Digital Authoritarianism and its Dissent

Published November 23rd, 2022 - 12:32 GMT
Demonstrators are seen in Algiers, Algeria, on May 17, 2019
Demonstrators are seen in Algiers, Algeria, on May 17, 2019

A decade ago, social media directed the anger of Arab citizens into mass protests, leaving regimes stunned and even powerless. With conditions for dissent as ripe as they were then, regional autocrats are making sizable efforts in the digital space to ensure that the luck and liberation of 2011 is not repeated.  With social media now an indispensable tool of social protest, MENA regimes have naturally invested significant resources into understanding and adapting to this contemporary threat.

The instability of 2011 was a moment of unparalleled clarity for regimes: unpoliced spaces for collective communication cannot be tolerated without inviting great risk.  Digital information technology has facilitated nationwide protests at shocking speeds, but it has also equipped authoritarian states with the means to heighten their power. Social media and digital technology are now key tools of the counter-revolutionary toolkit.

Digital information technology has facilitated nationwide protests at shocking speeds, but it has also equipped authoritarian states with the means to heighten their power.

Such strategies include: the online manipulation of public discourse in their favour via inauthentic activity and influence operations; surveillance of the online public through big data analysis, spyware, and tracking apps; and the silencing of the online public through deplatforming, content moderation and targeted repression.

Several MENA regimes replicate the digital authoritarianism of China and Russia. Social media bot armies have been assembled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to make furious battle with dissident opinions through disinformation and intimidation; equally, they are used to steep the internet in nationalistic propaganda. 

To combat the Hirak in Algeria, the state created countless fake accounts on digital  platforms to spread disinformation about the social movement. Such accounts were particularly active at the end of 2019 to combat the Hirak’s fruitless opposition to new presidential elections.  The unequal distribution of social media influence – a small percentage of popular accounts dominate reshared content – suggests that authoritarian regimes need not have an overpowering digital presence to monopolise online discourse. 

To combat the Hirak in Algeria, the state created countless fake accounts on digital  platforms to spread disinformation about the social movement.

This convenient knowledge has been acted upon by MENA rulers. During ongoing agitation in Iran, for example, several famous actors have shared supported messages for the regime, though suspectedly under duress.    As regimes have contested social media spaces more actively, they have tarnished the latter’s reputation; platforms are under increasing criticism to do more about their appropriation by repressive states. 

Facebook’s response to the Algerian regime’s exploitation of social media was to naively deactivate pro-Hirak accounts reported for misconduct by trolls.  Similarly, many Iranian opposition groups and activists have alleged that Instagram has removed certain hashtags, videos and posts of dissent in recent months.  Belief in social media as a tool for liberation has broken as Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have become towering enablers of repression.  This changing mood towards social media has been exemplified in Syria.

Belief in social media as a tool for liberation has broken as Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have become towering enablers of repression.  This changing mood towards social media has been exemplified in Syria.

In 2011, protesters shared messages of thanks to Facebook; and yet a decade on, they took to Twitter using the hashtag #FBFightsSyrianRevolution to protest the easy exploitation of social media platforms by the Assad regime.  And when sparks of online dissent have ignited street protest, many MENA regimes fall back on switching off the internet. In June when the Sudanese regime committed a massacre against protesters, this tactic managed to muffle national and international fury. 

Regimes recognise that however much they try to distort reality and flood facts on the ground with falsehoods, social media can rarely be subdued; and that despite its inadequacies, social media continues to offer existential value to protesters for coordinating and inspiring resistance.  Since the Arab Spring, it is not just virtual spaces in the Middle East which have been checked by heavy repression.

When digital authoritarianism proves insufficient, the military and security forces have been on hand to seize the passion of protest with a larger concern: evading bars and bullets.  In Sudan, social media has been cluttered with verified videos of civilians being shot, beaten, and choked (with tear gas) by security forces. So far, 119 protesters have been killed.  Similarly in Iran, the regime has killed hundreds of protesters in concert with a campaign of mass arrests.

And when sparks of online dissent have ignited street protest, many MENA regimes fall back on switching off the internet.

On the 21st November, videos showed Iranian security forces with helicopters and military vehicles swamping areas of dissent in the north, and cracks of gunfire straining the air of cities like Mahabad.  Such forces have used a range of psychological and propaganda tactics to neutralise protest. Spreading harmful rumours among protesters is regarded as among the more effective tactics, spread externally through social media, and planted internally by agents infiltrating movements. 

And now post-coup Tunisia is seeing the return of the familiar police state whose repressive acts are multiplying to crush the faint gasps of dissent: from the growth of house arrests, the imprisonment of members of parliament, and the stifling of local media.     

The vanity of revolution in the Middle East today reflects, in part, autocratic efforts to puncture protest. With the continuity of political and socio economic crises, the region’s digital space will remain busy with battle between regimes and their opponents.


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