IntelBrief: The Social Media Weapons of Authoritarian States 
September 13, 2019

The Social Media Weapons of Authoritarian States 

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Bottom Line Up Front

• Conflict is no longer relegated strictly to the physical battlefield but extends through cyberspace, often manifesting in social media disinformation campaigns. 

• There is a social media battle currently in Sudan over the fate of the country’s transition from strongman rule to a power-sharing arrangement between the military and the pro-democracy movement.

• One goal of these social media onslaughts is to make the situation so confusing that interested parties suffer from disinformation fatigue, unable to discern fact from fiction.

• In Sudan, the online campaign was not launched in isolation, but rather as a complement to the money and equipment funneled from Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh to their clients in the Sudanese security apparatus.

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Conflict is no longer relegated strictly to the physical battlefield but extends through cyberspace and manifests in disinformation-fueled social media campaigns waged by trolls and virtual mercenaries. The use of covert influence online is now a dominant feature of conflict between states, which are supported by a range of proxies and other asymmetric enablers. Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) trade insults on Twitter, while the Chinese government deploys an army of Internet trolls to denounce the Hong Kong protests. Russian ‘gray zone’ operations manipulate foreign citizens while meddling in elections from the United States to Europe and beyond. In 2019, the lines between war and peace have grown increasingly blurred, as various factions seek to master the art of information warfare.  

There is a social media battle currently being fought in Sudan over the fate of the country’s transition from strongman rule to a power-sharing arrangement between the military and the pro-democracy movement. The most ardent supporters of the Sudanese military retaining strong influence in politics are the governments of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which both have a vested interest in preventing a pro-democratic revolution from succeeding anywhere in the region. As reported in the New York Times, Egypt and the UAE used cyber mercenaries thinly veiled as front companies to wage an online disinformation campaign against the protesters. These self-styled cyber warriors sought to convey that the protesters represented a threat to the stability of Sudan and that only the military could protect the country and keep it from sliding into anarchy. 

These social media campaigns extoll the virtue of General Hamdan of Sudan’s paramilitary units known as the Rapid Support Forces, responsible for murdering civilian protesters on June 3, all while portraying peaceful protesters as the true threat. Beyond Sudan, autocrats in the Middle East have waged information warfare campaigns in Yemen and Libya, where all opposition forces are tarred as terrorists and insurgents. One goal of these social media onslaughts is to make the situation so confusing that once-interested parties suffer from disinformation fatigue, unable to discern fact from fiction. In turn, this can lead to apathy and disengagement from Western countries, whose pressure on these regimes to reform is essential to the success of pro-democratic protesters.  

All modern conflict now features a significant and growing social media component, an extension of the propaganda that has accompanied war for ages. The difference is the speed and scope of the messaging, as well as the reduced barriers for entry, making it a crowded field with few resources needed to compete. Above all else, social media campaigns like those being waged against Sudanese protesters seek to elicit inaction or indifference in matters where democratic pressure is needed most. Countering these campaigns is exceedingly difficult, as they leverage the strength of rumors and hearsay in certain social networks and use disinformation to reinforce fear throughout society. In Sudan, the online campaign was not launched in isolation, but rather as a complement to the money and equipment funneled from Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh to their clients in the Sudanese security apparatus.

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