Social Media Manipulation in the MENA: Inauthenticity, Inequality, and Insecurity

Andrew Leber, Harvard University[1] and Alexei Abrahams, Harvard University[2]

Over the past decade across the Middle East, social media platforms have gone from being praised as ‘liberation technologies’ to being lambasted as tools of repression.[3] Between 2009-2011, starting with Iran’s ‘Green Revolution’ and continuing into the ‘Twitter Revolutions’ of the Arab Spring, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter appeared to facilitate popular mobilization against authoritarians. Perhaps inevitably, however, such an incubator of unrest could not be left uncontested. Regimes that survived the Arab Spring, chief among them Saudi Arabia, subsequently invested substantial resources to manipulate social media discourse in their favor.[4] Such top-down efforts moreover benefited from a growing climate of disillusionment over the Arab Spring, and a concomitant rise in counter-revolutionary mobilization.[5] And while sometimes running afoul of platforms’ terms of service,[6] they have also drawn legitimacy in recent years from a growing extra-regional consensus over the prerogative of states vis a vis ‘content moderation.’[7]

In this essay, we stress the ways in which centrally directed, technology-based platform manipulation by authoritarian regimes – i.e. bot armies controlled by security officers in Interior Ministries – are augmented or even outpaced by less centralized and more organic forms of manipulation. We classify existing literature on social media in the MENA within three broad trends of manipulation: ‘inauthenticity’, ‘inequality’, and ‘insecurity’ (summarized in Table 1).[8] While the literature has touched on each of the nine ‘buckets’ in Table 1, we find it has dwelt predominantly on the first column of the table (centralized manipulation), and especially on the first row of that column (inauthentic activity). State officials certainly undertake all three forms of intervention, but so do pro-regime decentralized actors who, while products of a state-curated information environment, appear to operate somewhat independently from state command.  Furthermore, social media’s unequal and hierarchical nature – and the ability of regimes to target trendsetting “influencers” for co-optation or repression – has attracted less scholarly attention than the potential for ‘bots’ to simulate mass online behavior.

We conclude by encouraging a renewed research agenda that lends greater weight to these under-explored areas. This would entail deeper theorizing of the ends and means of manipulation, contextualization and comparison of pro-government campaigns, and the use of mixed-methods research designs that pair data analysis with ethnographic work and qualitative interviews that can explore the meanings of online activity as well as the multiple motivations for pro-government mobilization.

Table 1: The three “I’s” of pro-government social media manipulation, with examples of centralized (state) activity, decentralized (non-state) activity, and activity that falls somewhere in between.

Centralized   ← Ambiguous →   Decentralized

Use of digital automation or fabrication tools to give the impression of online popularity or authenticity.


“Bot” armies


“Fake news” websites

Coordinated “support groups” of users


State exploitation of `platform advertising features

Individual purchases of followers and “engagement”


Leveraging the outsize impact of “influencers” on social media discourse.


State officials building social media presence


State pressures on platforms to censor content

State cooptation or coercion of pre-existing “influencers”

Social media presence of state-regulated media

Independent users building social media presence through pro-regime rhetoric


The use of online intimidation, physical-world repression and surveillance to curtail online activity – especially of “critical” influencers.


Direct repression


Cybercrimes laws


“Bot” mobs

Media & state officials encouraging social media mobs Independent social media mobs “denouncing” or harassing other users


Studies of “digital authoritarianism” within the Arab Gulf monarchies have focused heavily on ways that inauthentic accounts (often state-backed) manipulate online narratives. In pioneering work, Marc Owen Jones has documented the role of bot armies in promoting sectarian rhetoric in Bahrain,[9] simulating support for pro-Saudi comments by then-US President Trump,[10] and promoting anti-Qatar hashtags as “trending topics.”[11] Other research has tied specific Saudi state actors to social media manipulation, especially during the Gulf Crisis – a multiyear standoff between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, on the one hand, and Qatar on the other.[12] The ongoing civil war in Libya has also emerged as a major regional site of state-backed social media manipulation, involving bot networks affiliated with the UAE and Saudi Arabia as well as, to a lesser extent, Qatar and Turkey.[13]

Taken together, these studies challenge the idea that social media expressions represent “autonomous expressions of opinion by individuals,”[14] highlighting instead the role of centrally directed state messaging in shaping online speech. Gulf governments’ manipulation of online discussions has become a common trope in media coverage and analysis of regional social media, becoming almost the default explanation for pro-government narratives online.[15]

Still, not all unusual activity is inauthentic. Even gold-standard detection methods are prone to misidentify real users as fake,[16] and researchers may hold unrealistic assumptions about what authentic social media activity looks like.[17]Researchers should acknowledge that identifying bots thus remains an ongoing challenge, establish rather than assume the existence of bot networks, and reflect on how biases in bot identification methods inform interpretation of results.

Furthermore, the presence of bots does not necessarily imply state-backed operations. Private companies sell a wide range of automated engagement services, maintaining millions of fake accounts to that end – including in the Middle East and North Africa.[18] Even if states sometimes employ these firms,[19] the authors’ own work has repeatedly noted incidents of isolated individuals with high levels of inauthentic support.[20]  This often has more to do with celebrities or would-be influencers buying sizeable followings outright to boost perceptions of their popularity, though the same dynamics could apply in creating a perception of political support.[21]

To be sure, the absence of bot activity also does not rule out central coordination. Under Twitter’s policies, for example, governments can purchase advertising tools that encourage “cultural customs and local protocols to show allegiance” – in other words, pro-government rhetoric.[22] Governments (as well as private firms they employ) might likewise pursue a hybrid approach incorporating both bots and real users, utilizing “support groups” that promise real users more followers in exchange for promoting preferred messaging.[23] Still, we argue that researchers should not begin with the presumption of government-directed inauthentic activity.


Approaches that account for the hierarchy of online discourse can highlight the extent to which state-backed social media manipulation incorporates real users, not only to evade platforms’ anti-manipulation algorithms scanning for manipulation, but also to ensure that citizens engage with state narratives. Bots may flood social media sites to disrupt conversations or harass individual users.[24] Yet Saudi bot networks generate limited online engagement even compared with authentic Saudi Twitter users. Even prominent pro-government activity can exhibit quite limited bot activity.[25]

The clear leader/follower dynamics of social media platforms instead suggests we focus on accounts that have established themselves as “influencers,” generating an outsize impact on online discussions. Playing to the cut and thrust of social media culture affords particular individuals (or the accounts they control) the symbolic capital necessary to mobilize displays of support online from loyal followers.[26] In analyzing #jamal_khashoggi (Arabic) over October-November 2018 on Twitter , for example, we found that just 50 such users – 0.07% of 69,595 accounts in our sample – garnered over half of all retweets[27] Control of these commanding heights of online rhetoric (directly or indirectly) would allow MENA regimes to send clear cues regarding the tone of permissible or desirable online speech, whether state actors seek to instill genuine loyalty[28] or merely the appearance thereof.[29]

The most influential accounts on social media often belong to people or organizations with substantial offline social capital — movie or soccer stars, prominent religious figures, regional news agencies, wealthy elites, ministers of state, and so on.[30] In this regard, the ‘offline’ power advantages of the state carry over to the online space. Beyond his control of various bot armies and “support groups,” for example, Saud al-Qahtani (a Saudi royal court official who effectively served as the Kingdom’s “media czar”) maintained an active and open Twitter presence, earning glowing praise from state-regulated Saudi media.[31] While Qahtani’s account was subsequently suspended from Twitter for manipulation practices, fellow royal-court advisor Turki Al al-Shaikh continues to maintain an equally expansive online presence.[32]

State officials enjoy an additional advantage over “ordinary” influencers in their ability to lobby platforms regarding content moderation decisions – hindering the ability of individuals to build followings by discussing “undesirable” topics.  While both states and ordinary users can, in theory, request content takedowns, state officials have greater leverage in threatening not just a citizen-led boycott of a platform but a country-wide ban of the site (potentially denying platforms substantial market share).[33] Israel’s ‘cyber referral unit’, for example, is a government agency dedicated to flagging social media content deemed problematic and prompting the relevant platform (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc) to take action.[34] In May of this year, as mass protests erupted across historic Palestine, organizations like 7amleh and Access Now documented numerous incidents where pro-Palestinian content was censored for dubious reasons.[35]

Even if state actors enjoy considerable advantages in setting a pro-state agenda online, individual influencers can build online followings without clear state ties – either building on offline fame or becoming “self-made” influencers through online activity alone. Officials across the GCC have found that such social media “stars” can help convey desired messages to their respective publics.[36] While these influencers might be intrinsically motivated to make pro-government statements, authoritarian regimes can also deploy state resources to incentivize cooperation through promise of reward or threat of repression. Saudi officials reportedly considered both with respect to journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in the hopes that he might be “a profound addition to the [Saudi] Twitter army and cadre of government mouthpieces.”[37]

While analysis of online social mobilization from below has typically focused on government critics, pro-government social mobilization is quite common within GCC social media communities.[38] In Saudi Arabia, this has often taken the form of intense nationalism, with users competing in displays of loyalty and attacks on perceived enemies of the Kingdom.[39] Saudi businessman Monther al Mubarak, for example, garnered a wide following through relentless attacks on Qatar, Islamists, and other perceived enemies of Saudi Arabia with the advent of the Gulf Crisis. Other nationalist accounts, such as @KSA24, remain anonymous.[40]

While it is difficult to tell how independent of the regime these pro-government voices are, evidence suggests that at least some users are relatively independent. Rival camps of Emirati and Saudi influencers engaged in days of recriminations over their countries’ divergent policies toward the conflict in Yemen, even as official figures from each country sought to downplay the rift.[41] Furthermore, inauthentic accounts tied to Saudi social media firm Smaat tried to grab the attention of influencers such as Monther Al Mubarak through Tweets – which we would be unlikely to observe if both were directly on government payrolls.[42]

Understanding the role played by influencers is important as it suggests that authoritarian regimes do not need an overwhelming online presence in order to dominate online discourse. Even if MENA states work to establish “avenues for actors… to express [preformed grievances] against targets selected by the state,”[43] decentralized mobilization by loyalist influencers is less costly for regimes to sustain and harder for platforms to curtail with purely technical fixes. It also suggests that these tactics may backfire if some users turn their online influence back on the state itself. By the summer of 2020, for example, Saudi state television felt the need to air a pointed news segment about the dangers posed by Saudi Twitter accounts attacking fellow citizens in displays of excess patriotism.[44]


The emergent inequality of online political discourse implies not only a narrow clique of pro-regime influencers, but also a rarefied vanguard of opposition influencers. In recent weeks, for example, the hashtag #savesheikhjarrah trended in parallel with popular mobilizations in Jerusalem and across historic Palestine. While the hashtag drew worldwide engagement from hundreds of thousands of social media users, Twitter data suggest a mere handful enjoyed outsized attention.[45] Yet the visibility of these influential activists can in turn put them on the radar of security services, with targeted repression in turn clearing the way for pro-regime rhetoric to dominate online spaces.

For a start, most prominent critics openly identify themselves and have suffered repressive action against themselves and their families. During the #savesheikhjarrah protests, for example, Mona and Muhammad El Kurd, both residents of Sheikh Jarrah with wide followings on social media, emerged as influential narrators, live-tweeting events from the ground and accepting interviews with international media. They were subsequently harassed and even temporarily detained by Israeli police. Loujain AlHathloul, the Saudi women’s rights activist recently released from jail, was a prominent social media influencer prior to her arrest.[46] Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz achieved fame through his YouTube channel, where he criticized the Saudi regime on camera. He now lives in exile in Canada, where a Saudi squad sent to assassinate him was fortuitously turned away at the border.[47] In his absence, his brothers in Saudi Arabia have been incarcerated.[48] Iyad el-Baghdadi, another prominent Saudi critic, identifies himself via his Twitter account and ‘Arab Tyrant Manual’ podcast. He lives in exile in Norway, where state security recently intervened to save him from assassination.[49]

Even when dissidents seek to maintain anonymity or coordinate privately, regimes find ways to surveil them.[50] In perhaps the most shocking example of this, Saudi Arabia, frustrated by anonymous dissidents on Twitter, recruited two moles inside of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters to access their data and de-anonymize them.[51] Even when such server-side compromise fails, however, an activist can be de-anonymized and surveilled by ‘phishing’ attacks, in which the activist is lured into clicking on a link or authorizing a download that ultimately leads to the implantation of ‘spyware’ on their mobile device or personal computer. Amnesty International, for example, has documented the use of Germany-based FinFisher’s ‘FinSpy’ spyware, purchased by Egyptian intelligence services, to compromise the devices of Egyptian activists.[52] As early as 2016, Citizen Lab caught Emirati authorities attempting to implant spyware on the iPhone of Emirati human rights agitator, Ahmed Mansour.[53]

The spyware, known as ‘Pegasus’, turned out to be the product of NSO Group, an Israeli technology company with close ties to Israeli military intelligence. Pegasus was later found to have been successfully deployed against dissidents and journalists in numerous countries worldwide, from Morocco[54] to Mexico,[55] effectively transforming their mobile phones into 24/7 digital informants. The range and hazard of such technology was underscored perhaps most dramatically in the summer of 2018, when a Saudi operator successfully deployed Pegasus on the iPhone of Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, then residing in exile in Canada.[56] At the time, Abdulaziz was regularly using his iPhone to speak with Jamal Khashoggi, with whom he hoped to coordinate anti-regime activity on Twitter.[57] A few months later, Khashoggi was assassinated by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul.

Regimes have also utilized more low-tech methods of identifying and silencing critics. Several Saudi activists and those close to them blamed a Saudi spying operation at Twitter for the arrest of several individuals inside Saudi Arabia, some of whom operated anonymous accounts critical of the government.[58] More directly, governments across the GCC have simply arrested activists who operate openly within their home countries, either warning them to dial back criticism or subjecting them to years-long legal proceedings and prison sentences.[59]

Jennifer Pan and Alexandra Siegel find that arresting online opinion leaders does not necessarily deter other would-be critics within Saudi Arabia, at least in 2011 to 2016.[60] Yet particularly within Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, the past few years have seen a shift towards the unrelenting repression of all forms of opposition, where even voicing sympathy for detainees forms grounds for arrest. A year prior to his murder, Jamal Khashoggi lamented that any space for “loyal opposition” within Saudi Arabia has all but vanished.[61] Nor is this pattern isolated to the GCC. In Egypt, where the Sisi regime has violently repressed the Muslim Brotherhood since the summer of 2013, even liberal critics of the government (more likely to receive support from Western governments) have been repeatedly targeted for arrest.

Many critics had built up considerable online followings in years past when there was a slightly wider latitude for online speech. Yet new “cybercrimes” laws as well as tighter enforcement of existing laws likely deter anybody from following in their footsteps. Between 2006 and 2015, all of the GCC monarchies passed some form of cybercrimes legislation, typically with vaguely worded clauses that render practically any online statement a potential criminal offense.[62]Similar laws have also been used in Iraq to harass and intimidate opposition activists over social media postings and have recently been enacted in Egypt and Jordan.[63]

Such repression is typically the preserve of the state, yet even here pro-government citizens might augment regimes’ repressive reach without being part of a formal security apparatus. Saud al-Qahtani encouraged such collaboration at the outset of the Qatar crisis by calling on his followers to add names to a “Black List” of those sympathizing with Qatar or criticizing the Kingdom.[64] Some nationalists in Saudi Arabia even appear to call for the arrest of those deemed “traitors to the nation” over and above what the actual authorities are concerned about, in one case trying (successfully) to get a local influencer jailed for noting that a local bakery was out of bread.[65]


With the bulk of existing research on social media manipulation focusing mainly on state-directed, inauthentic activity, our main recommendation is that researchers consider how these tools of manipulation interact with online hierarchies as well as more straightforward repression of opposing viewpoints. We also encourage researchers to examine the ways that state strategies implicate “ordinary” citizens as collaborators in efforts to promote pro-government discourses and stifle criticism.

Understanding the complex chain that leads from state actions, through the tangle of social media networks and onward to citizens’ perceptions and political actions, will require a very different skill set from API data wrangling alone. Researchers may benefit from a political economy lens that explicitly theorizes the motivations and goals of different actors to better establish what they hope to explain. Making sense of influencers’ motives, and their relationship with state authorities, may require researchers to move offline to conduct interviews, mirroring similar efforts to make sense of US internet “trolls” and other influential users.[66]

Important efforts in this area are already underway. Marc Owen Jones moves beyond top-down inauthentic coordination to explore the role of private firms as brokers of deceit and catalogue his own extraordinary cat-and-mouse investigations of fake journalists and self-appointed regional experts who gain the ear of respected media outlets.[67] Mona Elswah and Mahsa Alimardani document the role of religious authorities in spreading medical misinformation across the MENA region during the covid-19 pandemic. Jennifer Pan and Alexandra Siegel assess whether visible repression does or does not echo through wider social networks – while being careful to note that these linkages themselves take place within broader contexts of repression.[68] Future work in this vein holds out promise that researchers will continue to explain, anticipate, and ultimately challenge the myriad efforts of authoritarian regimes to warp online discussions to their benefit.



[1] PhD Candidate, Department of Government, Harvard University,

[2] Postdoctoral fellow, Technology & Social Change Project, Shorenstein Center, Harvard University,

[3] Larry Diamond, and Marc F. Plattner, eds. Liberation technology: Social media and the struggle for democracy.(Baltimore: JHU Press, 2012). Tufekci, Zeynep, and Christopher Wilson. “Social media and the decision to participate in political protest: Observations from Tahrir Square.” Journal of communication 62, no. 2 (2012): 363-379. Bradshaw, Samantha, and Philip N. Howard. The global disinformation order: 2019 global inventory of organised social media manipulation. Project on Computational Propaganda, 2019.

uploads/sites/93/2019/09/CyberTroop-Report19.pdf. Bradshaw, Samantha, and Philip N. Howard. “The global organization of social media disinformation campaigns.” Journal of International Affairs 71, no. 1.5 (2018): 23-32.

[4] Marc Owen Jones. Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Deception, Disinformation and Social Media, forthcoming manuscript (London: Hurst, 2021).

[5] Dalia F Fahmy., and Daanish Faruqi. Egypt and the contradictions of liberalism: Illiberal intelligentsia and the future of Egyptian democracy. Simon and Schuster, 2017. Kirkpatrick, David D. Into the hands of the soldiers: Freedom and chaos in Egypt and the Middle East. Penguin Books, 2019.

[6] “New disclosures to our archive of state-backed information operations,” Twitter (blog post), December 20, 2019,

[7] See Mona El Swah, and Mahsa Alimardani. “Digital Apartheid: #SaveSheikhJarrah and Arabic Content Moderation”. POMEPS Studies, 2021. See also the discussion in “Israel’s “Cyber Unit” and Extra-legal Content Take-downs,” Lawfare (podcast interview), April 29, 2021.

[8] We intend these three “I’s” to complement Margaret Roberts’ conceptualization of the three “F’s” of censorship – fear (deterring citizens from criticism), friction (making it harder to access information), and flooding (providing too much information). While there is certainly some overlap, we focus more on how regimes mobilize pro-government opinions to monopolize online discourse versus only examining how critical internet use is prevented. Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[9] Marc Owen Jones. “Automated sectarianism and pro-Saudi propaganda on Twitter,” Exposing the Invisible, January 18, 2017,

[10] Marc Owen Jones. “In Graphs: How pro-Saudi Twitter Bots Boost Donald Trump’s Ego (and his retweet count),” November 13, 2017,

[11] 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 (2019): 1400 to 1403.

[12] Nathan Patin (b33lzebub). “Lord Of The Flies: An Open-Source Investigation Into Saud Al-Qahtani,” Bellingcat, June 26, 2019,

[13] Mohamed Kassab and Andy Carvin. “ A Twitter Hashtag Campaign in Libya: How Jingoism Went Viral,” Medium (blog), June 6, 2019,; Kassab, Mohamed and Andy Carvin. “Libyan Hashtag Campaign Has Broader Designs: Trolling Qatar,” Medium (blog), July 31, 2019,  ; Abrahams, Alexei and Joey Shea. “Coordinated Behavior in Libya’s Regional Disinformation Conflict,” Lawfare (blog), February 5, 2021.

[14] Amaney A. Jamal, Robert O. Keohane, David Romney, and Dustin Tingley. “Anti-Americanism and anti-interventionism in Arabic Twitter discourses.” Perspectives on Politics 13, no. 1 (2015): 56.

[15] See, for example, accounts of “Saudi Twitter” in Hubbard, Ben. MBS: The rise to power of Mohammed Bin Salman. Tim Duggan Books, 2020: 137-146; Hope, Bradley and Justin Scheck. Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power, Hachette Books, 2020: 198:212; Jones, Rory. “In Saudi Arabia, Twitter Has Become a Tool to Crack Down on Dissent,” The Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2019.; Timberg, Craig and Sarah Dadouch. “When U.S. blamed Saudi crown prince for role in Khashoggi killing, fake Twitter accounts went to war,” The Washington Post, March 2, 2021,

[16] Adrian Rauchfleisch and Jonas Kaiser. “The False Positive Problem of Automatic Bot Detection in Social Science Research,” Berkman Klein Center Research Publication No. 2020-3, 2020 (revised February 11, 2021),

[17] See Marc Owen Jones, “Tracking Adversaries: The Evolution of Manipulation Tactics on Gulf Twitter”, POMEPS Studies, 2021. Kazemi, Darius. Twitter Post. (June 3, 2020, 12:36 PM EST).

[18] Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel J. X. Dance, Richard Harris, and Mark Hansen. “The Follower Factory,” The New York Times, January 27, 2018,; Lieber, Chavie. “The Dirty Business of Buying Instagram Followers,” Vox, September 11, 2014,

[19] Shelby Grossman and Khadeja Ramani. “Outsourcing Disinformation,” Lawfare (blog), December 13, 2020.

[20] Andrew Leber and Alexei Abrahams, “Storm of Tweets,” 253-254; Abrahams, Alexei, 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 Communication 15 (2021): 1184.

[21] Asir Ahmed. “ هل يشترى المشاهير “متابعين” لحساباتهم على مواقع التواصل الاجتماعى؟ [Do influencers buy followers for their social-media accounts?],” Youm7, May 18, 2017,هليشترىالمشاهيرمتابعينلحساباتهمعلىمواقعالتواصلالاجتماعىبالصور/3241109

[22] Marc Owen Jones. “Profit for Propaganda: Twitter Still Complicit in Whitewashing the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” DAWN (blog), March 8, 2021.

[23]  Renée DiResta, Shelby Grossman, K.H., and Carly Miller. “Analysis of Twitter Takedown of State-Backed Operation Attributed to Saudi Arabian Digital Marketing Firm Smaat,” Stanford Internet Observatory, December 22, 2019,;  Grossman, Shelby and Khadeja Ramali. “Outsourcing Disinformation,” Lawfare(blog), December 13, 2020,

[24]Roberts, Censored.; Angwin, Julia. “Cheap Tricks: The Low Cost of Internet Harassment,” ProPublica, November 9, 2017,

[25] Christopher Barrie, and Alexandra Siegel. “Kingdom of Trolls? Influence Operations in the Saudi Twittersphere.” Journal of Quantitative Description: Digital Media 1 (2021); Abrahams, Alexei, 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 Communication 15 (2021): 1173-1199.

[26] Susie Khamis, Lawrence Ang, and Raymond Welling. “Self-branding,‘micro-celebrity’and the rise of Social Media Influencers.” Celebrity studies 8, no. 2 (2017): 191-208; Rao, Venkatesh. “The Internet of Beefs,” Ribbonfarm (blog), January 16, 2020.

[27] Including original tweets and retweets by other users. Abrahams, Alexei, and Andrew Leber. “Framing a murder: Twitter influencers and the Jamal Khashoggi incident.” Mediterranean Politics (2020): 3-5. On similar patterns in the United States, see Schradie, Jen. “The digital activism gap: How class and costs shape online collective action.” Social Problems 65, no. 1 (2018): 51-74.

[28] Calvert W Jones. Bedouins into bourgeois: Remaking citizens for globalization. Cambridge University Press, 2017: 12-36.

[29] Lisa Wedeen. “Acting” as if”: symbolic politics and social control in Syria.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 40, no. 3 (1998): 503-523.

[30] See Alexandra Siegel, “Official Foreign Influence Operations: International Broadcasters in the Arab Online”, POMEPS Studies, 2021.

[31] “لهذه الأسباب.. القحطاني يتحدى “قذافي الخليج” ونجله جوعان [For these reasons… Al-Qahtani challenges ‘Qaddafi of the Gulf’,” Okaz, September 7, 2019,

[32] See, for example, this satirical video he posted to his account. Turki AlAlShikh. Twitter Post. April 13, 2021 (1:07 pm EST),

[33] See examples in Vietnam, “Viet Nam: Tech giants complicit in industrial-scale repression,” Amnesty, December 1, 2020,; and India “India Covid: Anger as Twitter ordered to remove critical virus posts,” BBC, April 26, 2021,

[34] See also the discussion in “Israel’s ‘Cyber Unit.’”

[35]  Alison E.M., Rahaf Carmel, and Sarah Abu Alrob Salahat. “Hashtag Palestine 2020,” 7amleh –The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, May 2021,; Mnejja, Kassem and Marwa Fatafta. “Sheikh Jarrah: Facebook and Twitter systematically silencing protests, deleting evidence,” accessnow, May 7, 2021, See also El Swah, Mona, and Mahsa Alimardani. “Digital Apartheid: #SaveSheikhJarrah and Arabic Content Moderation”. POMEPS Studies, 2021.

[36] Alanoud Alsharekh. “Social media and the struggle for authority in the GCC.” The Canadian Journal for Middle East Studies 1, no. 2 (2016): 8-33.

[37] Hope and Scheck. Blood and Oil, 198-212

[38] This mirrors larger trends in the social movements literature – Grzegorz Ekiert and Elizabeth Perry recently offer a reminder that “modern states themselves organize citizens to act collectively in order to promote specific state goals and interests.” “State-Mobilized Movements: A Research Agenda,” in Ruling by Other Means: State-Mobilized Movements, eds. Grzegorz Ekiert, Elizabeth Perry, and Yan Xiaojun (Cambridge: 2020): 19.

[39] Imam Alhussein. “Saudi First: How hyper-nationalism is transforming Saudi Arabia,” Policy Brief, European Council on Foreign Relations, June 2019.

[40] Twitter account at:

[41] See summary of exchanges by Leber, Andrew. “KSA-UAE: YEMEN, HADI AND THE STC (8/23-25),” The Bitter Lake (blog post), August 24, 2019,; Leber, Andrew. “THE UAE AND ITS LEADERSHIP ARE A RED LINE, YET…,” The Bitter Lake, August 28, 2019,

[42] DeRista et al, “Smaat,” pg. 19.

[43] Ekiert and Perry, “State-Mobilized Movements,” pg. 19.

[44] Al Ekhbariya. Twitter post (@alekhbariyatv), June 14, 2020 (10:12 am EST),

[45] According to Twitter data we collected via the REST API, over 400k users worldwide tweeted the hashtag in the second week of May 2021, but just 1,933 garnered 80% of retweets, of whom the top 211 garnered 50% of retweets.

[46]Jasmine Badger. “Saudi Women Right-to-Drive Activists Deploy Twitter, Face Terrorism Court,” TIME, February 6, 2015, For more on the arrests of Saudi critics and the consequences for online dissent, see Pan, Jennifer, and Alexandra A. Siegel. “How Saudi crackdowns fail to silence online dissent.” American Political Science Review 114, no. 1 (2020): 109-125.

[47] Douglas Quan. “In the crosshairs of a crown prince? Canadian hit-squad claim just latest allegation against controversial Saudi royal,” Toronto Star, February 13, 20121,

[48] Tim Adams. “Khashoggi confidant Omar Abdulaziz: ‘I’m worried about the safety of the people of Saudi Arabia’,” The Guardian, February 20, 2021,

[49] “Iyad el-Baghdadi, activist in Norway, ‘warned by CIA of Saudi threat’,” BBC, May 19, 2021,

[50] For an application to China, see Xu, Xu. “To Repress or to Co‐opt? Authoritarian Control in the Age of Digital Surveillance.” American Journal of Political Science 65, no. 2 (2021): 309-325..

[51] Ben Hubbard. “Why Spy on Twitter? For Saudi Arabia, It’s the Town Square,” The New York Times, November 7, 2019,

[52] Amnesty International, “German-made FinSpy spyware found in Egypt, and Mac and Linux versions revealed”, (2020), available from: Scott-Railton, Bill Marczak, Ramy Raoff, and Etienne Maynier, “Nile Phish – Large-Scale Phishing Campaign Targeting Egyptian Civil Society” (2017), available from:

[53] Bill Marczak and John Scott-Railton, “The million dollar dissident: NSO group’s iPhone zero-days used against a UAE human rights defender”, The Citizen Lab (2016).

[54] Amnesty International, “Morroccan Journalist Targeted with Network Injection Attacks using NSO Group’s Tools” (2020a), available from:

[55] John Scott-Railton, Bill Marczak, Siena Anstis, Bahr AbduRazzak, Masashi Crete-Nishihata, and Ron Deibert, “Reckless VII: Wife of Journalist Slain in Cartel-Linked Killing Targeted with NSO Group’s Spyware” (2019), available from:

[56] Marczak and Scott-Railton (2016). Bill Marczak, John Scott-Railton, Adam Senft, Bahr AbduRazzak, and Ron Deibert, “The Kingdom Came to Canada – How Saudi-Linked Digital Espionage Reached Canadian Soil” (2018), available from:


[58] Ryan Gallagher. “Spies in Silicon Valley: Twitter Breach Tied to Saudi Dissident Arrests,” Bloomberg, August 19, 2020,

[59] “Saudi Arabia: No Country for Bold Women,” POMED, October 16, 2018,; See database at “140 Characters: Online Activists Harassed and Jailed in Gulf Arab States,” Human Rights Watch,, accessed May 14, 2021.

[60] Pan and Siegel. ” Saudi crackdowns.”

[61] Jamal Khashoggi. “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable.,” The Washington Post, September 18, 2017,

[62] Joyce Hakmeh. “Cybercrime Legislation in the GCC Countries,” Research Paper, Chatham House, July 4, 2018,

[63]  “‘We Might Call You in at Any Time’ Free Speech Under Threat in Iraq,” Human Rights Watch, June 15, 2020,; “How you will be affected by the new cybercrime law: A guide,” Mada Masr, August 21, 2018,; Araz, Sevan. “Jordan adopts sweeping cybersecurity legislation,” MEI, January 30, 2020,

[64]  Hubbard, MBS, 137-14

[65] “اعتقال نجم “سناب شات” أبو الفدا بسبب تصويره رف خبز فارغاً [Arrest of SnapChat star Abu al-Fidda after he filmed an empty bread shelf,” al-Araby al-Jadeed, June 3, 2020.

[66] Whitney Phillips. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, MIT Press (2015).

[67] Marc Owen Jones. Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East.

[68] Pan and Siegel. “Saudi crackdowns,” 123.