Algeria's cry: 'They've all got to go,' even the bots!

Algeria's cry: 'They've all got to go,' even the bots!
Comment: The Algerian regime's efforts in cyber warfare and disinformation show how desperate they are, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
04 Oct, 2019
Algerians demand that regime officials, who continue to work after Bouteflika resigned, step down [Anadolu]
From the Israeli presidential elections, to the Saudi regime's malign practices, it feels like spreading social media propaganda through the use of bots and fake accounts is now common practice for repressive forces seeking to quash progressive social movements.

Indeed, these processes have not been limited to the Middle East or even the Global South. Much ink has also been spilled on the central role of similar approaches in the growth of the far-right across Europe and North America.

For their part, Algerian protestors who have been taking to the streets every Tuesday and Friday to demand an end to the anti-democratic military rule, describe this as the spread of "electronic flies".

The group Collectif des Jeunes Engagés‎ (Collective of Committed Youth), called out the targeting of organisers and activists through online pro-government trolling on their Facebook page. Raouf Farrah, one of the founders of the collective, told the BBC that this was the "second phase of the [regime's] cyber warfare". The first one entailed numerous internet blackouts that were confirmed by internet freedoms monitor, Netblocks.

Furthermore, this process appears to have intensified in the Republic in recent times. The regime is trying - for the third time - to impose a national election without offering any significant reforms to the system, effectively attempting to give a national rubber stamp to its rule.

Twice already, since the spring, the Algerian people have successfully opposed these attempts. Given the size of the mobilisation and their continued regularity - at least twice a week across the country - it is certainly not clear that this time will be any different. In response to the mobilisation, the regime is both increasing its physical repression and its online presence.
The government's cyber strategy also demonstrates its weakness
Researcher Marc Owen Jones revealed on twitter that he had analysed some 20,000 tweets, and found that "at least 8% of those tweeting for Algerians to go to the elections are probably bots and/or trolls".

The posts - most of which were tweeted last month following the announcement that the national elections would take place in December - used two particular hashtags:  #الجزائر_تنتخب (Algeria is voting) and #ماتهدرش_باسمي (not in my name).

These expressed support for the election and opposition to the mass movement that is calling for a boycott of the entire election, because of fears that the result would be rigged, explained Jones.

While taking part in a number of protests in the country's capital, Algiers, and in the eastern city of Constantine, I often experienced internet shutdowns. During the demonstrations, across the city centre and even well beyond where people were marching, all coverage would simply stop from late morning to early evening.

This way, live footage and information could not be shared, and coordination between different cities became much harder. But, it felt like the people, who have long experienced repression of all kinds by the Algerian state, expected these tactics and barely batted an eye-lid.

It also didn't seem to discourage protestors who would still film and prepare accounts of the demonstrations for when they were able to reconnect. If anything, it had driven many around me to store accounts of each event because they sensed a duty to provide trustworthy news to those around the country and even, around the world.

The question now is what the solutions are to the use of bots and trolls by states and private companies. 

The Algerian people are clearly fighting on every front. Debunking fake news, as well as mobilising on the grassroots with or without the internet.

There is, however, a considerable responsibility which should be placed on social media platforms, to ask how and why this is being allowed, and what course of action should be taken. What little progress has been made - like the announcement that accounts were suspended by Twitter and Facebook for spreading pro-Saudi propaganda - is unlikely to change much.

Collective online spaces have also become useful tools for resistance. A flurry of Facebook pages like the one set up by the collective will help, as well as others that specifically counter false information, like Fake News DZ.

The mobilisation of the population is not simply bringing arguments and discussion to the streets, workplaces, and universities. The online world is also awash with the ideas of those who finally feel able to think, speak and argue openly - for now.
When all is said and done, the regime has nothing left but fake opinions held by fake 'people' online
While it is clear that pro-state propaganda is at play, this doesn't undermine the positive impact that social media and the internet have had on the uprisings. It has clearly been a useful tool to archive the truth but also share and inform the masses.

There is a palpable sense of decreased isolation now, as compared to what many were forced to experience during the civil war of the 1990s, or even during the regime coverage and manipulation of events in the elections and demonstrations leading up to the explosion of violence.

The eerie silence, and fear that was rarely expressed but was carried with great difficulty by the people, now feels like an outdated reality.

The tactics employed by the army decades ago - curfews, roadblocks and checkpoints - have been undermined by the borderless online world.

Yet, ironically, the government's cyber strategy also demonstrates its weakness: It is neither able to regain control over the streets, repress the movement decisively, or win over significant sections of the population to its position.

Instead, it is desperately trying to generate support online. This betrays the lack of roots and organisation of the FLN - the ruling party - for the first time since independence.

The retreat to internet bots, that's to say, literally non-existent avatars, captures the impasse of the Algerian regime.

It can neither rely on its own rejuvenation nor on its control of the population. There is of course the road of a military coup but who knows if the lower echelons won't side with the people and oust the generals inside. So, when all is said and done, the regime has nothing left but fake opinions held by fake 'people' online. 

As the Algerian people continue to flood the streets for weekly demonstrations and an end to the regime, their chant "yetnehaw ga3" (they've all got to go), applies to whoever, or whatever is maintaining the status quo, even the bots. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.