How Lebanon Became A Hub For Cyberwarfare

How The Internet Is Used To Sway Public Opinion In Lebanon
The Daily Star/Mohammad Zaatari | The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban

In late 2019, the Internet proved a powerful and important contributor to the massive popularity and reach of the anti-government protests that erupted in mid-October — not just in Lebanon but all around the world as well.

Through social media platforms, protesters were able to deliver their calls and demands more directly and effectively, without fearing their manipulation or misrepresentation by the media.

They also heavily utilized hashtags to further publicize their slogans and post photos, videos of the demonstrations, and stream live broadcasts.

On the other hand, the revolution’s opposition used these platforms to promote their own hashtags and slogans and to attempt to diminish the impact that the protesters had made through their social media influence.

What resulted from these rivaling campaigns in the days, weeks, and months that followed was an apparent constant day-to-day social media fight between thousands of pro-revolution accounts and anti-revolution accounts.

For each hashtag promoting a certain party, a counter-hashtag bashed that party. Likewise, for every social media campaign against a political leader, it was very common for another campaign to soon catch up, praising that same leader.

Social Media Battles on the Rise

Today, these small “cyber battles” continue to emerge occasionally, not just between pro-government and anti-government people, but also between the various political parties in the country.

These soft battles are particularly noticeable during significant changes in Lebanon’s political scene.

And these are but one example of how Lebanon’s cyberspace has become a breeding ground for propaganda, counterpropaganda, and everything in between, including the different kinds of cyberattacks, disinformation, and defamation campaigns against individuals and organizations for political reasons.

On a side note, a recent example of this is the social media campaign that was launched against Lebanese journalist Jad Ghosn after he had secured a job opportunity outside Lebanon.

Speaking with The961, computer scientist Rani Haddad, the co-founder of the cybersecurity company Axon Technologies, shed some light on this critical topic and its implications.

“I think a quick look at trending hashtags on Twitter can tell you that certain POVs and/or slogans are being manually pushed by the different political parties via organized social media campaigns, using bots and targeted advertising,” he says.

Coming of Age

Bots and fake accounts are often used to lead such campaigns and serve to sway public opinion.

These are identifiable from a combination of typical characteristics, including the lack of a featured image and/or bio, confusing incoherent usernames, duplicate tweets, and being followers of thousands of accounts.

Haddad argues that politicians in Lebanon are “coming of age” in terms of realizing the power that platforms such as Twitter and Facebook hold as propaganda tools.

“They are used to owning TV stations but are now grasping how much more effective it is to reach an audience via social media.”

With that said, however, the expert stresses that it is generally difficult to correlate the political scene with cyberattacks and other forms of malicious activity online within Lebanon.

From what his company has observed, “attackers are in most cases coming from east Asian countries, and the attacks are never targeted attacks where a certain person or company is specifically targeted due to any political affiliation.”

Nonetheless, attacks of this nature, regardless of their motives, have certainly been taking place in recent times in Lebanon by attackers from within the country and, apparently, sometimes, from foreign countries as well.

Recent Attacks

To provide one example, The961 was recently the target of 4 successive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks after publishing an article that seemingly provoked a political party in Lebanon.

Back in November, following The961’s active coverage and support of the revolution, The961 founder and CEO, Anthony Kantara, received a series of death threats. Shortly after, there were over 40 hack attempts on his personal social media accounts within a 3-day period. There was a DDoS attempt on The961’s websites as well as successful attacks on his other companies’ websites. This followed with his personal and business bank accounts in Canada being “compromised and locked.”

The961 has since taken any and all threats and hack attempts seriously, whether in Lebanon or abroad. The961 brought in a full-time cybersecurity expert onto the team, as well as taken legal action and opened police investigations on suspected hackers.

One example is a recent Hezbollah supporter in South Africa who threatened to hack The961 as well as takedown/deface our social media accounts on an article critical of Hezbollah. Turned out this individual works in “cybersecurity.” Less than an hour later, an unsuccessful DDoS attack was launched from a South African IP address and lasted over several days. We forwarded it to a lawyer in Cape Town where the police referred it to the cybercrimes unit for investigation. This is a crime punishable 5 years in prison in South Africa.

On a similar note, on September 9th, self-proclaimed “Iranian Hackers” hacked into dozens of Lebanese websites, including that of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, temporarily blocking access to them.

Additionally, back in March, the database of LBCI was reportedly breached by a group calling itself “Syrian Revolution Soldiers” that made several political statements and claimed to have leaked information about the TV station’s employees.

In any case, the potential that the Internet and social media hold to influence public opinion is undeniable, and its use for good causes such as charities and activism are prevalent in Lebanon as it is in the rest of the world.

But on the other hand, as with any kind of technology, this powerful tool’s malevolent potential also shows, and it’s important for the Lebanese public to be wary of its exploiters.

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