Beirut explosion and the resurrection of pro-Kremlin disinformation machine SouthFront on social media
UPDATE: Since this post has been published, Facebook apparently took action against SouthFront, and links from the website cannot be shared on the platform. According to a SouthFront post, this action took place on 8/8. SouthFront is now linking to its articles under different urls, including the one of Globalresearch dot ca. The action by Facebook could be attributed to a recent report published by The US State Department about the Pillars of Russian Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem.///
The devastating explosion in Beirut was followed almost immediately by an expected wave of misinformation on social media. A claim that it is a nuclear explosion due to the mushroom cloud had been debunked a couple of hours following the explosion. Twitter was also quick to take down a false claim that Israeli PM Netanyahu “confirmed” it was part of an Israeli attack. A claim that Qanon accounts helped spreading and got at least dozens of thousands of eyeballs. Those are just examples, but an abundance of misinformation following a breaking news event at this magnitude is expected in the current information ecosystem. It is also not the main challenge social media platforms will be facing amidst the developments in Lebanon.
Lebanon, and this is not new, has so many hands involved in it, and a continuous fight over the narratives has been played between them (usually while violent confrontations occur on the ground) , for years if not decades. Interestingly, some key actors, including Iran (and Hezbollah), Gulf states, Israel and of course, Russia, have already been caught for orchestrating “inauthentic behavior” on-line, or in other words running information operations through main social media platforms. Hence, it will be surprising considering the actors involved and the gravity of the situation, if we will not see attempts to run information operations through social media (and also digital media and states’ media) targeting the people of Lebanon, population of the middle east and western countries.
When it comes to relevant actors executing information operations through social media, Russia is the most prominent entity involved, and early signals of activity have already been recorded the day after the explosion. On August 5, SouthFront a website dedicated to provide a pro-Kremlin analysis about diplomatic and military issues uploaded a new video, insinuating the explosion might be part of a plan by the Trump administration to start a war in the middle east. The argument was based on Trump’s early reaction to the explosion, using the word “attack”. It also noted in the video that Israel denied any link to the explosion, but the video thumbnail still features Israeli combat aircrafts.
The re-emergence of SouthFront on Facebook, YouTube
SouthFront, which EU’s Stratcom has linked to a Russian network of pro-Kremlin publications, has been “de-platformed” earlier in 2020 from Facebook and Youtube. Facebook stated in their report that SouthFront is part of a network that performed “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign entity.” However, new SouthFront accounts emerged on both Facebook and Youtube lately. On Youtube, at least two SouthFront accounts were created during the first week of August 2020, and the new Lebanon piece is one of the first videos featured on them.
On Facebook, a new SouthFront page (created May 2020, archive) emerged shortly after the take down. A group of pages including “Front News and Information” (created 3/2020, archive), “Geopolitics News and Information” (created 3/2020 archive ), “Russia News Information Events and History” (created 6/2020, archive) featuring its content.
The newly created SouthFront accounts on the platforms are still nascent, with only few followers, but the posting of content on multiple pages and accounts suggests that somebody is working to re-develop the network of pages and accounts on the platform. The developments in Lebanon, and the evolving reaction on those pages and accounts reemphasize how the pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets are not giving up easily on their social media presence.