Digital Activism and Authoritarian Adaptation in the Middle East

Marc Lynch, Project on Middle East Political Science

Social media platforms and digital technologies played a decisive role in political mobilization, before, during and after the 2011 Arab uprisings; inspiring academic and popular discussions of the internet as a “liberation technology” inevitably undermining the foundations of authoritarian states.[1] But it is no longer 2011. The naïve assumption that “the internet” necessarily would serve as a liberation technology has been dislodged by overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as authoritarians have discovered creative ways to capitalize on digital technologies for repression and control.[2] The ubiquity of online infrastructures has facilitated new forms of digital authoritarianism, through surveillance, manipulation, disinformation, and highly targeted repression.[3] The use of such tools by state and non-state actors now presents a major challenge not only to activists in authoritarian contexts but to democracies.

To explore these issues, the Project on Middle East Political Science partnered with Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and its Global Digital Policy Incubator for an innovative two week online seminar.  This workshop built upon more than a decade of our collaboration on issues related to the internet and politics in the Middle East, beginning in 2011 with a series of workshops in the “Blogs and Bullets” project supported by the United States Institute for Peace and the PeaceTech Lab.[4] This new collaboration brought together more than a dozen scholars and practitioners with deep experience in digital policy and activism, some focused on the Middle East and others offering a global and comparative perspective. POMEPS STUDIES 43 collects essays from that workshop, shaped by two weeks of public and private discussion.

The rapid development of digital infrastructures forces analysis to move beyond last decade’s debates about online versus offline, social media vs broadcast media, liberation vs repression.[5] Digital tools that were once novel have become ubiquitous, with internet use now nearly universal across most of the region and with no easy separation between the virtual and the real. Media ecosystems, as Ethan Zuckerman reminds us, cannot in any useful way be understood as a set of discrete online and offline platforms.[6] What could it mean to say “Twitter caused X” or “Clubhouse could lead to Y” when those platforms are fully integrated into dense, richly interwoven communication networks? Broadcast media stream over mobile devices and maintain popular websites and social media feeds, while videos and ideas from social media cross smoothly and seamlessly into satellite television programs and print publications.

This ubiquity and integration has significant analytical implications. Questions which dominated the literature in the early 2010s such as “does social media empower political protest” no longer make sense, when social media are so fully integrated into media ecosystems and the broader political realm. It is better to think in terms of socially mediated public spheres, where conversations, information and sentiments fluidly travel through multiple platforms, and in terms of discrete mechanisms by which particular communication flows might shape attitudes, behavior or outcomes.[7] Television broadcasts with vast audiences may appear to fit a traditional model of one-to-many broadcasting, but it is the complex, rapid simultaneous discussions of those programs – the sharing of clips through social networks, the retweeting or commenting on key moments, the formation of clusters of attitudes around their contents – which constitutes the public sphere.

Social media tools are not only, or even primarily, used for political mobilization. They have transformed every dimension of social, cultural and political life, as they have woven themselves into the fabric of everyday life.  Particularly in a region dominated by the young, it is almost impossible today to even remember a time when people did not receive news, share opinions, or experience popular culture through social media. Public facing apps such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube dominated the scene during the 2011 uprisings. Since then, new apps regularly appear and rapidly gain currency: WhatsApp and Telegram, with their combinations of encrypted one to one communication and large scale groups for in-network semi-public sharing and conversation; Clubhouse, with its live audio discussions; TikTok, whose playful videos can slide easily into political statement.  Some of these new apps, as Joshua Tucker argues in this collection, fill similar functions as the older generation of social media for political mobilization. But others present substantive differences: in-network communications, such as those on WhatsApp or Telegram, may be invisible to researchers but central to lived experience. Their encryption possibilities may also provide an unwarranted sense of safety to their users. In all cases, seemingly apolitical apps can quickly take on political roles for creative activists – which, in turn, increases the incentive of autocratic regimes to control and surveil them.

The ubiquity of socially mediated communication intersects uneasily with the pervasive and potent memories of the revolutionary moment of 2011 which still inspire activists and frighten autocrats. The more that activists and autocrats alike recognized the potency of digital communications, the more they sought to use it and bend it towards their own purposes.  Middle Eastern regimes, focused primarily on preventing challenges to their own survival, came to view social media as a major potential threat and as such, invested heavily in ways to control, surveil and manipulate online activity.  The push towards digital authoritarianism took many forms: colonization of the online public through manipulation, inauthentic activity, and influence operations; surveillance of the online public through big data analysis, spyware, and tracking apps;  silencing of the online public through deplatforming, content moderation and targeted repression of influential voices; transnationalization of repression through information operations and surveillance abroad; and the normalization and legalization of architectures of digital control.  The MENA public sphere today is shaped by the ubiquity, then, of both socially mediated digital communication and transnational digital authoritarianism.

The trend towards digital authoritarianism, both globally and regionally, has progressed through a combination of technology, policy and law. While regimes may have in the past aspired to these kinds of control and surveillance, the material possibilities have only become available relatively recently.  The reach and scope of surveillance technology is now breathtaking, with online life tailor-made to offer visibility into the political and private lives of its users.  As the papers in this collection document, regional governments have been enthusiastic consumers of the most advanced surveillance tech, such as those revealed in investigations of the NSO Group and Pegasus.  Most famously, the assassination of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi appears to have been driven by intercepted online communications; but that is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of state efforts to spy on potential and real opponents.  James Shires points out the importance of the physical infrastructures of digital surveillance in the Gulf, including the locating of digital clouds in Saudi Arabia and the regional offices of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in the UAE. The normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel has accelerated the already robust market for Israeli surveillance tech in the Gulf. Some states, such as Iran, may aspire to a Chinese style of state bounded and controlled internet. For all their adaptability and courage, many civil society actors have left themselves at the mercy of this surveillance technology, as Alexei Abrahams shows in his original research on Palestinian civil society.

The ultimate goal of this surveillance infrastructure might be seen in the Chinese model explored by Xiao Qiang, where comprehensive surveillance becomes a societal norm, while highly sophisticated artificial intelligence assesses massive quantities of data to identify threats, trends and opportunities for state action.  Such a goal may be out of reach for many poor, low capacity Arab states which can barely manage the basics of governance. But for the wealthy, high capacity states of the Gulf, it is not only a goal but increasingly a reality – one accelerated by the adoption of COVID-tracking apps which increasingly normalize ubiquitous surveillance and state visibility into every aspect of citizen lives.  The UAE has gone the farthest in this direction, layering sophisticated digital surveillance into its already pervasive authoritarianism and state domination of society.  Other regimes in the region would surely prefer to follow suit.

Digital authoritarianism has technological, policy, and legal dimensions.  As Ahmed Shaheed and Benjamin Greenacre point out in meticulous detail, the region’s autocrats have sought not only to engage in surveillance and manipulation, but also to craft a permissive regulatory and normative framework. Norms and ethics rarely outweigh power politics or economic opportunities, as Mohammed Najem and Afef Abroughi discuss, in the digital realm or elsewhere. Multiple exposes and sustained criticism by human rights organizations have done little to halt the transnational diffusion of intrusive digital surveillance tech.  It is difficult to shame the shameless or impose reputational costs in an atmosphere of impunity.

Activists continue to adapt and evolve, of course. Joshua Tucker shows in his global overview that activists have adapted new platforms and technologies to achieve familiar aims such as coordination, broadcasting, and overcoming barriers to collective action. This summer’s Palestinian mobilization against efforts by Israeli settlers to seize homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem offers a vivid example of the continuing power of social media to break through information blockades, generate local and international support, and reshape political realities.  The very power and success of that online mobilization brought its own response, of course, as Israel successfully lobbied social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to remove large volumes of Palestinian content while nontransparent algorithms “unintentionally” blocked even more.  It speaks to the stakes of these online narrative battles that Israel has taken such aggressive measures to police and control them.

As many of the essays note, the active role being played by platforms today is an important new dimension.[8] The traditional assumption of the platforms as essentially neutral brokers, providing a level playing field for the actors to fight it out, no longer holds.  There have always been algorithmic biases nudging users towards particular types of content. The new element is active intervention by platform managers, such as Twitter banning Donald Trump or Facebook agreeing to huge volumes of Israeli demands to take down Palestinian content and remove Palestinian users.  Through content moderation and takedowns, algorithmic promotion, and selective enforcement, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are increasingly taking sides in contentious political struggles.  Why they do so remains a matter of debate.   Mohammed Najem and Afef Abroughi point to the economic incentives, with social media platforms eager to retain access to lucrative markets and investment capital. Mona Elswah and Mahsa Alimardani instead offer a cultural and political narrative grounded in what they deem an Orientalist policing of Arab and especially Palestinian content.

This digital authoritarianism is increasingly transnational in nature. One dimension of this is that regimes which view threats to their stability from dissidents living abroad can use digital methods to identify and surveil them without regard to national borders. Khashoggi’s murder and widely reported threats to other Saudi dissidents abroad have received the most attention here, but other countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Iran and Turkey have carried out similar digital surveillance of their citizens abroad.  Marwa Fatafta’s essay unpacks the various dimensions of these efforts by MENA states to exercise control beyond their borders, extending their repressive reach across a genuinely transnational public sphere.

A second form of transnational digital politics is the crowded realm of disinformation, manipulation and information warfare.[9] State and non-state actors use a wide range of inauthentic activity to shape narratives, promote particular ideas or politicians, and interfere with events across borders.[10] Hamit Akin Unver and Ahmet Kurnaz argue in their essay for a more comparative approach to online disinformation. Their detailed study of Russian information operations in Turkey highlights a range of possible behaviors, in line with foreign policy goals. Andrew Leber and Alexei Abrahams warn that it is too simplistic to simply assume that armies of bots are behind digital narrative warfare.[11]  Often real people are the key influencers, even if bots serve as amplifiers.   Identifying bots and inauthentic activity remains critical, however, as Marc Owen Jones explains – both for policy makers and for academics hoping to learn from big online data. Academic researchers must also be wary, as Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld and Anita Gohdes warn, of how the composition of users changes over the course of war. Their study of geotagged Twitter users from Syria shows that it is not only messages and content which change, but the actual users – which could have significant implications for how we interpret trends in discourse.

What about policy interventions against disinformation and manipulation? Renee DiResta and Shelby Grossman do a deep dive into takedowns reported by Facebook and Twitter, showing both what they have chosen to do and its limits.  MENA regimes have been, perhaps unsurprisingly, at the forefront of state-sponsored inauthentic activity, with networks associated with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt among the most frequently targeted for removal. Alexandra Siegel shows in her contribution that platforms labeling media outlets as state-controlled can significantly impact their reach.  Other authors point to possibilities for human rights naming and shaming campaigns and the mobilization of international law and norms to limit the transnational reach of digital authoritarianism.

Taken together, the essays in this collection offer a rigorous, empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated snapshot of an embattled digital public sphere in the Middle East.  The extent to which repressive states have been empowered as a consequence of digitization can seem overwhelming.  But, as Tucker and others remind us in this collection, activists have consistently found ways to exploit new apps, and found creative ways to leverage online platforms for mobilization and information sharing. Social media platforms themselves may find incentives to change their approach, should they face sufficient reputational costs.  And overly intrusive state censorship and surveillance could trigger its own backlash, pushing typically apolitical citizens into opposition.  We expect to continue exploring these constantly evolving digital politics in our ongoing project.


[1] Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, eds. Liberation Technology: Social Media and the Struggle for Democracy.(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012); Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Deen Freelon, Marc Lynch and John Sides. Blogs and Bullets II:  The Impact of New Media on the Arab Uprisings. Washington DC: United States Institute for Peace Peaceworks (2012); Marc Lynch, After Egypt: The Promise and Limitations of the Online Challenge to the Authoritarian Arab State. Perspectives on Politics 9, no.2 (2011): 301-18; Nils B. Weidmann and Espen G. Rød, The Internet and political protest in autocracies (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[2] Larry Diamond, “Rebooting Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 32, no.2 (2021): 179-183; Joshua A. Tucker, Yannis Theocharis, Margaret E. Roberts, and Pablo Barberá. “From liberation to turmoil: Social media and democracy.” Journal of Democracy 28, no. 4 (2017): 46-59.

[3] Ron Deibert, “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Cyberspace Under Siege,” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 3 (July 13, 2015): 64–78.

[4] Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch and John Sides Blogs and Bullets:  New Media and Contentious Politics. United States Institute of Peace (2010); Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Deen Freelon, Marc Lynch and John Sides Blogs and Bullets II:  The Impact of New Media on the Arab Uprisings. United States Institute for Peace Peaceworks (2012);  Marc Lynch, Deen Freelon and Sean Aday, Blogs and Bullets III: Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War, US Institute for Peace (2014);  Blogs and Bullets IV: How Social Media Undermines Transitions to Democracy. With Deen Freelon and Sean Aday. Washington, D.C.: PeaceTech Lab (2016).

[5] James Shires, The Politics of Cybersecurity in the Middle East (London, UK: Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2021).

[6] Ethan Zuckerman, “Why Study Media Ecosystems?” Information, Communication and Society. Online First (2021), DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2021.1942513

[7] Henry Farell, “The Consequences of the Internet for Politics,” Annual Reviews of Political Science 15 (2012): 35-52.

[8] Jillian C. York, Silicon Values : The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism (Verso, 2021)

[9] Marc Owen Jones  “The Gulf Information War| Propaganda, Fake News, and Fake Trends: The Weaponization of Twitter Bots in the Gulf Crisis”. International Journal Of Communication, 13, 27 (2019); Marc Owen Jones, Digital Authoritarianism, Deception, Disinformation and Social Media. (London: Hurst, forthcoming).

[10] Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard. “The global organization of social media disinformation campaigns.” Journal of International Affairs 71, no.1 (2018): 23-32.

[11] Alexi Abrahams and Andrew Leber. “Comparative Approaches to Mis/Disinformation| Electronic Armies or Cyber Knights? The Sources of Pro-Authoritarian Discourse on Middle East Twitter.” International Journal of Communication15 (2021): 1173-1199.