,” rather than “Arabic,” content limits their general applicability in the MENA information space (OECD, 2022).
Taking the above factors into account, the risk of Russian disinformation-spread is a persistent reality. Continued audience interest in the Russia-Ukraine wartime context, and the unavoidable consequences of the conflict on food security, energy, trade and geopolitical relations will keep driving attention to Russian media reporting. Aforementioned attempts to curb Russian disinformation are a reasonable start, yet MENA regional characteristics pose challenges that require broader international consensus to achieve results and shift the prevailing narrative that favours Russia.
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(Header photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the forum “Strong ideas for the new time” in Moscow, Russia June 29, 2023. The inscription reads: “People!” Sputnik/Sergei Savostyanov/Pool via REUTERS.