The New York Times:
CAIRO — Days after Sudanese soldiers massacred pro-democracy demonstrators in Khartoum in June, an obscure digital marketing company in Cairo began deploying keyboard warriors to a second front: a covert operation to praise Sudan’s military on social media.
The Egyptian company, run by a former military officer and self-described expert on “internet warfare,” paid new recruits $180 a month to write pro-military messages using fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram. Instructors provided hashtags and talking points.
Since the ouster of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April, new employees were told, protesters had sown chaos in Sudan. Their demands for democracy were premature and dangerous. Order had to be restored.
“We’re at war,” an instructor told the new employees. “Security is weak. The army has to rule for now.”
Covert influence campaigns have become a favored tool of leaders in countries like China and Russia, where manipulation of social media complements strongarm tactics on the streets. In the Middle East, though, those campaigns are being coordinated across borders in an effort to bolster authoritarian rule and douse the kind of popular protests that gave rise to the Arab Spring in 2011.
The secretive Egyptian effort to support Sudan’s military on social media this summer by the company in Cairo, New Waves, was just one part of a much bigger operation that spanned the Middle East and targeted people in at least nine Middle Eastern and North African countries, according to Facebook.
The campaign was exposed on Aug. 1 when Facebook announced that it had shut down hundreds of accounts run by New Waves and an Emirati company with a near-identical name. Working in concert, the two companies used money, deception and fake accounts to leverage their audience of almost 14 million Facebook followers, as well as thousands more on Instagram.
In an interview, a Facebook spokesman said the company had not found sufficient evidence to link the operation to the governments of Egypt or the United Arab Emirates. But there were many hints of such a link.
The New Waves owner, Amr Hussein, retired from the Egyptian military in 2001 and described himself on his Facebook page as a “researcher on internet wars.” He is a vocal supporter of Egypt’s authoritarian leader, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and has publicly campaigned in support of Mr. el-Sisi’s draconian crackdown on internet freedoms.
His company operates from a military-owned housing project in eastern Cairo where employees are warned not to speak to outsiders about their work.
Its messages are a mirror image of the foreign policy objectives of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — a powerful axis that has wielded immense influence across the Middle East since 2011, bolstering authoritarian allies or intervening in regional wars.
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