Social Media Communications of Armed Groups: The Case Study of the MNLA

by Michael Keen, 19C  Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies and Arabic
Fox Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

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On January 17, 2012, armed rebels attacked Malian government posts and army barracks around the city of Ménaka, in the northeastern part of the country.  Within weeks, in many cities and towns throughout northern Mali, Mali’s flag had been torn down and replaced by a new one.  The fighters belonged to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and the flag they flew was that of Azawad, the nation-state they hoped to carve out of northern Mali.

The MNLA’s uprising initially met with spectacular success, and the Malian army suffered defeat after decisive defeat and was driven out of the entire northern region.  By early April, the MNLA’s leadership felt secure enough to proclaim the unilateral independence of the state of Azawad.  Today, though, Azawad does not feature on any international maps.  The MNLA’s national project failed to gain international recognition, and in June 2012, the MNLA was defeated by a coalition of jihadist Islamist groups also present in the area.  These groups threatened southern Mali, prompting a French-led international intervention in January 2013, which drove the jihadists back underground and gave rise to a peace process between the MNLA and its allies and the Malian government.  In 2015, the MNLA’s leadership signed a treaty formally renouncing their separatist ambitions in favor of a host of provisions intended to reform governance and development practices in Mali.

It was because of this treaty, the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation, that I came across the MNLA as a subject for research.  The Agreement called for a neutral observer to monitor implementation of the treaty, and The Carter Center, an NGO founded by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, was tapped to serve as this observer.  I rather serendipitously ended up as one of the inaugural Carter Center interns to work with the Mali team.  As an intern, one of my primary duties was to monitor news in Mali, especially news relating to the north and the peace process.  I noticed that traditional Malian media sources often quoted social media statements put out by groups involved in the peace process, including the MNLA.  Some quick digging informed me that members and supporters of the MNLA were very active on social media, especially Facebook, and had been for years.  The seed for my research project was planted.

My project eventually came to focus on the Facebook postings of public-facing pro-MNLA accounts, including those that I could verify as belonging to MNLA officials tasked with communicating on behalf of the group, during the period of the civil war, 2012-2015.  I focused in particular on two questions.  First, what types of content were pro-MNLA Facebook accounts posting during this period, and how did posting trends respond to offline events relevant to the MNLA?  Second, what were the dominant themes of pro-MNLA Facebook discourse throughout this period?

The study of how social media is utilized in the public communications of armed groups remains in its infancy.  Until now, the overwhelming majority of scholarship has focused on Islamist jihadist groups, especially the Islamic State and its affiliates around the world.  The MNLA, as a secular secessionist group that seeks essentially to work within the nation-state paradigm, is fundamentally unlike the Islamic State, but the MNLA does have elements in common with many other groups around the world.  Furthermore, little scholarship has focused on groups operating on the African continent in particular.  However, these issues are important.  As the use of social media continues to rise, especially in regions of the world, including Africa, that have experienced statistically higher levels of conflict in recent years, it is likely that more armed groups of all stripes will utilize social media in the service of their goals.  As they do so, studying social media will provide an ever-better window onto the identity and aspirations of armed groups, an understanding of which is critical to any kind of conflict resolution process.  I hope that my work will contribute in some small way to these scholarly conversations.

Working at the Fox Center has been extremely helpful to me over the course of this project.  My research is inherently interdisciplinary in that it attempts to combine a nuanced understanding of the history behind the MNLA’s uprising with aspects of communications theory, discourse analysis, and social science quantitative methodologies.  Being able to hear scholars working in so many different fields at the Fox Center present their work, their ideas, and their methodologies certainly helped me think in more interdisciplinary and creative ways.  The project of Dr. Amín Pérez, in particular, with its focus on the development of ideas within a specific historical context bound by time and place, was inspirational to me.  As I prepare to leave Emory for the next stage of my career, I will look back with fondness on my time at the Fox Center.

Michael Keen is a senior double majoring in Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies and Arabic.  His thesis for the MESAS Department draws on history, communications theory, and discourse and image analysis to analyze the dominant narrative frames employed by Facebook users linked to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a secular northern Malian secessionist rebel group that launched an armed uprising against the Malian state in 2012, to define the MNLA’s identity and goals during the 2012-2015 conflict.  His project aims to contribute to a broader scholarly understanding of how non-jihadist insurgent groups formulate and propagate their identities and goals through social media. 

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