The Role of Social Media in Iraq’s Tishreen Movement: Digital Activism, Misinformation, and Propaganda

 SUMMARY 

Many Iraqis will remember October 2019 as a historic moment imbued with hope and change. A time when young Iraqis of all backgrounds around the country stood up to Iraq’s political elites in a bid to reclaim their country and to reject the ethno-sectarian political system that had hitherto defined their worlds. Watching from afar were thousands of Iraqis in the diaspora, many of whom were inspired by the youth movement, and triggered to act against the scenes of violence rapidly circulating on social media. 

This report explores how Iraqis in the diaspora leveraged various social media platforms during Iraq’s Tishreen movement to mobilize both online and offline activism in support of Tishreen. It also investigates the role of propaganda and false information and how this shaped activism at the time. The findings reflect on the impact of Tishreen, the role of social media and transnational activism during social movements and conflicts, and the implications for broader understandings of nationalism, citizenship, and belonging. 

KEY FINDINGS 

This report highlights the significant role that social media platforms play in facilitating transnational activism between host lands and homelands. Diasporic activists use these platforms to support movements financially and symbolically, to counter government propaganda narratives, to disseminate information to broad audiences, and to connect online activism to offline activism. 

The findings also underline how digital activism can reinvigorate diasporic activists’ homeland attachments and identities. This is especially the case for second and third generations, who have a multitude of platforms and social media spheres at their disposal from which they can choose a variety of identities, communities, and causes to advance particular claims. 

INTRODUCTION 

October 2019 will be remembered by many Iraqis inside the country and abroad as a historic moment imbued with hope and change. For the first time since the regime change in 2003, young Iraqis of all backgrounds around the country stood up to Iraq’s political elites in a bid to reclaim their country and reject the ethno-sectarian political system that had hitherto defined their worlds.1 Yet what has since been referred to as Tishreen (the Arabic name of the month in which the protests broke out) will also be remembered for the ruthless violence and repression faced by protesters and activists who took part. Hundreds of Iraqi youth disappeared or were killed, while thousands of others were injured in what became a targeted campaign to quash the peaceful and democratic movement.

Watching in anticipation from afar were thousands of Iraqis in the diaspora. Many were inspired by the youth movement and triggered to act against the horrific displays of violence that were now rapidly circulating on social media. Iraqis around the globe became digital activists overnight. They used Clubhouse, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, and WhatsApp to raise awareness about Tishreen and its political goals. They also harnessed these digital platforms to highlight human rights abuses by militias and government forces and to mobilize in solidarity with activists inside Iraq through fundraising and protests. 

The rise of diasporic digital activism has been well-documented in the diaspora literature.2 In the last fifteen years or so, however, this type of remote political engagement has been facilitated by and accelerated by social media. Activists use these platforms to challenge the hierarchies of information produced around conflicts, which are normally shaped or controlled by governments.3 At the same time, social media has also led to the rise of misinformation and disinformation in multi-sided battles to control both the broader narrative and the production of knowledge around a given event. A variety of groups — including governments — use platforms from Clubhouse to WhatsApp to both circulate and censor content in efforts to win domestic and international audiences.4 This has led to alternative spheres of influence that have very real power to incite or motivate action offline. These innovative efforts of informational control and coercion can change the perspectives of large, powerful audiences — with real-world consequences for citizens.5

This report looks into how the Iraqi diaspora’s involvement leveraged various social media platforms during Tishreen to enable both online and offline activism. It also, crucially, looks at how propaganda and false information shaped this activism. It draws on 11 semi-structured interviews with diasporic Iraqi activists in Denmark, the United Kingdom, the United States, Switzerland, and Qatar alongside standing academic and policy literature in order to ask the following questions: 

  • How and why did Iraqi diaspora activists become involved in Tishreen? 
  • How did activists use social media for their activism and how did this interact with offline activism? 
  • What were diaspora activists’ experiences with propaganda and falsehoods during Tishreen? 

The following pages first provide a background to Iraq’s Tishreen movement, followed by a section detailing how the Iraqi diaspora was involved in Tishreen. Next, the paper explores the role of propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation through social media apps, particularly on Clubhouse, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and WhatsApp. How did these informational challenges influence and affect activism during the movement? How did they hinder the movement? The report concludes with remarks on the impact of Tishreen, especially as it relates to the diaspora and their attachment to Iraq, the role of social media during social movements and conflicts, and the implications for broader understandings of nationalism, citizenship, and belonging. 

BACKGROUND ON TISHREEN 

The mass protests of October 2019 marked a pivotal moment in post-2003 Iraq. While some analysts referred to it as a social movement, others labeled it a revolution — due to many participants’ explicit aim of overthrowing Iraq’s post-2003 order. While protests and social movements have been a feature of post-2003 Iraq going as far back as 2009,6 Tishreen sparked a level of engagement previously unseen in Iraq’s recent history.7 The effort spanned all Iraqi ethnicities, sects, classes, generations, and genders. It was a movement with a simple message, “Inreed Watan,” meaning “we want a country,” which resonated across Iraq to a people who had been disenfranchised of their rights and who were desperate to lead lives of safety and dignity.

The impetus for Tishreen grew from previous protest cycles8 but in 2019, two unrelated events ignited its flames. Momentum was first galvanized following widespread protests in 2019 by university graduates condemning the lack of employment opportunities. Riot police reacted to the protesters heavy-handedly, pelting them with streams of water from fire hoses and provoking a great deal of anger. This was followed by Prime Minister Abdul- Mahdi’s demotion of the much-revered Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saedi. This act occurred with seemingly no explanation, which led to further indignation across Iraq.9

With the help of social media channels, initially largely Facebook, where Iraq had 18 million users in January 2019 compared to the 677,500 users on Twitter,10 sit-ins and protests began to take hold in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and beyond. The use of hashtags, such as #Iraqrising and #nazilakuthhaqqi, meaning “descending to take my rights,” helped spread the message.11 More and more Tishreenis converged on the capital while other protests sprang up in various central and southern provinces. As the protest numbers grew, so did protesters’ aims and visions. Using art, music, poetry, graffiti, creative chants, and slogans,12 protesters inspired new hopes for Iraqis to counter the divisiveness of post-2003 Iraq. For a brief moment, the leaderless and peaceful protest movement gave voice to a new generation — one that had neither known Saddam Hussein nor experienced life outside the confines of a highly corrupt and militarized society and one that deeply experienced the ever-widening gap between the minority wealthy class and the majority poor. Critically, most Tishreenis were Shia, the majority Muslim population in Iraq (the minority being Sunni). These young Shia spoke out against dominant Shia parties and paramilitary forces, rejecting any sense of Shia-centric solidarity.

Threatened by the mass movement taking hold, Iraq’s government forces and the militias of political parties soon intervened to end the protests as they had done during prior uprisings.13 Iraqis both inside and outside of Iraq were dismayed, however, by the harsh response from government forces, which met peaceful protesters with disproportionate violence as well as with arrests, torture, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, and disappearances.14 Gruesome scenes were shared on social media of mostly young protesters being maimed or killed by deadly gas canisters. As the violence intensified, so did the protests. More and more Iraqis took to the streets. Activism on social media escalated in order to lend support to the protesters and condemn the governments’ and militias’ actions.

The Tishreen protests succeeded in bringing about the resignation of then Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. It also forced parliament to adopt a new electoral law, which would empower individuals over political parties.15 But the security and militia crackdowns took a heavy toll on the movement with over 600 protesters killed and over 20,000 injured. Hundreds more disappeared, were tortured, and were kidnapped.16 The demise of the movement eventually came from the U.S. government’s targeted killing of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the leader of the Hashd Al Shaabi, the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq. This seismic event was the nail in the coffin for the movement because it spurred increased aggression and violence towards protesters, including women. Anti-U.S. Iranian-backed security forces and militias took their wrath out on protesters whom they had already labeled as U.S.-backed agents, due to the U.S.’s backing of the protesters’ right to peaceful protest. In the words of an Iraqi activist who was in Iraq at the time, “The hysteria of the government and militias increased to end this movement at any cost, until [the COVID pandemic], which was the final blow.”17

Despite the rhetoric of justice and accountability from Mustapha Al Kadhimi, who succeeded Abdul Mahdi’s premiership, there has been thus far no report released from the Fact-Finding Committee, which was tasked with uncovering the violence perpetrated by state security personnel and armed groups against activists and protesters. The Iraqi government has not, therefore, taken any responsibility for the crimes and murders committed against activists and protesters. Some, however, have quietly received compensation from the government’s Iraq Martyrs Foundation, according to the United Nations.18

THE IRAQI DIASPORA AND TISHREEN ACTIVISM 

Tishreen was not only a historic moment for Iraq but also for many in the Iraqi diaspora who watched events from abroad with anticipation. Like other Middle Eastern diasporas mobilized during the Arab uprisings,19 Tishreen ignited for many in the diaspora new feelings of attachment, belonging, and connection to Iraq, which had previously been dormant due to hopelessness brought on by corrupt elites and the relentless violence since 2003. Iraqis abroad who had not previously been active in mobilizing politically towards their country of origin, many of whom do not have Iraqi citizenship, now found themselves deeply engaged and invested in the movement. One diaspora activist, who left Iraq in 1993, described how Tishreen stimulated his activism:

“Just to describe how impactful was Tishreen on me personally, since I left Iraq, I didn’t have any communication with Iraq. I never went back, only once when my father died for 4 days. I had no communication or relations or anything. I left, and I don’t want to say never look back, but I never looked back. Just to show you how important was Tishreen.”20

Asked why they were motivated by Tishreen, diaspora activists related several influences, including feeling connected to Iraqi youth and their concerns, a wish to convey solidarity with protesters risking their lives for change, and a wish to help and connect with protesters in any way possible. The following quotes from activists capture these sentiments: 

“Up until Tishreen, I had given up on Iraq, that Iraq could keep me, so I gave up and stopped watching all news. I would get hurt and get annoyed and that people on the inside were accepting this and if they are happy and agree to this, why should I interfere? But after Tishreen, these people resemble us, so I felt after all, wow they are like us, and the more we got to know them they resembled us, because of social media and Instagram they are following what’s happening in the world. This affected me.”21

“All of us have this need for connection, so it was a way to connect as well. We wanted it to be a two-way thing for us to help but also try and hear more from people on the ground. We wanted it to be a two-way thing and also for them to see that there are people outside Iraq that care, regardless of whether we’re second or third generation or whatever. That we’re here. We hoped that that could, I don’t know, give them some kind of fuel.”22

“The goal was to create a bridge between the inside and the outside…your hands are tied in the outside, the world didn’t know what was happening. It was a frustration for us, people are dying, and we had to do something.”23

The triggers towards transnational activism therefore were not feelings of long-distance nationalism,24 but rather the transgression of human rights, the disproportionate violence, the lack of attention and coverage on the movement, the killing of activists shown across Western media, and a feeling of solidarity with Iraqi youth. A reverse relationship occurred for many in the diaspora whereby their activism led to nationalistic feelings and attachments. Indeed, for many, Tishreen gave birth to new hope, new networks, and friendships between the diaspora and Iraqis inside the country through Clubhouse, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, Signal, and WhatsApp, and with them came a renewed sense of Iraqi identity. As one diaspora activist related, “Now I have so many friends in Iraq I can’t keep up with them.”25

For most diaspora activists, news of Tishreen first reached them via Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp groups with family or friends in Iraq. The role of social media during Tishreen cannot be overestimated. Indeed, it could be argued that it was social media’s role in amplifying, sharing news and information, and creating platforms for organizing that helped spread the message of Tishreen both inside and outside Iraq. Certainly, for many in the diaspora, social media provided a means to connect with what was happening 24 hours a day, largely via Clubhouse, Facebook, Instagram Live, Twitter, WhatsApp groups, and, to a lesser degree, Telegram and Signal — where diaspora groups connected with Iraqi activists and artists. These social media channels thus acted as portals to Tishreen and Tishreeni activists, which facilitated the sharing of news but also later transnational collaborative efforts to support the movement from around the globe. Social media acted as a bridge, connecting Iraqis inside and outside the country through multi-sited online spaces. 

Within this digital transnational space, diaspora activists used their position of safety on the outside to highlight what was happening inside the country to their followers, both Iraqi and international. Some diaspora activists retweeted videos, photographs, and facts from the ground, while others were motivated to write articles for Western news outlets about what was happening and shared them on social media. Others saw their role as combating the derogatory government narrative about Tishreen by connecting with Tishreenis on the ground and creating content on Instagram. One such example is the independent media outlet shakomako.net, which was very active in countering the narrative and relating not only what was happening but also explaining why Tishreenis were protesting on Instagram. Another was the newly created organization Collective Action for Iraq, CAFI, whose acronym also translates to “enough” in Arabic. CAFI did weekly round-ups of what was happening in Iraq at the time and distributed this information on Instagram and Twitter to their followers. CAFI’s work would eventually capture the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in the UK, who contacted the organization to provide a briefing for what was happening on the ground.26

Following government internet blocks and the desire to reach a wider audience, many Iraqis migrated from Facebook to Twitter. Part of that rationale was to reach Western audiences as international media were not reporting what was occurring inside the country. One female activist translated Arabic tweets from Iraqi activists on the ground to Western audiences. She described connecting with female activists on Twitter after many migrated from Facebook where many could be reached directly. She states: 

“Women were very active on the ground and social media, especially on Twitter. If they saw people on the outside, they started to follow them, because they wanted the international media attention. I would translate their tweets and they would retweet. They would send me news and say please translate into English.”27

Social media channels, including groups on Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp, were used to share information and news about Tishreen and were also used to connect with activists and artists and to help strengthen the movement through solidarity protests, donations for medical supplies, food and drink for protesters, money, and personal protective equipment, especially when COVID broke out globally. When asked how they verified legitimate Tishreeni groups within Iraq, most activists who were involved in donations stated that it was through personal contacts on the ground who could confirm the identity of the groups. One activist described how this process was managed: 

“We spent a lot of time looking into this. Personal contacts through the group, people working on the ground that were legitimate and not party-political, and a few organizations we sent money to. One was called Iraqi Builders and then the other one was Iraq Hope as well [as] Fareeq Iraq al Amal. And they started distributing food and injured protesters were getting paid for treatment in hospital. When COVID kicked in, then it was helpful for PPE, etc.”28

Several diaspora activists expressed a wish to travel to Iraq and join in the protests. Several did indeed go to witness the movement and be a part of what was happening there. One diaspora activist in Switzerland returned to Iraq to take part in Tishreen, where he could personally take money raised through fundraising dinners in the diaspora to activists in Tahrir Square. At the same time, the activist would buy trinkets and souvenirs from Tahrir Square to sell in Switzerland and raise more funds for the movement: 

“So at one time, I told you, to get money I went to Iraq and I brought a suitcase full of all kind of things, miniatures of Iraqi heritage, Asad Babel, Bawabat Ishtar, I got so many of these things, and we had that girl I told you about school hall, a public space and there were Iraqi girls who cooked in Geneva, they made dolma and kebab and we had an open day for anyone who wanted to come and they would be paid 5-10 francs, they would eat, hang around and we did 3 talks, I talked in one thing, and we brought an Iraqi journalist who was based in Geneva, and an Iraqi band and they played oud, so we did whole cultural night and we fundraised around 12,000 Swiss Francs and we sent it there [Iraq].”29

Other social media channels, such as Clubhouse, were later used as platforms for discussion and for opportunities to lobby government representatives who would often attend various sessions and discussions. Clubhouse thus created the space to directly speak to Iraqi elites, giving the diaspora a channel to criticize government officials and speak up on behalf of the protesters getting killed. A few diaspora activists who were moved by events during Tishreen created a new organization in the U.S., End Impunity in Iraq, as a means to hold the government to account for the murder, kidnapping, and torture of young Iraqi protesters. Their tireless research and work would eventually lead to the arrest of Umar Nizar, who was involved in the killings of Iraqis in Mosul and later Tishreen. One of the founders recalls using Clubhouse extensively to do this: 

“Yes, we did a lot of Clubhouse. We did hours and hours and hours of Clubhouse, especially after we founded the organization, we had a Clubhouse room, that is an End Impunity in Iraq room. We did many things, so we had communication about certain events for example, we had invited people to be part of the Clubhouse, we did pressure on the government to arrest Umar Nizar, who was involved in brutal killing and terrorizing people in Mosul, and Jisr al Zeitoun massacre, so someone who was an officer in the army killing with impunity. So, we put a lot of pressure on the government to arrest him. We did a lot of things for the arrest of Qassim Musleh, the militia guy who was arrested for the killing of Ehab al Wazni [Iraqi activist].”30

Yet for some, Tishreen mobilized the diaspora in other ways. It inspired reflection on the divisions and fragmentation within diaspora communities and the building of new and more equitable diasporic futures. Tishreen thus provoked a transnational awakening in the diaspora too, demonstrating the two-way influence between Iraq and its extra-territorial population. Through discussions and live events connecting artists, musicians, poets, and writers, Iraqis on the outside could combat the derogatory government narrative about Tishreen. Equally, new national visions in Iraq also sparked important discussions within the diaspora about unity and togetherness. One male diaspora activist who runs an Iraqi digital magazine described the two-fold opportunity for Iraqis on the inside and outside: 

“So, during Tishreen, there was an opportunity to engage in discussion, to amplify voices, and to combat government-shaped narratives, that they were thugs and other ways they were being stereotyped. In addition to putting out social media posts, we had an Insta live event, and we had people talk about solidarity in the diaspora. All the people that work on the publication believe that the diaspora should play a more important role.”31

While online activism was extensive across the diaspora through various social media and digital platforms, connecting Iraqis on the outside to events inside Iraq, it also provoked offline activism, whereby the two worked in tandem to amplify the movement to different audiences. While social media was effective for sharing what was happening in Tahrir Square to audiences globally, offline activism helped reach specific domestic audiences, such as Western governments and intergovernmental agencies. For instance, one group in Switzerland demonstrated outside the United Nations building in Geneva, handing out flyers to passers-by about what was happening while also using their proximity to the UN to write an open letter to the Iraqi government through the UN. Furthermore, offline activism also helped keep movement morale and energy up as it brought people together in activism and celebration. One activist captured this relational dynamic: 

“In person, there’s an element of it being cathartic as well. When you are outside a person protesting or shouting about something or holding a vigil with people, even if it’s a silent vigil for example to be with people, there’s that physical sense of community it’s different, which I think is missing from online stuff. And the other thing that we saw when we organized the fundraiser in February, it was emotional to watch the videos and share what was happening to protesters but then there is this kind of celebration of Iraqi culture and music and heritage and spirit and stuff that was also very nice and people were then able to enjoy the music. So that in-person community organizing and events I think is so important. Since then and till this day people are like when are you going to organize another one?”32

At the same time, the offline events re-invigorated social media activism as people saw videos of the protest or connected during protests through social media. This two-way relationship between online and offline activism thus worked as a positive feedback loop which helped spread the message and connect more activists and protesters in the diaspora, while also forging strong relationships to the movement inside Iraq and to attachments to the country. 

While pro-Tishreen diaspora activists worked creatively to support Tishreen inside Iraq through various forms of material and symbolic mobilization, it’s important to note that the diaspora was in no way homogeneous in its political agenda or attitudes towards Tishreen. Certainly, as described above, Tishreen was a rallying cry for many within the diaspora to reconnect with and support a different vision of Iraq, which generated, for a brief moment, a sense of unity and togetherness amidst Iraq’s extra-territorial populations scattered around the world. However, there were also other factions within the diaspora, such as former Baathists,33 who joined in the protests as a means to denounce ruling elites. Reports of Baathists turning up to protests in London holding Iraq’s old national flag with stars meant that pro-Tishreen diaspora activists had to be careful not to align themselves with groups that could undermine the movement. This was especially important as Tishreenis inside the country were repeatedly accused of being Baathists or being backed by foreign governments. 

Another group of protesters who came out to denounce Tishreen were considered the loyalists, Iraqis in the diaspora often connected to Iraq’s elites and those in government, who do not want a reversal of the status quo. Clashes between diaspora activists in London, Detroit, and Michigan reportedly broke out between anti-and pro-Tishreen protesters, which not only underlines how transported factionalism affects diasporic transnationalism, but also the generational obstacles facing collaborative efforts between diaspora groups to unite and strengthen. As one activist pointed out: 

“In the diaspora there’s so much factionalism that’s brought over from Iraq…CAFI was different from other organizations trying to organize protests because we were much younger diaspora people, whereas the other organizations were much older and more established and there were tensions from this perspective.”34

TISHREENI ONLINE ACTIVISM AND MISINFORMATION 

The fight against Tishreen not only occurred on the ground in Iraq, but was also a fight for the narrative of Tishreen online. On Facebook and Twitter, activists both in the diaspora and inside Iraq were attacked and accused of being Baathists or “sons of the embassy,” referring to foreign governments such as the U.S., Turkey, Israel, and UAE who were allegedly backing protesters.35 These were the claims made by anti-Tishreenis against supporters and activists of Tishreen on social media and inside Iraq. 

Yet more insidious methods were also used via Telegram channels to spread disinformation about Tishreen and protesters through fake videos and news. One such channel was Sabreen News, a media channel with ties to Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, a political party and paramilitary group in Iraq and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force.36 Such Telegram channels reportedly became rife during Tishreen to denounce and discredit protesters. Beyond being labeled “Baathists” or “sons of the embassy,” Tishreenis were also presented as immoral, and claims were made against Tishreeni young men that they were involved with prostitutes and prostitution. Heated discussions on Twitter and Clubhouse, for instance, were used by both parties to make claims about Tishreenis and the movement. A few diaspora activists revealed that they had received threats online and were pre-warned about returning to Iraq as a result of their activism. 

Online misinformation was something that activists were acutely aware of, as they used personal and professional networks to verify news before tweeting or re-posting videos. One incident mentioned by several diaspora activists was in relation to a young man who was found hanging in Tahrir Square. At the time, claims on social media suggested it was Tishreeni protesters who had killed the man, however, it later materialized through other shared videos that militias were allegedly behind the killing. One activist spoke about how she used social media to correct the misinformation about this event: 

“I did a complete thread at the time in English to clarify what happened on the ground. I think they were the Sadrists, the Sadrist involvement, for instance, because many said Sadrists were part of the protest and being very peaceful, etc. Then we would see footage of them harassing protesters, especially those who were secular, for instance. So, if they dare to insult Muqtada, they will harass them and attack them, so I think it was important for me to expose these things because others who have political agendas, whether inside or outside Iraq, they were pushing a different narrative. So, I wanted to tell the world no this is not true, and we need to be aware of it, because in case anything happens in the future, we would understand the reasons”37

Fake news and videos were part of the Tishreen digital battle. Several Tishreen activists reported falling prey to fake videos at the beginning of the protests, which they mistakenly retweeted and were attacked for on Twitter and then later deleted or corrected. At the same time, one Tishreeni activist reported using misinformation as a tool to galvanize motivation and encourage more Tishreenis inside Iraq to rise up and continue the fight by reposting, for instance, a video of burnt tires that protesters lit in a bid to prevent security from entering their space. Diasporic activists would exaggerate the footage so that “they don’t give up and to put the message out there.”38 Misinformation and corrections to misinformation were therefore weapons used by anti-Tishreenis and Tishreeni activists and supporters to claim the narrative and to win the online battle for Iraq. 

Misinformation about Tishreen, however, not only came from within the Iraqi social media space but was also at times exacerbated by Western journalists who claimed that protesters were Saudi bots or were against the U.S. military base in Iraq, which also hampered the credibility of the movement in certain Western policy quarters. Iraqi journalists and activists reporting on Tishreen would often have to counter and correct misinformation on multiple fronts, including from within Iraq, from diaspora loyalists, as well as from Western journalists with certain perspectives and agendas. For instance, some journalists were reportedly claiming that Tishreen was anti-U.S. military or the work of Saudi bots, pushing certain perspectives on the movement to prove or further their theories and agendas that Tishreen was anti-imperialist or a proxy sectarian movement.39

CONCLUSION 

Iraq’s Tishreen movement failed to overturn Iraq’s political system and rid the country of Muhasasa Ta’ifya and rampant corruption. This is often the analysis presented in policy and academic circles whose views only capture the macro-objectives without paying sufficient attention to the powerful ways in which Tishreen transformed Iraqi society, diasporic political transnationalism, and attachments to Iraq. After all, Tishreen succeeded in removing the then Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi from office, with the backing of Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, no small feat for a country whose militias and political elites have a vice grip on power. 

Yet perhaps the most revolutionary act that Tishreen produced was unearthing a new vision for Iraq from the buried depths of corruption, ethno-sectarian politics, and violence. An Iraq dreamt and sought by a new generation of Iraqis, many of whom lost their lives and limbs in the process. This was an Iraq that bloomed with creativity, equality, human rights, dignity, jobs, and social and economic justice for all Iraqis irrespective of ethnicity, religion, class, and gender. An Iraq where young men and women marched and struggled side-by-side as equals to call for their rights and to demand a new country, albeit for a brief moment. 

The power of this renewed articulation of Iraqi nationalism resonated loudly and in an unprecedented way, not only with Iraqis all over the country, but also as far and wide as Iraq’s extra-territorial populations in Australia, Europe, the UK, and the U.S. Indeed, a renewed hope in Iraq was evoked in the diaspora, re-awakening attachments and identities hopelessly, or willfully, forgotten by years of witnessed violence and destruction. New networks and connections were forged, resources, funds, digital activism, and solidarity protests were mobilized, and new futures were imagined within and outside of Iraq. Like a digital army, diasporic digital activism may be mobilized and triggered sporadically by homeland events that resonate and capture the imaginations of extra-territorial populations abroad. 

While the fight for and against Tishreen was fought on the streets of Iraq, it also took place in Iraq’s digital public sphere on Clubhouse, Facebook, Instagram, Signal, Telegram, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube. The role of social media in communicating and spreading this new vision in Tishreen, as well as its role in tearing it down, therefore cannot be overestimated. The rise of misinformation battles, digital threats, and the creation of fake news channels have become a digital arsenal with real-world consequences, as Tishreen activists discovered through their monitoring of social media and their subsequent targeting by militias and government forces. 

Online spaces have therefore become parallel societies where digital landscapes can greatly impact and influence offline activism, revolutions, national movements, and transnational politics. The role of social media in today’s conflicts and movements can therefore no longer be ignored. Indeed, online and offline activism have become dance partners, where one supports or leads the other, especially during fatigue cycles, where face-to-face meetings and contact can rejuvenate digital activism and vice versa. 

Finally, what this report reveals is the extent to which the Iraqi nation has extended spatially through social media to its nodes in Australia, Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States, and wherever its global and active diasporas exist. Indeed, social media platforms have created multiple realities where Iraq exists beyond its territorial boundary. In Clubhouse meetings, Instagram communities, Twitterspheres, and WhatsApp groups, Iraq and its extra-territorial populations are bound through information technologies, which can equally accelerate unity and exacerbate divisions. Importantly, the spread of misinformation and disinformation can deeply threaten democracy and democratic processes, such as protests in fragile states such as Iraq, where accountability and the rule of law are weak. As such, social media represents a new frontier in modern-day conflict and warfare, which is increasingly being fought not only on physical battlefields but also on digital front lines. 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 

This paper is a project of the Center for Media Engagement (CME) at The University of Texas at Austin and is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, Open Society Foundations, and The Miami Foundation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding bodies.

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Jabar, F. A. (2018). THE IRAQI PROTEST MOVEMENT. LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series. 

Jones, M. O. (2022). Digital authoritarianism in the Middle East: Deception, disinformation and social media. Hurst & Company.

Kemp, S. (2019). Digital 2019: Iraq. DataReportal – Global Digital Insights. https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2019-iraq. 

Lovotti, C. & Proserpio, L. (2021). The October 2019 Protest Movement in Iraq. An Analysis of the “Early Moments” of the Mobilisation. https://doi.org/10.1285/I20356609V14I2P644. 

Moss, D. M. (2021). The Arab Spring Abroad: Diaspora Activism against Authoritarian Regimes. (Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108980036. 

Mustafa, B. (2023). All About Iraq: Re-Modifying Older Slogans and Chants in Tishreen [October] Protests. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 58(3), 401–20. https://doi.org/10.1177/00219096211069644.

 SUGGESTED CITATION: 

Kadhum, O. (December, 2023). The role of social media in Iraq’s Tishreen movement: Digital activism, misinformation, and propaganda. Center for Media Engagement. https://mediaengagement.org/ research/social-media-iraq-tishreen-movement

  1. Lovotti, C. & Proserpio, L. (2021). The October 2019 Protest Movement in Iraq. An Analysis of the “Early Moments”of the Mobilisation. https://doi.org/10.1285/I20356609V14I2P644.[]
  2. Brinkerhoff, J. M. (2009). Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement. Cambridge University Press.[]
  3. Chernobrov, D. (2022). Diasporas as Cyberwarriors: Infopolitics, Participatory Warfare and the 2020 Karabakh War. International Affairs, 98(2), 631–51. https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiac015.[]
  4. Bernal, V. (2014). Nation as network: Diaspora, Cyberspace, and Citizenship. University of Chicago Press.https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/N/bo18221277.html.[]
  5. Jones, M. O. (2022). Digital authoritarianism in the Middle East: Deception, disinformation and social media. Hurst & Company.[]
  6. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, May 1, 2023.[]
  7. Lovotti, C. & Proserpio, L. (2021). The October 2019 Protest Movement in Iraq. An Analysis of the “Early Moments”of the Mobilisation. https://doi.org/10.1285/I20356609V14I2P644.[]
  8. Jabar, F. A. (2018). THE IRAQI PROTEST MOVEMENT. LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series.; Halawa, H. (2021). Iraq’s Tishreen Movement: A Decade of Protests and Mobilisation.[]
  9. International Crisis Group. (2021). Iraq’s Tishreen Uprising: From Barricades to Ballot Box. Middle East Report 223.[]
  10. Kemp, S. (2019). Digital 2019: Iraq. DataReportal – Global Digital Insights. https://datareportal.com/reports/ digital-2019-iraq.[]
  11. BBC. (2019). Iraq Protests: Fake Videos and Pictures Shared on Twitter. BBC Monitoring. https://monitoring.bbc. co.uk/product/c2014qvf.[]
  12. Mustafa, B. (2023). All About Iraq: Re-Modifying Older Slogans and Chants in Tishreen [October] Protests. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 58(3), 401–20. https://doi.org/10.1177/00219096211069644.[]
  13. Halawa, H. (2021). Iraq’s Tishreen Movement: A Decade of Protests and Mobilisation.[]
  14. Amnesty International. (2020). 12 Dead and Brutal Repression in Last 48 Hours amid Ongoing Crackdown on Protests in Iraq, New Amnesty Investigation Finds. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/01/iraq-protest- death-toll-surges-as-security-forces-resume-brutal-repression/.[]
  15. International Crisis Group. (2021). Iraq’s Tishreen Uprising: From Barricades to Ballot Box. Middle East Report 223. The electoral law was adopted in December 2019 and follows a first-past-the-post system for smaller electoral districts within Iraq’s eighteen provinces, which should empower individuals and not political parties.[]
  16. International Crisis Group, 2021.[]
  17. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, May 1, 2023.[]
  18. Human Rights Watch. (2022). Iraq: No Justice for Protester Deaths. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/11/29/iraq- no-justice-protester-deaths.[]
  19. Fakhoury, T. (2018). The Arab Uprisings and the Politics of Contention Beyond Borders. https://doi. org/10.24847/55i2018.164; Moss, D. M. (2021). The Arab Spring Abroad: Diaspora Activism against Authoritarian Regimes. (Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics). Cambridge University Press. https://doi. org/10.1017/9781108980036.[]
  20. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, May 11, 2023.[]
  21. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, May 1, 2023.[]
  22. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, April 26, 2023.[]
  23. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, May 23, 2023.[]
  24. Anderson, B. R. O. (1992). Long-distance nationalism: World capitalism and the rise of identity politics. Center for German and European Studies, University of California. ‘Long-Distance Nationalism: World Capitalism and the Rise of Identity Politics.’[]
  25. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, May 1, 2023.[]
  26. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, April 26, 2023; Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, April 24, 2023[]
  27. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, April 26, 2023.[]
  28. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, April 26, 2023.[]
  29. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, April 25, 2023.[]
  30. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, May 11, 2023.[]
  31. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, May 2, 2023.[]
  32. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, April 26, 2023.[]
  33. Baathists refers to Baathist sympathizers or those formerly connected to Saddam’s former regime through their political positions or social networks who now reside in the diaspora.[]
  34. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, April 24, 2023.[]
  35. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, May 9, 2023.[]
  36. Malik, H., Smith, C., & Knights, M. (2021). Profile: Sabereen news. The Washington Institute. https://www. washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/profile-sabereen-news.[]
  37. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, April 28, 2023.[]
  38. Author interview with Iraqi activist via Zoom, May 1, 2023.[]
  39. Author interview with Iraqi journalist via Zoom, May 5, 2023.[]