Weeks before his trial in December 2021, hundreds of anonymous Facebook accounts launched a large-scale defamation campaign against the former head of the Bar Association, Mohammed Ziane, who was accused of “insulting a regulatory authority and public officials.”
Ziane was then met with a swarm of dehumanizing attacks by anonymous users online, or “E-flies,” who fabricated sexual photos of him, supposedly in defense of the nation and Security Agencies. In reality, he was facing a defamation campaign and threats of detention to pressure him into renouncing his support for political prisoners.
Historian and opposition journalist Maati Monjib told SMEX that he had faced the same situation in the years leading up to his detention in December 2020, where he received numerous threats from the same anonymous accounts now attacking Ziane.
Oddly, these anonymous accounts mentioned the trumped up charges on which Monjib was detained in January 2020–that is, nine months before the Public Prosecution opened an investigation into Monjib’s alleged financial charges.
“E-flies” – a term used to describe accounts and pages targeting a specific category of people – have been hinting at the fate of several opposition figures and human rights advocates in Morocco. When these individuals are targeted, they are often detained soon after or begin to practice self-censorship.
Khouloud Mokhtari feared for her life after E-flies on Facebook and Twitter threatened to have her “imprisoned, raped, and melted in nitric acid” if she continued to support her detained husband, journalist Sulaiman Raissouni. Mokhtari told SMEX that “many human rights advocates, particularly women, have stopped posting on social media after receiving threats from E-flies, who also published cartoons or photos depicting them naked or in sexual photos of them.”
Intimidation and social isolation
Over the past few years, media outlets affiliated with Moroccan authorities have initiated multiple defamation campaigns against historian and journalist Maati Monjib. He was detained and sentenced to one year in prison on the charge of “undermining national security.” His phone was also hacked using Israeli NSO’s Pegasus spyware.
Monjib, the president of Freedom Now, expressed that “personal attacks by E-flies have been a daily struggle” for him for several years. He adds: “These attacks remind me of my role in defending freedom, democracy, and the liberation of political prisoners, but they also drive many of my friends away. They avoid communicating with me for fear of becoming victims of the same defamatory media campaigns launched by E-flies against me. This includes fabricating photos and spreading false information and fake news to discredit me.”
Monjib says that while E-flies almost never miss commenting on his Facebook posts, they usually turn a blind eye to issues that stir public reactions, such as when security agencies commit violations against citizens. “E-flies focus their efforts on promoting the security apparatus and responding to anyone who suspects their compliance with the law and with human rights,” he adds.
Monjib notes that E-flies are present in much larger numbers on Facebook compared to Twitter. This could be due to the fact that Facebook is more widely used in Morocco, as it is accessed by 76% of social media users, whose number is estimated at 17 million people, compared to 17% for Twitter, according to 2019 statistics by Hootsuite.
An suspicious link between E-flies and Moroccan authorities
E-flies publicly flaunt their loyalty to the Moroccan regime by showering King Mohammed VI with praise and glorifying the policies of Abdellatif Hammouchi, Head of the General Directorate of National Security and the General Directorate for Territorial Surveillance–and who was involved in the Pegasus scandal.
These accounts present themselves as defenders of the “Kingdom’s sacred foundations” against what they consider “traitors of the homeland.” Their main purpose is to terrorize targeted activists, either by threatening to detain them or even to have them executed, or by pressuring them to abandon their criticism of the state. They also troll posts and tweets with offensive and fabricated comments and publish short videos and cartoons that discredit activists on ethical or sexual grounds.
In the same vein, a report published by Middle East Eye in November 2020 revealed that experts from the European Union were training members of Moroccan and Algerian security agencies on how to spread disinformation and government propaganda using fake identities, while harvesting data on certain Facebook users.
A report published by Facebook in February 2021 revealed that it deleted 385 fake Facebook accounts and six pages, in addition to 40 Instagram accounts, that were promoting articles in support of Moroccan authorities. A defamatory website called “Chouftv.ma” is believed to be the instigator of most of these articles. According to the report, the website takes pride in its loyalty to the Moroccan security apparatus, attacks opposition figures and human rights advocates, and glorifies Abdellatif Hammouchi and King Mohammed VI.
Judicial Collusion with E-flies
Souad Brahma, attorney at law and member of the Central Bureau of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), argues that Moroccan authorities encourage the spread of E-flies, “which have been targeting human rights advocates on a regular and intensive basis since 2018.”
She explained that “the Public Prosecution has never investigated the serious threats, allegations, and defamatory photos spread by E-flies to discredit opposition figures and journalists.” However, “the Public Prosecution is very quick to act when an individual publishes a post criticizing the regime’s policies, as we have witnessed recently.”
According to Brahma, most of the content published by E-flies has nothing to do with freedom of opinion and expression. She laments the fact that the judiciary “does not look into the complaints lodged by the victims of E-flies, under the pretext that the perpetrators are unknown individuals using fake accounts, which often leads to the case being dismissed.”
Meanwhile, “the Scientific and Technical Police should be at the service of the judiciary, as it is equipped with the necessary qualifications and skills to put an end to this phenomenon and reveal the identity of its perpetrators,” according to Brahma.
Victims who personally lodge complaints against E-flies may receive death threats, as was the case of rights activist and engineer Ahmed Benseddik, who filed a complaint before the judiciary in 2014. Shortly after, he received public threats in a video published on the Royal Youth Movement’s social media accounts. According to Benseddik, the judiciary never addressed the issue.
Ultimately, due to the judiciary’s inaction and the failure of social media companies to effectively limit the widespread activity of E-flies in Morocco, victims of defamation campaigns and fake news resorted to campaigns seeking to ban E-flies accounts. Some activists, such as Fouad Abdelmoumni, El Mahdi El Mhamdi, and Amna Terrass launched a campaign to “block E-flies” (بلوكي الذبان) on Facebook and Twitter, in an attempt to warn users against this phenomenon and encourage blocking such accounts.