Security of Iraq, Saudi Arabia under fire, experts say
False statements and information now threaten the security and sovereignty of states – including in the Middle East, and especially during the global COVID-19 pandemic – with hundreds of millions of dollars being allocated to counter the phenomenon, experts say.
On Tuesday, the Iraqi Defense Ministry ordered the suspension of all social media accounts belonging to security forces due to inaccurate information published by certain army officers, a spokesman for the military chief of staff said.
Fadel Abu Raghef, an Iraqi analyst and security expert, told The Media Line that the decision came directly from the defense minister and obligates all of the country’s provinces, particularly the Baghdad Governorate, to redouble their efforts to prevent the existence of unofficial news outlets.
“It’s the right decision and came about in order to control the authenticity of news and block the dissemination of false information, in addition to unifying security discourse, which is, of course, dangerous and [could be] a double-edged sword,” Abu Raghef said.
He explained that the social media pages of some officers had been hacked and used to spread fake news.
“This has created a need to have only one window for presenting official security information, which is the Defense Ministry,” he stated.
Abu Raghef said that as the threat from ISIS was once more growing, security was a top priority, with the need to combat the Islamists not only on behalf of Iraq, but also neighboring states.
“Iraq is fighting against this threat on behalf of all of the region’s countries,” he explained. “Therefore, the security situation and stability are of utmost importance.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, several Arab countries have stepped up their fight against fake news, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco, as well as the Palestinian Authority, going so far as to detain purveyors of false information about the number of COVID-19 infections.
Oraib Rintawi, a Jordanian analyst and writer, told The Media Line that fake news has become a national security issue in many countries, with social media having a major role in its spread.
“Take, for example, what happened in the US during the [2016 presidential] election, when fake news started spreading to support one candidate against the other to a point where the US accused Russia of intervening,” he said.
Countries have maritime, land and air borders, and protect them with full force, Rintawi explained, but now there is an additional border that cannot be secured using traditional methods.
“Nowadays,” he said, “social media can’t be controlled with the tools we know, even though they violate the sovereignty of states and shape public opinion.”
He believes that controlling fake news presents a major challenge as it is often difficult to draw the line between freedom of speech and false statements, “especially for those countries where citizens have a broad range of freedoms but such systematic [disinformation] efforts could harm security.”
As an example, Rintawi pointed to the crisis between Qatar and countries led by Saudi Arabia, saying that electronic “armies” were found to be spreading fake news in an effort to provoke states into taking actions against other states or “to whitewash” a country’s crimes.”
In conversation with The Media Line, Suliman al-Ogaily, a member of the board of the Saudi Society for Political Science, claimed that Qatar had used fake news and rumors against the kingdom, mainly through European and American media sites.
“Doha used to fund and support these sites in order to distort the Saudi kingdom’s image directly,” he stated, naming the Middle East Eye and The Washington Post, “in which it is believed that Qatar has shares.”
Ogaily accused Qatar of then re-reporting this news through its own outlets, describing it has having come from credible sources in Europe and the US.
“In the Arab region, Western sources have huge credibility,” he noted.
He also claims that several Arab newspapers reported fake news after being paid to do so by Qatar as well as Turkey, “for example, promoting stories that the Saudi kingdom had normalized relations with Israel and other false news regarding Yemen.”