Ukraine War: Arab Social Media Unsympathetic, Sees Western Hypocrisy

As the Western world rallies around Ukraine during Russia's invasion, Arabic-speaking social media users have been less inclined to express solidarity due to a perceived lack of international support for Arab populations in times of upheaval.

On platforms like Facebook and Twitter, numerous posts in Arabic have weighed in on the conflict with what they say are double standards regarding the West's complicit nonchalance at best, and deadly intervention at worst when it comes to countries like Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq.

Many users see further hypocrisy in Western countries hastily condemning and sanctioning Russia while enabling Israel's policies toward Palestinians. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's support of Israel was similarly not well-received.

Ukraine soldiers sit on a tank
There appears to be a lack of sympathy from some Arabic social media users for Ukraine, who see hypocrisy in the Western reaction to events. In the image, Ukrainian soldiers sit on a armoured military vehicule in the city of Severodonetsk, Donbas region, on April 7, 2022, amid Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine. FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

Other parallels drawn by Arabic-speaking users included Europe's reception toward Ukrainians fleeing their country versus Middle Eastern and African migrants.

Mahmoud Pargoo, associate research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute in Melbourne, mapped out these trends using tweets in Arabic posted between February 22 and March 15.

Pargoo found that nearly 12 percent of all Arabic-language posts discussing the Russia-Ukraine war—a total of six million tweets—also mentioned Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinians.

"It's like a second degree perspective to Ukraine somehow, they see in Ukraine something about themselves, or a reflection of their grievances," Pargoo told Newsweek.

He noted that while English-language Twitter users are concerned with "first degree experiences" within the conflict, tweets in Arabic focus on bigger picture issues.

"It's like a study of something, it's an object, it just refers you to something bigger about political problems, international relations, hypocrisy of the West, and so on and so forth," he said.

Pargoo said his research is in its early stages and does not yet account for the possibility of coordinated activity from foreign actors, such as troll farms seeking to spread disinformation.

The Arab world is itself no stranger to detached rhetoric. On Arab social media, users did not take kindly to journalists and commentators' maladroit comparisons between Ukraine and Middle Eastern nations, as well as their liberal use of loaded terms like "civilized."

"The thing that has people a little bit upset is what they see as being a discrepancy in the international attention, but also in the media coverage and the language used to talk about the victims and what has been termed in Western media and other media—'Russian aggression' and so on," Dina Matar, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, told Newsweek.

"Whereas these terms and words have not been used in the same way when discussing, let's say, unrest or protest or violence in the context of the Arab world."

Support for Russia has also been prevalent in Arabic-language social media spheres, as the Kremlin is perceived to be pushing back against American imperialism. Such narratives can also be found among prominent Western commentators who brand themselves as anti-imperialist.

On Facebook, Arabic-language Facebook groups focused on Ukraine-Russia developments garnered tens of thousands of members and multiple daily posts praising Russia. Few show support for Ukraine.

Matar said that the tendency among Arabs to associate Russia with anti-imperialism has a "long history associated with struggles against imperialism and colonialism."

"This kind of general sentiment has a long history," she told Newsweek. "So it isn't something new, but it goes back to the Cold War, even before the Cold War."

Like the rest of the world, Kremlin-sponsored disinformation has also found its way to Arab social media. Denials of civilian killings in Mariupol and Bucha, as well as the insistence that Ukraine is operating biolabs, have circulated in Arabic.

Facebook, Twitter logos shown on computer screen
A photo taken on October 21, 2020 shows Facebook and Twitter's logos on a computer screen. Arab social media users across platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been less inclined to show support for Ukraine during Russia's invasion. DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images

While a considerable sample size, social media posts do not necessarily reflect the views of all Arab people across the Middle East, North Africa, and the diaspora. In Lebanon, Ukrainian residents of the capital Beirut were joined by Lebanese nationals for an anti-war protest near the Russian embassy.

A poll published in March by Ramallah-based think tank the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 43 percent of Palestinians surveyed blamed Russia for starting the war with Ukraine, compared to 40 percent who blamed Ukraine.

However, 57 percent believed the war demonstrates a "double standard of US and Europe when the conflict is about the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories."

Twenty-eight percent said both situations are too different, while 10 percent thought Western countries stood against Russia just as they stood against Israel.