Morocco 's King Mohammed VI in front of Moroccan flag with glitched background

Frederic Legrand - COMEO/Shutterstock The7Dew/Shutterstock Sergio Rojo/Shutterstock (Licensed) remix by Jason Reed

How digital misinformation became an essential tool of control in Morocco

The country weaponized fake claims and helped them explode online.


Najwa Jamal


Posted on Mar 23, 2022   Updated on Apr 6, 2022, 3:57 pm CDT

As a child being wound through weaving souk paths, there were never-ending photographs, some framed and others bare, of King Mohammed VI. All were tacked up above and around me, out-of-touch, but not out-of-sight. Whether a portrait of the king seated atop a red velvet throne, or a too intimate image of his blank, tight-lipped gaze, every store, shop, or market displayed this emblem of loyalty. 

Loyalty is the driving force behind many, if not most, cultural and legal standards in Morocco, immortalized in the country’s motto, “Allah (God), Al-Watan (Nation), Al-Malik (King).” It is even etched in Arabic into the earth on a beachside hill in Agadir. This former French and Spanish colony devoted itself to the creation of a narrative, one that weaves together its citizens’ loyalty and nationalism to form a near-lethal blend of authoritative control. Only certain narratives can prevail. 

In recent times, this need for a proper narrative to be pushed to the populace has skyrocketed, proliferating in misinformation, blackmail, and surveillance throughout the country.  

An award-winning investigative journalist has been sentenced to six years in prison on account of rape and espionage accusations. An economist has seen the circulation of videos on WhatsApp—taken in his home and without his permission—of him and his partner sleeping together. As the country’s populace pushed for reforms and rebelled, the Moroccan monarchy, and its religious foundations, retrenched. Now, it will push narratives online and use illicitly obtained videos to paint anyone they want a certain way. And hope that its people’s belief in the crown will prevail.

Morocco has become a country where misinformation does the work of the monarchy. 

“[Misinformation in Morocco] is about control, in my opinion,” said Raed Labassi, Technology Advisor at Amnesty Tech’s Security Lab. “It’s clear, with similar regimes in other countries, autocratic and police regimes, [they] feel they need to have control over every aspect of the lives of the citizens and over how they think, especially how they think about the authority.” 

The need for control is evidenced by the country’s restrictive, though recently “reformed,” penal, press, and speech codes. The 2016 edition of the codes eliminated prison as punishment for nonviolent speech offenses, a slight advancement—but only in name.

Said reforms were a testament to the tenacity of a government’s control over its perception. Morocco’s monarchy was willing to do what was needed to maintain what some have called a “royal facade,” pretending to look progressive while remaining staunchly regressive. 

Risk still lies within the penal code’s infallible “red lines,” which refer to the holy trinity of topics, speaking about which require acute navigation: the place of Islam, the legitimacy of the monarchy, and the country’s territorial integrity. Peaceful critics alike play a tense game that involves delicate treatment of these topics; a wrong move could set you back anywhere from six months to four years in prison. 

The severe reactions to criticism can be traced back to the extremely religious roots of Morocco’s government and monarchy. The king remains being referred to by the Arabic title of “Amir al-Mouminin,” or “commander of the faithful.” The last two years alone have seen the jailing and/or prosecuting of at least 10 different journalists, activists, critics, and citizens speaking out against the country’s monarchical government, and its makhzen, a term used to refer to Morocco’s group of ruling elites. From speaking out against the “expropriation of tribal lands” by the state to “insulting” a specific judge, critics, journalists, and media personalities face steep consequences for their dissent.

These criticisms present cracks in the facade. And the country has gone to complex digital lengths to keep the walls patched 

“The interesting aspect of control in Morocco is their heavy reliance [on] and mastering of new technologies to this end,” Labassi said.

A February 2021 Facebook Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report (CIB) revealed that 385 Facebook accounts, six pages, and 40 Instagram accounts were taken down in Morocco for violating policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior. According to the report, the accounts taken down were, in part, used to comment on pro-government stories from news outlets, particularly ChoufTV. 

And high-profile cases like that of investigative journalist Omar Radi, professor Maati Monjib, and economist Fouad Abdelmoumni demonstrate the startling lengths of this government’s digital reach.

The common denominator is criticism of the government, but when charges come, there’s often more the government claims. Too often accompanying the array of charges slapped down against critics are more defamatory charges of rape and sexual assault.

Though rape is a legitimate offense, there is reason to believe, in these cases, it may not have happened as alleged. Several women who testified in these cases denied the allegations being made in their name or disclosed that their statements had been falsified. And yet, these charges and cases are hailed by the Kingdom, gaslighting its populace as a positive step forward in the country’s response to the #MeToo movement.

Or, instead of rape charge, the monarchy will attempt digital smear.

Videos of Abdelmoumni and his partner having sex circulated on WhatApp, videos that were filmed from inside their home and without their knowledge. These videos were sent to Abdelmoumni’s relatives and family. Abdelmoumni’s critiques of the makhzen, or elite high court, landed him a spot on the monarchy’s destructive to-do list.

Radi’s case remains of note, exhibiting every arm in the monarchy’s misinformation machine. Radi was charged with espionage over to his investigative work and contracted foreign research. In July 2021, he was sentenced to six years in jail. Some of his most resonant work includes reporting on the injustices surrounding the Hirak movement, the protests and unrest that’s led to the monarchy’s new information war, as well as an investigation into land grabs by speculators that exposed officials for acquiring land at a fraction of its market value. 

Human Rights Watch counted at least 136 discrediting articles on ChoufTV, while other sites accused him of working with foreign intelligence and being a secret agent. Amnesty International’s Security Lab research revealed traces of Israeli company NSO Group on Radi and Monjib’s phones, the latter the first victim of this surveillance. 

In the months following the release of Amnesty’s report, hundreds of Facebook accounts involved in spreading disinformation about the organization were taken down. The monarchy will go to great lengths to dispute any criticism, even that of a well-respected NGO. 

As Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech Danna Ingleton tweeted: “Our credibility and our research standards were attacked publicly in an attempt to distract from the actual issue – that #NSOGroup spyware is being used in Morocco against civil society.”

Monjib, a long known critic of the government, historian, and human rights activist, was arrested in December 2020 on charges of money laundering. In an interview with the  Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Monjib detailed his complicated history and relationship to the monarchy, stating that he has “always been outspoken about the regime’s infringements on the freedoms and rights of citizens, the suppression of the free press, and arbitrary arrest of activists,” with his 2020 arrest not being his first brush in with the law. 

It isn’t yet clear what will become of the activists, critics, and journalists. But from smear websites to revenge porn, to surveillance and disinformation, one thing is clear.  Morocco’s government is taking extraordinary steps to broker a distinct narrative and image.

As Labassi said, “misinformation is used to counter the revelations of investigative journalists and human rights workers on the authorities’ violations and scandals.” 

Keeping the truth out, the monarchy has determined, is the new high-tech way to stay in control.

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*First Published: Mar 23, 2022, 8:17 am CDT