Trolls Pounce on Facebook’s Tahrir Square

 

Cairo’s Tahrir Square is a warzone, thanks to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s goon squad. But the crackdown isn’t limited to physical spaces where the protest movement congregates. Ever since Mubarak restored Internet service on Wednesday, the most important dissident Facebook page has seen a curious flood of pro-regime Wall posts, sowing disinformation.

Some of the new up-with-Mubarak commentary at We Are All Khalid Said is classic concern-trolling: people wringing their hands over how Egypt’s dictator deserves better than calls for his downfall. Some is pure abuse, questioning the loyalties of the page’s administrator. And some are blatant attempts to disrupt the protests by claiming upcoming rallies have been canceled.

It’s hard not to see the trolling as part of a larger effort by Mubarak’s allies to win the propaganda battle surrounding Egypt’s unrest. They’re detaining and beating foreign journalists in order to control the information flow. On Thursday, it arrested online activists.

A sampling of pro-Mubarak posts at We Are All Khalid Said on Thursday: “I’m sad that I was one of you,” Tamir Said hissed. Semsema Elamora called the admins “sons of bitches” and “garbage.” Moamen Bokhary inveighed, “God forgive him he spread fitna” — division — “and wants to burn the country, God is my refuge. We are all against him. Send it to each other so we can rid ourselves of him and his poisons.”

Moamen didn’t specify whether he meant the administrator or the page’s namesake, an Alexandria blogger beaten to death by police. But the point is clear enough.

As online properties go, We Are All Khalid Said is a strategic target for the Mubarak regime. The #Jan25 dissident movement is about a lot more than Internet tools, but there’s no denying that Facebook and Twitter helped the rallies coalesce. We Are All Khalid Said is the most important Facebook asset for the protesters. Six months old, it has 464,000 Likes and counting.

“They were the main organizers on Facebook of the January 25 protests,” explains Sherif Mansour of the human-rights organization Freedom House, a constant visitor to the page. “They promoted the [initial] event widely and managed to get it to over one million people. They also were the central location for organization, instruction, sharing information and sharing materials could be printed out and distributed by hand.”

We Are All Khalid Said is an organizing hub. The administrator explained how to use SMS to spread word of the protests. It hosted advice on how to avoid police crackdowns and announced where mobile dissident meeting places were. Before this month’s revolution emerged, We Are All Khalid Said taught people how to organize their friends and arranged flash mobs across Egypt demanding change.

Perhaps most importantly, for months, it raised peoples’ consciousnesses. The page told the story — promoted by jailed former presidential candidate Ayman Nour — of a 28 year old from Alexandria whom policemen pulled from an Internet cafe in June and beat to death when he didn’t pay a bribe. By using that dramatic example to illustrate Egypt’s “culture of impunity,” Said’s namesake page is “responsible for interpreting human rights advocacy to everyday Egyptians,” Mansour says.

Even off of the Wall, the discussion forums host literally thousands of conversations in Arabic. (Not reading the language myself, Kareem Shaheen of Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper helped me with translation.) But while there are sporadic comments expressing ambivalence about Mubarak before the regime’s Friday-to-Wednesday Internet blackout, after the Web returned, We Are All Khalid Said had some surprising new visitors.

“This motherfucking group wants to ruin the country,” wrote Mohammed Eissa on Thursday, adding some choice language about the anatomy of dissidents’ mothers.

Madleine Mansour: “You ruined Egypt you dogs and enemies of Egypt. All your lives you have felt inadequate when compared to us… Egypt is above you all and that is God’s promise. Long live Pharaonic Egypt.”

Sherif Mansour says some of the trolls are easy to spot. Some barely have any information on their Facebook profiles, suggesting they’re only on the website to screw with We Are All Khalid Said. Others simply cut and paste pro-Mubarak text from other commenters to amplify the message.

But others are more mischievous — and subtle. For instance, in this thread, dissidents caught a regime apologist on Thursday actually using the avatar of the administrator to tell people that Friday’s massive “Day of Departure” protests around the country were canceled outright. If you read Arabic, here’s the screenshot:

It’s not just on We Are All Khalid Said. Max Fisher, the Atlantic’s online international editor, noticed several new Twitter accounts with few followers frantically praising Mubarak’s name. “Either a bunch of people who REALLY love Mubarak just decided to start accounts or the regime is now pushing Twitter propaganda,” he observed.

After attacking protesters on the streets, Mubarak’s forces are going after the online spaces where the January 25 movement began to coalesce. The early efforts have been clumsy. But if the regime’s assaults Tahrir Square are any guide, they will grow more sophisticated, and more brutal.

Extra special thanks to Kareem Shaheen for crucial translation and research help.

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