Nathaniel Greenberg, How Information Warfare Shaped the Arab Spring: The Politics of Narrative in Tunisia and Egypt (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Nathaniel Greenberg (NG): 25 January 2011. I was living in downtown Cairo with a grant to research the literary fallout of the 1952 revolution. The uprising against Mubarak swept in and “swept me off my feet.” Like a lot of us, I have been writing about the experience ever since.

But this book is about something slightly different. It is about misinformation and how major world powers used the Arab uprisings to fashion their own political agendas; how domestic regimes capitalized on their alliances abroad; and how media became a weapon of war in the post-revolutionary struggle for power. Its seed was the sense of an extreme disparity between the rhetoric I was hearing on the ground in Egypt—outside of Tahrir—and how entrenched the narrative of the uprising had become among people who were consuming news about the uprising abroad. I became entranced with the paradoxical notion that Information and Communication Technology had both enabled more voices and consolidated the narratives through which news and history are retold. I wanted to unpack this paradox and I wanted to do it through a very immediate, eye-level perspective.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

NG: The biggest discovery behind this book happened by chance. I do not want to give away too much, but it has to do with going back to look more closely at what WikiLeaks was doing during the outset of the uprising in Egypt. Tarek Ramadan, Linda Herrera, and others had looked at some of this material. But what I found was shocking and it served to totally undermine, in my view, the accepted narrative paradigm (shared by many academics, myself included) regarding WikiLeaks’ role in the uprisings. What I found was a concerted effort—or willingness—on the part of Assange’s organization to allow their stolen documents to undermine the work of democratic activists in Egypt. It started with a stolen State Department memo, released by WikiLeaks and published in the Daily Telegraph of London, strategically, on the eve of the Friday of Rage (28 January). The document was from years prior but framed in a way (The Telegraph published it under the headline “Secret US Backing for Egyptian Rebels”) that was sure to compromise the legitimacy of the April 6 movement in particular. Al-Ahram published a translation of a similar “leak” regarding the NGOs that appeared in Norway’s Aftenpost the day after. All of this gave fuel to Mubarak’s famous midnight speech on the 28th about a “plot” to undermine the State. It is arguable that democratic activism in Egypt has never recovered from the damage unleashed by WikiLeaks.

But the big discovery was that, apart from the article itself, the comments section revealed a huge cache of bizarrely patterned discourse. The Telegraph article carried thousands of comments, almost all of them written with the same kind of racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic rhetoric that would surround the Trump campaign in 2016. This surprised me and when I looked more closely I saw that some of the very same “commentators” who had helped fuel the viral spread of the Telegraph article (it exploded on the Drudge Report) had reappeared in 2016 pumping racist, bellicose commentary in favor of Trump across a range of far-right media outlets, like Breitbart News and The Hill. Some of the commentators had literally tens of thousands of comments to their name, which confirmed for me (in consultation with security experts) that they were professional trolls. Just as with the American elections, the WikiLeaks dumps on Egypt served as a springboard for an elaborate information war aimed at undermining the spread of democracy and empowering an authoritarian agenda sympathetic to Russia. I contacted the lead reporter on the Telegraph piece to ask about the history of that article. He responded that he would talk to the editors and get back to me; a week later, all of the comments were erased. Fortunately, I captured a lot of it through screenshots, which allowed me to pursue several of the major lines of inquiry that are now in the book.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

NG: I am interested generally in the relationship between political transformation and cultural innovation, basically a Marxist-humanitarian mode of thinking that I think comes across fairly strongly in my first two books. But I would say this book also crystalizes what has been a long-standing theoretical position of mine that—in line with a Habermasian mode of thinking—rejects post-structuralism and the notion that narratives are produced in a vacuum—that the “author is dead,” so to speak. While much of the proxy-information war that I discuss in this book was waged through viral memes and false narratives, I work to uncover the origins of these campaigns, to identify, if not the individual or organization that initiated rumor x or narrative y, who stands to benefit from one narrative or another and what kind of historical patterns those narratives mirror.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

NG: I think we need to reexamine almost everything about the so-called Arab Spring, beginning firstly with the way in which the uprisings were talked about from the outset. My hope is that this book will serve as a valuable resource for cultural historians, political historians, and the counter-intelligence community—not least because it sheds new light on the communicative strategy of Russia in Egypt, in particular, as well as the long-standing narrative identity of groups like AQIM and Ansar al-Sharia. But there is also quite a bit of traditional literary analysis in this book—the final chapter examines the rise of Arab Sci-Fi, as well as the popular Egyptian film studio al-Sobki—topics I have been writing about and presenting on at conferences. Literary scholars, I hope, will appreciate this emphasis and hopefully people looking at the book from a social-science or security perspective will give the final chapter a chance as well.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

NG: I have been trying to engage with the situation in Libya, building on the background from my book with Jeff Halverson but focusing on new media. Like in Syria, we get the impression the fighting is unfolding in real time with a superabundance of digital recording masking the conflict. Libya is something of an information blackhole right now, in the sense that the conflict is thrusting together all these different proxy-communications operations—not just the global networks directing information towards the Arabic-speaking audience—be it RT ArabicAl-ArabiyaBBC ArabicAl-Jazeera or Al-Alam—but we have also got Italian and French lawmakers, of course divided on the issue, trying to frame their positions for their own domestic audiences. It is a huge challenge but it is fascinating and rather urgent.

J: Why Edinburgh UP?

NG: Nicola Ramsey, the editor at Edinburgh University Press, approached me about doing a book. I am thrilled that I did. She did not blink once. I am grateful to Edinburgh for taking it on and for doing it quickly!

Excerpt from the book

From Chapter I: Information Warfare 2.0: A Methodological Critique

The Department of Deconstructionism

In the US, the idea that media – and social media in particular – may serve as a ‘subjectless generator of structures’, had been churning through the greater universe of the National Security Enterprise for over a decade. Programmes like the Sociocultural Content in Language and the Metaphor project of the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or the Narrative Networks programme disseminated through the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, were predicated on the notion that experts might ‘systematically analyze narratives and their psychological and neurobiological impact’ with little to no foreknowledge of the context in which they are created or the environment towards which they are projected. The task of defining ‘substrates and mechanisms related to culturally relevant cognitions and behaviors’ was believed achievable, in part because the greater defence intelligence community had whole heartedly absorbed a theoretical perspective on the production of language and meaning that academics in the remote field of literary studies had been passionately debating for a century. ‘The death of the author’, as Roland Barthes famously decried, had created the opening for an analytical wing of that ancient enterprise in which studious readers with an eye for style could produce a text-centred approach to reading that promised to decode the intricacies of any written work with little to no regard for the context in which it was created or the life of the individual who created it.

For the defence-intelligence industry the text-centred approach of narratology allowed for the prospect of an intriguing new product in the war of ideas, namely: an automated system of discursive analysis capable of sweeping the vast horizon of online chatter while instantly converting its finding into an actionable counter response in the form of audio-visual missives, leaflets, imagery, and talking points all uniquely designed to ‘directly affect perceptions, emotions, behaviors, and tendencies for affiliation’ within a target population.

In the immediate years following 9/11, narratology surfaced primarily within certain rarified circles of the National Security Enterprise; beltway boardrooms where a combination of outside ‘experts’ and low-ranking officials began crafting the language for what would become a minor arms race among communications specialists, IT experts and the occasional political scientist jockeying for a piece of the pie in the increasingly lucrative war of ideas. By the time of the Arab Spring the notion of narrative as ‘an event without any subject’ had become engrained in the basic fabric of the greater US intelligence apparatus and nowhere more so than in the realm of counter- terrorism. In the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), analysts routinely made reference to ‘the narrative of ISIL’ or even the ‘the ISIL meme’. ‘The ISIL meme builds upon the spread and acceptance in many extremist leaning Muslim circles of the narrative that Islamic lands, people, and the religion itself is under attack from Western powers’, wrote one contributor for a large-scale, federally funded research study of the Islamic State’s communication strategies.

Likewise, the narrative claims that despotic regimes in the Middle East are the fault of Western powers that thus should be attacked. Chechens and al Qaeda terrorists before the emergence of ISIL also argued that when their enemies used weapons of mass destruction, they too were justified in using such. And in the case of Palestinian and Chechen groups, women were encouraged to join the battle and an ideological basis was created based on fatwas that allowed the women to leave their families to join a terrorist group without asking permission of their male relatives. ISIL has coopted all of this into its meme.

Assembled from an almost incompressible bricolage of keywords, flashpoints and CVE (countering violent extremism) jargon, scores of self-identified analysts like this one, often working exclusively in English, capitalised on what the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report decried as the prevailing ‘newsroom’ culture among US intelligence contractors, who, by the 1990s, ‘no longer felt they could afford such a patient, strategic approach to long- term accumulation of intellectual capital’. The social-scientific or ‘university culture’ of old was part of a bygone era by the time of the Arab Spring. In its stead appeared a kind of pseudo-analytical regime steeped in the language of narratology, however unconscious its authors appeared of such legacy.

Independent of history and human action, it is the ‘meme’ or ‘narrative’ that spins its own meaning in such analyses; the author a Dionysian-like god ‘making his promised presence all the more palpable to the sons and daughters of the West by means of his poignant absence’. As Habermas famously observed of Derrida’s poststructuralism, the underlying irony in the ostensible analysis of such ‘archewriting’ is that its predication on the occlusion of an author, or even ‘human interest’ in the general sense, prevails at the expense of precisely what it seeks to uncover. ‘The labor of deconstruction lets the refuse heap of interpretations, which it wants to clear away in order to get at the buried foundations, mount ever higher.’ In labelling or approximating the meaning of memes or narratives, the analyst is always at risk of precipitating their very purchase. Often times, as in the passage above, they do so through an obscurantist, sourceless discourse that portends in its own deconstruction, a fully-formed and ideologically vested perspective miraculously unbound from history.   

The Department of Structuralism 

The tendency among counter-narrative specialists to imagine narrative as being divested of a narrator is all the more ironic because it was precisely that same illusion that their counterparts in the world of public diplomacy sought to fabricate.

In his 2008 speech for the New America Foundation, James K. Glassman points to ‘a short book’ by Monroe E. Price, the head of the Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research in London, in which the author describes the work of the ‘French deconstructivist philospher Jacques Derrida’ and his ‘tome’ Of Hospitality. In fact a short collection of lectures from the late 90s, Derrida’s book, as Glassman notes, has ‘nothing at all to do with strategic communications’. But still, he asserts, the work holds fundamental lessons for the future of US influence operations. Derrida’s book can help explain ‘a major reason for animosity toward the United States: the view by others that we don’t respect their opinions, that we do not actively listen and understand’, Glassman says. His philosophy, ‘in Price’s reading’, shifts the understanding of ‘hosting’ from one of control or ownership, to one of ‘welcoming’. ‘I like this paradigm: from the host as owner to the host as welcome’, he asserts. It is ‘a good description of Public Diplomacy 2.0’.

By ‘hosting’ a network of communications operatives, or bloggers, many with little to no vested interest in US policy or any material connection to the United States beyond a few workshops or grant allocations, the US could wage the war of ideas in much the same way that the social media giants in Silicon Valley had built their empires. Like Facebook or YouTube, Public Diplomacy 2.0 aimed to provide a ‘platform for cooperation, mediation, and reception – a mode of being informed as well as informing’. The strategy marked an evolution in the State Department’s approach to public diplomacy. As Lina Khatib, William Dutton and Michael Thelwall observed, Glassman’s predecessors oversaw what many perceived as an overly ‘one-way’ strategy in the government’s approach to the war of ideas. Contemporary iterations of Cold War vehicles like Al-Hurra TV or Radio Sawa functioned in the same space of ‘white propaganda’ as American infantrymen distributing leaflets in Afghanistan. While more covert efforts eventually gained traction in Iraq and Afghanistan, public diplomacy – including the work of the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team – remained driven by a ‘key strategic choice’ to ‘genuinely identify their posts’. Across the greater intelligence community it could be said the US approach to strategic communications was defined largely by a reluctant set of ‘societal attitudes’ stretching back to the experience of World War I and revelations that the British had been quietly stocking apparent involvement in the war through a covert influence operation run through the Wellington House in London and Reuters news agency. In the words of Colonel Dennis M. Murphy and Lieutenant Colonel James F. White of the Information in Warfare Group at the United States Army War College: ‘countering American angst over the effective use of propaganda’ had become as great a challenge for the US government in the war of ideas as was the rhetoric of the ‘enemy’ itself. To avoid the ire of politicians and the populace, Murphy’s and White’s recommendation in 2007 was the now familiar refrain: ‘leading from the rear in the information war still gets the message told while avoiding any direct confrontation with democratic ideals’.