Back in 2011, I wrote an article called ‘Social Media, Surveillance and Social Control in the Bahrain Uprising’ for Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture. It was finally published last month. Naturally it is a bit dated, and although my research interests have shifted somewhat to studying more general processes of controlling dissent, I still maintain an interest in social media.
A question that has always preoccupied me is this: what is the impact of videos of violence, and in particular videos of state violence, on the longevity of conflict. How do these videos effect the dynamics of the conflict? It occurred to me that these depictions of violence serve a useful social control function. As I wrote in a blog post for Bahrain Watch a few months ago;
… it is interesting to consider what effects the existence of such videos have, especially when the perpetrators are not being held accountable? Do they simply serve to increase public anger towards the police and the government, or do they have the effect of generating fear of authority – or both? Either way, the social control function is useful. If they generate fear of authority, the benefits to the regime are self explanatory. If they further public anger, and potentially increase radicalization leading to further violence, then the opposition movement will remain fragmented – making it easier for the regime to operate a divide and rule policy.
The depiction of state violence in videos or images circulated on social media serve a similar function to legal corporal punishment that existed before its abolishment. In Bahrain, this took the form of lashes in the market place. The location was as important as the punishment itself, and market places were chosen in order to maximise the number of people witnessing the event. The only difference now is that physical location need not constrain the number of those who witness state violence. Videos of violence transcend temporal and spatial boundaries, serving as a permanent reminder of state brutality.
While videos of state violence on social media may also provoke anger, they still serve to remind people of the costs of engaging in protest or dissent. Indeed, in times of political upheaval, authorities benefit from reminding the public of their vulnerability by showing what happens to those who break the rules. As Turk (1982) states, ‘ a scarcely less barbarous tactic is the public display of mutilated bodies, or of persons maimed by their ordeals in the hands of police’. By hiding such abuses, the regime are less able to use violence to deter potential troublemakers from engaging in such acts. A truly totalitarian regime like that of Pol Pot, would simply eliminate every possible rival, yet authoritarian regimes, less extreme on the scale of tyranny, will target opponents more specifically, and utilise these cases in order to deter and terrorize the rest of the population.
Although the authorities will attempt to limit or prevent people from circulating images or videos of police brutality or state violence, periodic reminders of the brutal consequences of engaging in dissent are useful. After all, if people did not believe that the costs of engaging in dissent could result in torture or death, they would be more emboldened in challenging the state.
Some of my previous research on Bahrain, which analysed YouTube comments on videos of political violence, is also relevant. Videos of such violence generally provoked polarized responses in which many articulated their political and religious position. Indeed, such videos of political violence could arguably contribute to increased polarisation of fragmentation between Sunni and Shia, or those who ‘support’ and ‘oppose’ the current government. This sowing of divisions, though bad for society, assists the regime in their policy of divide and rule. In the recent uprising, supporters of the government use videos of protesters throwing Molotovs to defend the actions of the state, wile those who want reform use videos of police brutality to draw attention to their cause. In this sense, it is often people’s political position that determines how they interpret or select these videos. In both cases, consumption appears to be a form of validation rather than a challenge to one’s own belief system.
Having said all this, videos of state violence are damaging in the sense that they are a PR disaster. Continued used of coercive methods may be useful in the short run, yet coercion ‘maximizes alienation’, and makes it more difficult for any regime to achieve any legitimacy (Dallin and Breslauer, 1970, 3) This inherent paradox can partially be resolved by distancing the action of state agents from elites who benefit from such violence. I.e. State violence depicted on social media can be said by the government to be the action of a few bad apples, a few policeman whom the regime did not have control over. Consequently, there will be some show trials where few policeman will be convicted, or in the case of Bahrain, convicted but probably let off after a laborious process of repeated trials and appeals. As Turk (1982) states, Court and administrative decisions exonerating legal control agents are to be expected in any polity.’
Of course, the more videos that emerge of state violence and police brutality, the more difficult it is for authorities to convince people that such acts are the work of a few bad apples. Therfore regulating the amount of images or videos of police brutality is perhaps more about controlling the flow of information, and determining when people should be reminded of the state’s brutality, rather than any real objection to people witnessing those deeds.
Despite the utility of reminding people of the violent consequences of engaging in dissent, the reliance on short term methods of coercive force at the expense of political processes that appease the population can be explained by the fact that such processes would require more wealth and power sharing . As Turk (1982) again states,
Alternatives to intimidation may simply be unacceptable because they are perceived to involve intolerable changes in the allocation of resources among competing groups, even to the point of dismantling the existing strutures of power and status.
So just as violence is seen as a necessary political risk, one that weighs up the benefits of continued protection of resources with those of sharing those resources, the impact of mediated violence poses another conundrum. Do the benefits of intimidating the population through depictions of state violence outweigh the negatives? After all, how do you pacify a population without doing the following a) sacrificing significant power and wealth b) terrorizing them and c) convincing them (brainwashing) that the current social order is infallible and true.
On 9th December, the Ministry of the Interior announced that they would be launching an investigation into the brutal arrest of a young man in the village of Diraz. This announcement came after a video of the incident was distributed on Twitter and Facebook the day before. The video in question shows police hitting and slapping a young boy who is clearly subdued and under control.
Although continued police brutality (despite the government’s vociferous claims of reform) is hardly surprising, it is odd that the MOI should announce an investigation into the Diraz incident almost 3 months after the video first surfaced. Indeed, video evidence of the incident in question was first uploaded on 20th September.
Not viral? No ‘justice’
So why has it taken 3 months for the MOI to announce an investigation? Was whoever runs the MOI Twitter account absent the day the video was first posted? Given that the original video has about 66,000 hits, you’d think the police would be among those who had seen it (what with it being their job to investigate crime etc). In all fairness, I guess the police are more reluctant to investigate crime when they are the ones carrying it out. Maybe 66,000 hits isn’t enough to warrant an investigation? I mean, a video that showed police beating a man in Bani Jamrah got 86,000 hits, and the MOI described this as a ‘ viral video’. Maybe 80,000 is the cutoff point for defining something as viral/worthy of announcing an investigation into. Usually the MOI respond on Twitter to these ‘viral videos’ pretty soon after they occur. The usual format is to announce an investigation and then to say nothing more about it. Indeed, Fig 1 at the bottom of this post that documents incidents involving police criminality that the MOI have pledged to investigate.
No news is bad news
Despite their eagerness to appear that they are paying attention to issues of police accountability, the MOI are not very good at updating the public as to the status of the investigations. As of yet, details of the names, nationalities and ranks of those policemen under investigation have been obscured. It is, of course, possible that the MOI don’t know who the policemen in question are. Perhaps they are waiting for a leaked copy of the names to go viral on Twitter before making an announcement? The MOI’s reluctance to update the public on the statuses of these investigations is disturbing. After all, how do we know they are really doing any investigating at all? What makes it more frustrating is that the MOI have themselves acknowledged the need to keep the public informed.
The MOI has referred the case to the public prosecutor. The policemen’s first hearing will be on November 21 2012 and the public will be kept informed on the progress of the case.
In addition to the MOI’s refusal to update the public on the statuses of these investigation, it is ridiculous that they only announce investigations into a select number of cases. For example, they announced an investigation into an incident where a policeman was filmed throwing a Molotov cocktail. There are at least 12 videos showing policemen throwing Molotov cocktails, yet the MOI only announced an investigation into one of them. (Given that many happened in 2012, I guess the government didn’t want to make a mockery of the police ‘reforms’). Again, this is just an example. Police have also been filmed throwing steel rods, yet no investigation was announced into this.
Over the past year, there have been countless videos that portray the brutality of Bahrain’s security services. In this regard, social media is providing new opportunities to hold those in power accountable. However, if the Bahraini police investigated every incident of documented police criminality, they would have no time to conduct their security crackdown. It would also look bad if the MOI’s website and Twitter account were peppered with announcements of investigations into police brutality, especially when the government are trying to convince a skeptical world that they are carrying out reform.
As it stands, video evidence of police abuse might at least elicit a response from the MOI. Indeed, at least evidence like this prevents the MOI from becoming judge, jury and executioner in instances of their own misconduct, as was recently the case with Aqeel Mohsen, who was shot in the face by the police after he was in a car that tried to run the police over. Although the MOI’s version of events is possible, lack of video evidence means that their side of the story will undoubtedly go unchallenged.
Why bother with the BS?
The MOI’s announcements of investigations in police criminality are mere attempts to convince the public that they are committed to transparency and accountability. Indeed, if they were truly committed to either of these things, the public might actually be given more information and credible updates about these investigations. What is interesting about this latest announcement is simply the incompetence with which it was executed – a poorly (and I’ll wager hastily) written tweet announcing an investigation into an incident that actually occurred about 3 months ago. Of course the MOI are not known for their communication ability, remember when it took them about four attempts to determine the nationality of someone who was killed by a police patrol car.
Given that no policemen, government officials or members of the security forces appear to be serving prison time for the egregious abuses carried out by the state last year, why should anyone find any truth in the MOI’s vague announcements of investigations into abuses? Even if these investigations exist, they are undoubtedly flawed. Let’s not forget, the MOI failed to hold anyone accountable for 45 civilian deaths last year, itself a testament to the quality of the institution’s investigative abilities.
Fig 1 (for pdf click here> MOItable)
Eminem once posed the question ‘Guess who’s back?’. The answer was of course, the Real Slim Shady. While it has so far been impossible to determine whether Liliane Khalil was slim or not, she was certainly shady. That’s assuming that she was actually a she. Anyway, it appears that Liliane Khalil is back on Twitter and Linkedin, this time under the guise of @HabibaDalal and Gisele Nasr.
For those who need a recap, Liliane Khalil was exposed last year for being a hoax journalist. She used Twitter, blogs and social media to spread pro-regime propaganda messages, apparently on behalf of Task Consultancy, a Bahrain based company who received government funds to do PR work on their behalf . Task Consultancy have denied these allegations, claiming that they never tendered for any PR, despite the fact that the award appears on the government’s website.
Some of Liliane’s notable claims included interviewing King Hamad, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Dr. al-Baradei and Natan Sharansky. She also claimed to have written several articles for Reuters. When challenged about these things in a phone interview, she either made up elaborate stories, said the interviewees didn’t turn up, or claimed she was drunk. Despite being invited to appear on both Al-Jazeera and France24 she never went ahead with it.
Liliane also operated accounts under other names, such as Gisele Cohen, Victoria Nasr, and Susan Hadad (to name but a mere few). These other accounts, which go back 2 years, don’t solely focus on spreading anti-Iranian propaganda. They are all linked, yet some seem to focus on marketing specific products. Gisele Cohen appears to be in the medical business.
With regards to the ‘new’ accounts Habiba Dalal and Gisele Nasr, the trend seems to remain the same. The Gisele Nasr Linkedin account is a name based on two of Liliane’s previous personas (Victoria Nasr and Gisele Cohen). Despite the name and a new photo, the account appears to be the same as its ‘Gisele Cohen’ predecessor. The email address is the same, as are the educational qualifications. Apart from this new profile ‘makeover’, there doesn’t seem to be too much account activity on the Linkedin side of things. Oddly enough though, the profile picture looks a bit like an older, less photoshopped version of Lia Boustany – Liliane Khalil’s fake sister.
The Habiba Dalal account links to Liliane Khalil’s account on Topsy (or here). Her first tweet was in October 2011, and after changing her bio a few times, it appears she has settled on the following:
I am a journalist following the Iran threat, the Arab Spring and US foreign policy in the Middle East. | New York
As with Liliane Khalil, she tweets and retweets a lot of articles regarding the rising Iranian threat. A number of her tweets concern Bahrain, including high praise for Rob Sobhani’s Huffington Post piece ‘Iran’s Target: Bahrain’. She also retweeted something from another stock-photo-using, suspicious account called @Chelseadraws. This tweet concerned the links between Hezbollah and al-Wefaq, a connection many al-Watan reading hardliners continue to hammer home.
For a new account that adds no value to any discussion, Habiba Dalal’s has a surprising number of followers. About 1,128. Whether these were bought or remain from Liliane’s old account is hard to determine, though in terms of ‘following’, some of the usual suspects are there, including the anonymous author and former undercover CIA-Revolutionary Guard double agent Reza Kahlili. Indeed, Liliane Khalil’s expose on the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights’ links with Iran was posted on Reza Kahlili’s website. Incidentally, the article is still there despite the fact Liliane Khalil has zero credibility.
Habiba/Liliane is also followed by Reem Zain and Evie Varthi. Evie Varthi wrote for BahranViews, a pro-regime blog that is believed to be run by the aforementioned, alleged former employer of Liliane, Task Consultancy. Reem Zain is the managing director of Task Consultancy, and was Liliane’s publicist in the days following her expose.
Liliane’s determination to keep tweeting about Iran is impressive. However, there are a large number of anonymous account such as hers, each tweeting vitriol against Iran, al-wefaq and hezbollah. While there are real people who genuinely believe in these links, it’s hard to believe that many of these accounts are not just sock puppets set up by PR companies to distort the online public sphere with propaganda. In an investigation published by the Independent, London based PR firm BGR Gabara claimed they had planned to orchestrate an “online social media campaign” by Kazakh children to protest against the fact Sting cancelled his gig there. Interestingly, the Independent reported that BGR Gabara also work for the Bahrain government. That’s another one to add to the growing list of PR companies employed by the country. You’d think all that PR money could be better spent.
While these fake accounts are arguably crude and ineffectual, it is hard to determine their true extent. Many people even question the authenticity of the likes of Reza Kahlili. It’s easy to see why, since he does not ever reveal his true identity. In TV appearances he wears a handkerchief and uses a voice decoder. Establishing someone’s credibility is difficult when you cannot verify their identity, yet establishing someone’s credibility becomes crucial when they make such dramatic claims. I personally learned after the Liliane Khalil expose that it was important to put a name to the story. Obviously I’m not doing what Reza Kahlili does, and trying to claim that Iran has thousands of suitcase nukes, but the principle is still the same. With regards to this anonymity, one of Habiba Dalal’s previous bios reads
I am a journalist following [r]evolutions in societies, governments + citizen journalism. Working anonymously due to the nature of my job.
Well, Habiba Dalal is no longer anonymous, because she’s Liliane Khalil, and Liliane Khalil wasn’t even real. Wait, I guess that makes her anonymous?
I have no love for the Iranian regime, yet I have even less love for companies or institutions manipulating people’s beliefs by distorting the information available in the public sphere. This proliferation of propaganda, in its myriad of forms, attempts to subvert rational debate by appealing to a person’s visceral fears. Subtler accounts might attempt to influence the public sphere by imbuing it with information that may seem credible, but is ultimately a plant (black propaganda). Other potentially concerning aspects of these fake accounts are evident when they are used to attempt to influence political society. For example, a twitition (twitter petition) that went round last year claimed to be a proposal listing the demands of Bahrain’s Youth for the upcoming National Dialogue. Over a thousand people signed it, though who knows what number of them were anonymous sock accounts. The following day the National Unity Gathering ( Bahrain’s new pro-gov leaning political party) used the petition as a basis for determining what youth wanted. I believe this could be termed as a #civilsocietyfail . An absurdly dystopian/1984 type analysis would suggest that such practices might become common in the future. Just imagine if Twitter’s new censorship policy led to a crackdown on all legitimate tweeps, resulting in regime-paid companies dominating cyberspace with newspeak, propaganda, and complete bollocks. Haha, now it’s my turn to be sensationalist!
Moving swiftly on…
Paradoxically, these fake accounts undermine the rhetoric of legitimate loyalists in the online world, as the prevalence of dubious accounts leads people to associate regime supporters with paid PR. It’s hardly surprising though considering the Bahrain government’s unquenchable thirst for Public Relations . Even at this very moment I am being accosted by someone who is almost certainly a black propaganda sock account. A very very unsubtle one at that…
Of course Mohammed Abdul Nabi is not alone. There are plenty of other suspicious and/or anonymous accounts. I’m sure many people would enjoy seeing who is behind @SallyfromSaar , @gloriahere , @ChelseaDraws etc. However, until that glorious day comes, let’s just content ourselves by observing their unscrupulous and incestuous meta-orgie of mutual congratulation and retweeting.
Further Liliane Khalil reading