Iraqis turn to Twitter to support army


By Samah Al Momen

Like the rest of Muslims in the Arab world, the majority of Iraqis are keen to observe Ramadan and its rituals. However, for more than a decade now Ramadan in Iraq has been more of month of war than of peace thanks to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS, which usually mount their bombings against the defenseless civilians in major cities to emphasize the Islamic character of their insurgency.

Ramadan was not peaceful prior to the topple of the Saddam Hussien regime either. The eight- year war with the neighboring Iran, also known to Iraqis as “Saddam’s Qadisiya” in reference to a battle in the seventh century, provides ample evidence on that. Back then many military operations took place between the two Muslim countries throughout the fasting month. In fact, Saddam dubbed one of those major military operations, which he launched to liberate the southern portal city of Faw, Basra as “Ramadan Mubarak”.

Likewise, Ramadan this year seems to have coincided with another military operation, yet the majority of Iraqis cite this one with optimism, hoping that it would the beginning of the end of the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS), aka Daesh.

Just few days before the beginning of the holy month, the Iraqi army backed by the US-led coalition airstrikes launched a military operation titled “Breaking Terrorism” to liberate Fallujah in the western province of Anbar, a city that was under the control of the terrorist group for two years.

And while many Iraqis used to resent Saddam’s tendency to launch battles during Ramadan, this current one against ISIS seems to have gained a wide support among the different component of the Iraqi people who have suffered major losses since the emergence of ISIS.

The fall of major cities such as Mosul and Fallujah to ISIS on June 10, 2014, startled the world and was a major blow to the Iraqi people. The spectacle of thousands of Iraqi army troops fleeing the city had a psychological impact on the nation, which became overwhelmed by feeling of loss. In fact many Iraqis say that their feelings of confusion, frustration, division, and disillusionment are similar to those felt by the Egyptians or Arab nationalists during the Setback in 1967.

Hence, the recent military operation in Fallujah was critical not only for the army, but as well, for the civilians including bloggers who said that they were deeply insulted when they learned that ISIS flooded Twitter and other social media sites with photoshopped photos and videos claiming that they were about to take over the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

For this reason more than 30 Iraqi influential Facebook bloggers decided to launch a Twitter campaign to support the army operation in Fallujah urging their followers to join in.Among the bloggers were journalists, civil society activists, digital illustrators, and cartoonists such as Ali Wajeeh, Ahmed Al Agha, Ridha al Shameri, Ahmed Falah, Murthada Kazar, Maytham Radhi, Ali Hujazi, Atheer Mohammad, Mustafa Nasser, Samer Jawed and Mujatahd Al Anbar.

Leaning on their wide base of popularity, these influencers used Facebook as a preparation platform. The employed the live video feature for example to explain the campaign objectives, content, and even educate their followers on how to start accounts on Twitter and use the hashtags and other features.

The campaign expanded the number of participants when it also included one of the most popular pages on Facebook in Iraq; Al Khowa al Nadifa (Clean brotherhood).

An analysis of the tweets and live videos those influencers made shows that the campaign was targeting internal and external audience and gearing to:

  • Improve  Iraqi army’s image among Iraqi and Arab audience
  • Counter the false media reporting of some Arab Gulf satellite channels
  • Provide assurances to Fallujah residents about the good intentions of the army
  • Counter ISIS narrative on Twitter by spreading content that reflects the progress made by the Iraqi army

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To Implement these goals, the organizers told their followers to “migrate” from Facebook, the number one social media site in Iraq, to Twitter where there is very modest presence for Iraqis there, yet it is the most popular platform for ISIS and its sympathizers.

In fact many participants and local media in Iraq referred to the campaign as (Iraqis’ assault to Twitter – غزوة العراقيين لتويتر)

To reach out for the largest number of Iraqi social media users, the organizers encouraged celebrities such as writers, novelists, and TV presenters to join their campaign and urge their own followers to follow suit. Many have done so voluntarily. Another smart move they made was to involve Illustrators and cartoonists who provided effective visual content that helped prolong the life cycle of the tweets.

Of course, an essential piece for such a campaign is the use of hashtags. Creating a new one is usually difficult, but if it catches on, the brand behind it benefits from the lion’s share of credit and awareness, and that is exactly what happened in this one. Everyday organizers released a new hashtag and asked people to use it in addition to a permanent one: الفلوجة تتحرر#Falloujaisliberating.

All hashtags focused on the Iraqi identity highlighting objective terms and rarely mentioning ISIS (Daesh), a clever way to avoid publicity for the latter.

Also, some hashtags are derived from Iraqi colloquial and meant to spur sarcasm/fun such as فيتبم   ( car fuel pump) in reference to ISIS as this part of the air pump that frequently burns out in Iraq during the summer.

Another hashtag was الخليفة مشفر   (Khalifa is coded). This is one was very popular and is still trending. It is meant to mock ISIS’ leader Abu Baker Al Baghdadi’s decision to ban all kinds of communications/internet and phones in Fallujah and Mosul to prevent news of his group loses in Fallujah from affecting the morale of his followers, according to the campaign organizers.

To pay a tribute to the Spanish soccer club Real Madrid, the organizers created a hashtag that reads in Arabic: Thank You Real Madrid, شكرا_ريال_مدريد#. In May, the Real Madrid dedicated the Champions League title to the Iraqi fans who were killed by ISIS while they were watching a match on TV. The hashtag drew even more audience to the campaign of such soccer fans as in Iraq and the Arab world.

Perhaps the only missing piece of this campaign was the lack of a Twitter account that officially associated with campaign. Having one would have made it much easier for the followers to find out what was the hashtag of every day and perhaps receive further updates on the content that they can use.

This blog for instance asked on Twitter 69 Iraqis who were tweeting for the campaign, on how did they know what was the hashtag of each day, 63 per cent said they would know from other users, 21 per cent said they would know from users on Facebook, 11 per cent said they would know of it by accident, while 5 per cent said they knew about it through an account associated with the campaign.

Accurate measurement on the success of the campaign is hard to ascertain especially when Twitter does not provide any information on what are the popular hashtags in Iraq, such as it does with most of the Arab countries and the world. This is an issue that will probably require another campaign by the Iraqis to convince the social media site to include their country in its list of the tailored trends of hashtags based on locations.

However, organizers told U.S funded Sawa Radio that more than 200K tweets used the Arabic hashtag (Fallujah is being liberated) and 26K accounts were created on Twitter by Iraqi users during the first 48 hours of the campaign.

It an attempt to improve his declining popularity, Iraqi PM Haider Al Abadi who was one of those who capitalized on the campaign’s success using more than once some of the hashtags. An unverified account that has the name of famous Syrian actor Duriad Laham also used the hashtags to extend support to the Iraqi people and army.

In Iraq where internal politics and the war on terrorism are constantly casting shadows on the image of the country abroad, one would think that public diplomacy has to be a priority for the Iraqi decision-makers. Yet, reality has proved that despite all the resources and opportunities, little has been done in this respect. While metrics on how much this campaign has done to help accelerate the success of the military operation in Fallujah remains unavailable, at least for the writer of this article, experts who are acquainted with the Iraqi situation and the social media sphere in Iraq can tell that this Twitter campaign has done what the local authorities failed to do when it regained for the Iraqi army the public trust it desperately needed, and will need to liberate Mosul.

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