The coronavirus pandemic has uncovered the possibilities, as well as the confines of internet and communication technologies, as millions of people around the world are homebound, employees are teleworking, students are taking virtual classes, and information on social media platforms about the novel coronavirus abounds. While virtual learning and telework in the Middle East have been enabled greatly by the availability and access to technological tools and connectivity, these unusual conditions have shed further light on inequality, misinformation, and authoritarianism in the region.
First, this overreliance on the internet and communication tools exposed the extent of the digital divide whereby the gap that exists – between individuals, communities, countries, or regions – in the access to information and communication technologies determines their ability to work remotely or access educational resources.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, internet users in Arab states comprised 51.6 percent of the population in 2019, leaving almost half of the Arab world disconnected. The digital divide not only refers to accessibility but also the quality of access, such as the availability of broadband or high speed internet, which allows for a better connectivity experience.
During this period of the coronavirus shutdown, which might last for several weeks if not months, those without access and quality access will lag, including school and college students and workers. As the effects of this crisis are expected to be long-lasting, work and education will be heavily dictated by and dependent on access to technologies.
With the persistent high costs of quality digital services, the digital divide will further exacerbate educational and socioeconomic inequality in the Arab world in the long run. This will be more felt in countries with higher digital divides like those in North Africa and the Levant, compared to wealthy countries in the Gulf.
What this pandemic has revealed is the vital importance of increasing the quantity and quality of digital access and reducing costs across the region.
Second, one of the aspects of the second-level digital divide addresses the notion of the knowledge divide, where individuals who do not have access to the needed skills to use technology are at a disadvantage in terms of access to information. For example, those with lower levels of education and technical skills are less likely to be able to identify the credibility of sources and are prone to health risks by following false guidelines and information about the novel coronavirus.
In fact, an abundance of false information is available online, prompting the World Health Organization to warn of a fake news “infodemic.” The knowledge divide in the case of coronavirus can manifest through susceptibility to false information, conspiracy theories, and propaganda tactics.
The outbreak has been weaponized to stoke sectarian Sunni-Shia tensions online and inflame political conflicts like the GCC crisis.
For example, the Saudi and Emirati Twitter spheres are rife with posts that blame Qatar for the coronavirus, claiming it manufactured the virus in China in order to jeopardise Saudi Vision 2030 and Dubai Expo 2020, using the hashtag in Arabic “Qatar is corona.”
Others attribute the spread of the virus in Iran to what they call “Shia backwardness,” referencing practices such as licking shrines. This type of misinformation and propaganda will likely activate religious and political conflict and prejudice while galvanising hatred and stigmatisation and increasing public health risks.
Although tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are trying to respond quickly and ban false posts, the spread of misinformation on social media and other apps like WhatsApp seems to be exceeding their speed and ability yet again (and even those of officials).
More so, social media algorithms are failing and are erroneously banning legitimate posts about coronavirus (e.g., Facebook), potentially blocking life-saving information. The (understandable) lack of trust in governments in the Arab world further limits their ability to correct false online information.
Once again, social media can play a critical role in fueling xenophobia, conflict, and risks to life. In an era of social distancing and increased reliance on online tools, this further underscores the need for a serious multinational effort to address the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech over social media platforms.
It also exposes the need for Arab governments to focus on technical skills training, media literacy, and transparency.
Third, this state of emergency has encouraged and justified draconian measures including surveillance of citizens, restraints on the freedom of expression, and erosion of rights.
For example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Shin Bet – Israel’s internal security agency – would use counterterrorism technology to track coronavirus patients. While Israel already uses such measures to unlawfully monitor Palestinians, this step serves to legitimise and rationalise similar steps by the Palestinian Authority and other Arab regimes to infringe on privacy rights.
Israel also only distributed information on the coronavirus in Hebrew for weeks, leaving out its Arabic-speaking Palestinian citizens, and arrested those who attempted to distribute information in East Jerusalem.
In Egypt, and in the midst of a media blackout on cases there, the government has revoked press credentials of journalists for citing epidemiologists who estimated more than 19,000 coronavirus infections in the country.
It is clear that the outbreak is being exploited for political ends, with little regard for the rights of citizens and freedom of expression.
In the final analysis, it is those in poor, marginalised, and oppressed communities who will pay the highest price and will suffer the most in long-term consequences.
To be sure, Arab governments need to prepare for a lasting and unpredictable pandemic. They should plan to formulate and implement measures that ensure equal access to technology and credible information for all their citizens.