By Farah Adan
Social media has long been hailed for its potential to transform dialogue and democratize politics by amplifying the voice of the common person, but increasingly the world is waking up to its corrosive impact as well. After all, some of the “common” voices being amplified can be quite toxic and destructive. This latter trend has unfortunately become quite apparent in the Somali social media world.
Like many societies, Somali society has always been burdened by chauvinistic, tribal individuals with toxic personalities who sow the seeds of discord and conflict. The fragmentation of Somali society along segmentary clan lines and the recent history of widespread clan conflict and the absence of genuine social reconciliation has for the past 26 years significantly increased the influence of this toxic minority among Somalis. These toxic personalities not only perpetuate the civil war by spreading hate and grievance narratives, but they also adept practitioners of qabyaalad—tribal chauvinism, often characterized by excessive boasting about the supposed superiority of one’s tribe and its concomitant right to greater resources and political status.
Today the practitioners of qabyaalad have gained access to a new and powerful tool—social media. Before they could only rant at the local tea shop or the occasional clan meeting or on Paltalk, but today this toxic minority can beam their appearance and incitements to tens of thousands of viewers via social media. The more vicious, shocking, and outrageous their qabyaalad, the more people click “share” and spread their filth even wider. This phenomenon will undoubtedly prove to be a major obstacle to peace and reconciliation in Somalia.
Currently the most prominent of these toxic social media figures is a man named Dahir Abdulle Alasow, a Somali refugee living in The Netherlands. Alasow runs several fake news websites and has a massive social media following—his Facebook profile has 244,000 followers, an astounding figure for a country with Somalia’s population. The bulk of Alasow’s popularity comes from his daily Facebook Live appearances, where he spreads innuendos, falsehoods, and sensational “news” stories that often have a very strong tribal tinge to them. For years now Alasow has propagated the conspiracy theory that Issaqs, a clan group from Somaliland, were collectively planning and executing terror attacks in Mogadishu because they did not want to see a “Hawiye” city succeed.
Alasow published dozens of fake news stories and poorly-edited documentaries alleging that Dahabshiil, a prominent Issaq-owned money transfer company, financed these attacks. Dahabshiil later sued him for defamation and he was rebuked by a Dutch court and forced to pay damages, but he continues on his way. The latest conspiracy theory that Alasow is peddling is that Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, was responsible for starting the fire that recently destroyed large sections of Mogadishu’s Bakaara Market because he wanted to uproot the primarily Hawiye business owners and replace them with his own Darood kinsmen. As always Alasow furnishes no evidence for his claims, but nevertheless repeats them constantly and quit vehemently on Facebook Live and his many websites. If his claims are believed by some of his viewers, this will undoubtedly contribute to increased clan tensions.
Alasow‘s behavior has spawned quite a few copycats who covet not only his large following and influence, but also the lucrative financial resources that can be extracted from the fake news industry. Indeed, despite presenting himself as “unemployed” to Dutch authorities and claiming a full compliment of social benefits as I’ve been told, Alasow generates considerable income from Google Adsense, YouTube, and sometimes even receives payment from Somali elites who want him to spread damaging rumors about one of their rivals.
One Alasow copycat, who is also his pupil and mentee, is Mohamud Mohamed Dahir, nicknamed “Arab” because of his light complexation. Like Alasow, Arab recently claimed political refugee status in Europe and has found his life calling in spreading tribal vitriol and conspiracies on social media. He already has 57,000 Facebook followers (in addition to 5,000 people on his friends list), and he receives tens of thousands of views for each of his daily Facebook Live rant sessions where he often incites his Hawiye clan against the Darood. In one recent session, Arab invited a woman who identified herself as the ‘leader of the Hawiye clan community in the United Kingdom‘ onto his “program,” where she, ranting via loudspeaker for a little over an hour as Arab egged her on and broadcast her voice to thousands of viewers, denounced the election of the “Darood” Farmaajo in “our [Hawiye] city Mogadishu” and called upon Hawiyes to chase Farmaajo out “like we chased his people out in 1991.”
Arab and Alasow are only two of the more prominent and regular online trolls; Somali social media is rife with other provocateurs with similar modus operandi. Notably, the majority of these individuals appear to be are diaspora-based. Far removed from the disorder and violence in Somalia, and thus the consequences of their actions, they incite conflict in their native land from the comfort of the Western countries where they have gained asylum.
The proliferation of trolls on Somali social media and the subsequent flourishing of online qabyaalad will pose a major problem for Somali society. Fake news and the proliferation of online xenophobia has pushed long-established democracies such as the United States into uncomfortable territory, one can only imagine, then, the damage this phenomenon can afflict on a fragile state such as Somalia which is trying to recover from two decades of social fragmentation and civil war. Unfortunately, given the ability of unscrupulous individuals to monetize such behavior and the absence of uniform international policies to address it, it is likely to continue.
A good first step to remedying this situation would be for Western governments to revoke legal asylum for refugees who incite conflict and discord in their native countries while enjoying security and prosperity in Western countries.