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The rise of digital authoritarianism in MENA

  • Marc O. Jones

    Associate Professor of Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University

    أستاذ مشارك لدراسات الشرق الأوسط والعلوم الإنسانية الرقمية بجامعة حمد بن خليفة

Digital technology gives authoritarian governments increased access to the private domain of its citizens and is opening the door to more totalitarian forms of governance. 

When the Arab uprisings started in 2010, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were relatively new and there was a general belief that these new digital tools would be used to promote public debate and accountability, while helping citizens organize against authoritarian regimes. This so-called ‘techno-utopianism’ believed that technology was fundamentally liberating.

It is now generally accepted, however, that while social media and mobile digital technology played an important role in the Arab Spring, it was only one among many variables that contributed to the waves of popular mobilization. More importantly, it has become increasingly clear that social media was not only a catalyst for change but also a tool for state oppression.

As the Arab uprisings show, the authoritarian adaptation of new technologies highlights the ability of states to turn new digital tools into weapons used to control citizens. Like any other tool, digital tools can be used differently depending on the political and social context. In an authoritarian environment, digital technology will reflect this.

Digital authoritarianism is the use of digital technology to repress criticism and dissent using surveillance, intimidation, manipulation and propaganda.

Techniques of repression

Digital repression largely aims to achieve the demobilization or repression of political movements, or potential movements, through behavioural change and censorship. This can be achieved by targeting citizens through propaganda, manipulation, surveillance, harassment and, at the extreme end, incapacitation – i.e., arrest or murder.

Some states are able do this better than others. Digital superpowers, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are able to use digital technology to project their influence and repressive capacity domestically, regionally and internationally.

In terms of surveillance, this has been done in a number of different ways. Some Gulf states are using intrusive spyware technology to target activists. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE are reported to be using Pegasus spyware, manufactured by the Israeli company NSO Group. Pegasus infiltrates the mobile devices of its victims, recording their every message, and turning their phones into remote audio/video recording devices. A large number of the reported targets of Pegasus lived or worked in Yemen, the UAE,  Bahrain and Qatar. At least 36 Al Jazeera journalists, news anchors and executives were targeted in 2020.

Surveillance can be much cruder though, and relatively localized operations can have far-reaching chilling effects on free speech Recently, a US jury determined that Saudi moles infiltrated Twitter’s headquarters, sending private information about Saudi activist accounts back to the Saudi Royal Court in exchange for money and luxury watches. In addition to the information garnered from the infiltration itself, the very knowledge of such an audacious infiltration has a chilling effect and communicates the idea that the state is omniscient and willing to use any means necessary to silence dissent.

From punitive laws to peer-to-peer surveillance

Egregious legal penalties and deliberately vague publishing and security laws mean that those using social media to criticize the government can, and do, face serious prison time for seemingly innocuous activities. For example, Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi citizen studying in the UK, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for merely retweeting and following Twitter accounts deemed to be ‘causing public unrest and destabilizing national security’.

The al-Shehab case also highlights how digital surveillance can be devolved to loyal citizens, as she was allegedly reported to Saudi authorities through a mobile app called Kollona Amn or ‘we are all security’. Although it is not clear if this report was the reason for her being targeted by Saudi authorities, such tactics of peer-to-peer surveillance are endemic, and were used to great effect in the Bahrain uprising to target citizens who had attended protests or expressed support for the pro-democracy movement.

Censorship through harassment, intimidation and incapacitation is also common. Young people operating anonymous accounts get paid to harass critics. These troll farms use harassment and threats to scare and silence critics and spread disinformation to influence others. Their ubiquity also contributes to the perception of the state’s omniscience. Although, it is not only states who use this tactic. The Mujahedin-e Khalq in Iran, for example, encouraged members to open multiple social media accounts in order to harass critics. At the extreme end of the censorship spectrum, regime critics, like Jamal Khashoggi, are killed.

Towards digital totalitarianism? 

Manipulation of social media platforms also helps disseminate propaganda, in some cases aided by influential PR companies. Legions of bots, or influential accounts boosted by fake followers, can manipulate algorithms to ensure that government criticism is drowned out in the digital public sphere. Similarly, the promotion of disinformation thrives in a space that has been co-opted, i.e., a space where critical voices are absent as a result of digital repression.

Digital technology gives authoritarian governments increased access to the private domain of its citizens. Mobile phones, in particular, become vectors that hold our most intimate moments, from personal memories and conversations with friends and family, to our physical location. Without much stopping authoritarian regimes from unrestrained abuse of power, digital technology is opening the door to more totalitarian forms of governance – that is, a persuasive control over both private and public life.