The British government has been guilty of using ‘stealth’ and ‘manipulation’ to control and worsen the economic and political condition of Lebanon, revealed leaked documents from the British Foreign Office in December 2020 and published by The Cradle on August 20 this year.
Lebanon has been the hotbed of anti-government protests over rising inflation, unemployment, corruption, poor living standards, and waste management. Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister-designate, failed to form his government even after nine months of negotiation. As such, he was forced to tender his resignation on July 15 this year. This was the second time that he had resigned from the post.
Earlier, widespread resentment and public demonstration led to his resignation in October 2019. It has now come to light that the British government has been at the helm of a ‘regime change’ operation in the politically-wrecked nation of Lebanon. The Cradle reported that about 7 months before the anti-government protests gripped the city of Bierut, the UK government commissioned a Target Audience Analysis (TAA) in the country.
Mobilisation of targeted audience against the Lebanon government
The purpose was to identify ‘population segments’ that could be mobilised for ‘positive social change’ against the government. One of the objectives was also to reduce sectarian tensions and unify population groups to oppose the ruling government. The government had tasked ARK to conduct TAA in Lebanon. ARK is a consultancy firm founded by British Intelligence MI6 operative Alistair Harris and has conducted psychological operations at the behest of both the US and the UK government.
ARK narrowed down the target audience to 12% of the population, who did not adhere to violent means but were active in protests and civil society initiatives. The British government had sanctioned a budget of £2,100,000 between April 2019 and March 2021 for the project. Through a multi-channel strategic communication campaign, ARK began influencing the public perception of their target audience and ‘stir them into action.’ But ARK has been at the helm of such manipulative operations in Lebanon since 2010. They were involved in campaigns such as ‘Get Out The Vote’ (2017/2018 elections) and ‘Take Action’ (2019).
The role of ARK in mass propaganda in Lebanon, and enhancing mobilisation capabilities
In order to influence its target audience, ARK partnered with 4 different local organisations. They started creating, publishing and pushing ‘compelling content’ on social media, print media, billboards, and local broadcast channels. The firm’s campaign dubbed ‘Take Action’ became the second most recognised advertising campaign among the respondents, ahead of political parties and beer companies. It engaged a whopping 30% first-time voters in one way or the other. ARK’s success in Lebanon paved the way for a dedicated production hub in the country, with another office in London. The firm would publish original content 5 times a day, with each post reach 45% of the population.
ARK also secretly created a Facebook Page by the name of ‘Ana Hon’ (Arabic : I am here) under the garb of a youth empowerment project funded by the Canadian government. The objective again was to build ‘mobilisation capacities’ of the youth and ‘promote positive stories from these communities and peer groups’ in areas such as Tripoli, Central Bekaa and Sidon. Under the initiative, locals were trained in video production to share compelling stories that would in turn encourage other young Lebanese. The Facebook page of ‘Ana Hon’ witnessed 16.3 million reach and a million views per month. Interestingly, 3/4th of the page was followed by the cohort between 18-35 years.
Hyper-local initiatives, co-operation with influencers
ARK adopted a ‘hyper-local approach’ to disseminate their propaganda to a wide range of audiences. They set up regional hubs in Beirut and other areas, published stories of pro-social behaviour with the ‘Ana Hon’ Facebook page serving as the aggregator of all such stories. The expansion of the page was thus crucial to the communication plans of the company. The company began training new reporters for Ana Hon, with the target of recruiting 50% women, besides the existing lot of 24 staffers. The purpose was to spread their propaganda to a wider female audience. ARK also conducted offline events to reinforce their messaging and bring about behavioural change.
Furthermore, ARK created a network of actors and influencers, who shared the objectives of the United Kingdom, and trained them in video production and messaging. At the same time, NGOs and local governance actors were recruited in exchange for their promotion on national media, ‘Ana Hon’ Facebook page, and other communication channels. Reportedly, the firm was well aware of the risk associated with the large-scale manipulation including the threats by Islamist terror outfit Hezbollah to the UK government and its affiliated groups in Lebanon.
ARK conducted bootcamps, town hall meetings, organised engagement forums to further their objective. It engaged the attendees in raising and resolving critical local-level issues, which should have been addressed by the government. The firm helped youth groups in conducting surveys, identifying issues of concern, and raising them at meetings. At the same time, ARK allowed the groups to be transferred to self-created youth collectives, In this way, they projected that the youth could become a part of a national group and foment change in the society.
ARK published training resources, educational material, political interviews, Q and A sessions, humorous messaging campaigns to facilitate the active recruitment and participation process. It targeted regions such as Beirut, Bekaa, Tripoli, and Chouf for its propaganda to induce ‘positive social change behaviour.’ The selection of the ‘priority regions’ was again based on Target Audience Analysis (TAA), which was conducted prior to the inception of the manipulation campaign. ARK succeeded in presenting the campaign as “a Lebanese-led youth political engagement project.”
ARK shrewdly concealed the role of UK government in the propaganda warfare
ARK ran surveillance programmes on Hezbollah run social media channels, private Whatsapp messenger groups and assured the British Foreign Office of warning in advance about any forthcoming attack. It still remains unknown how the firm had access to such terror networks. While keeping its local partners at the forefront of the manipulation campaign, ARK was able to conceal the role of the UK in the economic and political destabilisation of the country. “Content will not be directly attributed to the UK (and) this project will be designed and presented as a social cohesion project, providing a strong defence against any attacks on the UK,” it had vowed.
“Partners will be selected for sharing project objectives (and) based on their credibility as messengers and/or existing, established follower bases inside Lebanon. All content will be hyper-local, referencing local themes, locations and individuals that the target audience understands,” the firm had outlined the strategy. In one of the leaked documents dubbed as ‘theory of change’, it was noted that ARK succedded in creating a culture of youth participation and hold political elite and institutions accountable. It also suggested that it paved the path for improvement in Lebanon’s governance, suggesting its pro-Western inclination.
With the leakage of the Foreign Office Documents in December last year, the closely guarded secret of ARK and the British government was laid bare to the world. The incriminating evidence against the firm was released on the internet and ARK’s founder Alistair Harris fled Lebanon within 10 days. He then went to London and was given a post at the Civilian Stabilisation Unit within Whitehall. Today, Lebanon remains in tatters, both on the economic and political front. And it highlights how foreign intervention and regime change campaigns hurt the interest of native States more than before.