Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook provided both platforms for organisation as well as spaces for activists to forge new networks. The widely shared images from the Egyptian revolution even showed some protesters holding up banners with Facebook and Twitter on them, such was their perceived importance.
With the exception of Tunisia, the past 10 years have all but shattered any illusion of a technology-facilitated overthrow of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. The debate about technological utopianism, or liberation technology, verus technological utopianism, have become less fevered. Even the tech bros of Silicon Valley, partly responsible for espousing the liberation paradigm that gripped the world, have acknowledged their misplaced, or perhaps disingenuous optimism.
Instead, it has become increasingly clear that governments in the Middle East and the world over are exploiting technology to manipulate public opinion, monitor activists, compromise the privacy of opposition members, blackmail perceived enemies, and manage their reputation.
The Arab uprisings have made way for the rise of digital authoritarianism.
Where did it go wrong?
The fetishisation of the liberation potential of technology belies the fact that some of the most authoritarian and technologically penetrated regimes in the Gulf are also the most repressive. However, much of the technical knowhow, and social media platforms themselves, are based in the ‘global north’.
Bahrain, a small state in comparison to its immediate neighbours, was one of the first countries to use the European digital spyware Finfisher to compromise the devices of opposition members. The Bahrain government also poured millions of dollars into whitewashing its reputation in Washington DC and London using expensive Western PR mercenaries to track dissident influencers online.
While regime rifles and the fetid jail cells may be the fate of the everyman in the street, the fate of the influencer, journalist or high-profile activist might more likely be cyber espionage or an online smear campaign. The emergent Gulf-based dyad of the United Arab Emirates – abetted by former US intelligence officials – and Saudi Arabia, have grown in confidence in their use of digital technology to silence their critics abroad.
Spyware has been used to track and hack multiple dissidents, from Ahmed Mansour in the UAE to the Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz residing in Canada.
There is an audacity and boldness to this new digital authoritarianism. Saudi Arabia has been accused of hacking Amazon founder’s Jeff Bezos’s phone. It has also had moles infiltrate Twitter’s HQ in San Francisco, accessing private data of dissidents, in some cases leading to their direct arrest. The 2017 Gulf crisis was initiated by a state-backed hacking operation, itself underpinned by an aggressive social media campaign using hundreds of thousands of fake accounts.
More recently the UAE and Saudi engaged in one of the most audacious and widespread international hacking operations, using Israeli spyware to hack into the phones of 36 Doha-based Al Jazeera journalists.
2020’s unofficial Person of the Year: The internet troll
And it is not just Middle East regimes directly engaging in this behaviour. The US, under President Trump, has also been attempting to manipulate publication opinion in and on the Middle East using social media. The Iran Disinfo project, a US state department funded propaganda outfit, was allegedly closed down after it was found to be harassing US journalists, activists, and others it perceived as supporters of the Iranian government.
Of course ‘perceived’ here is key, for anyone not sufficiently bellicose or jingoistic in their support of harsh sanctions on Iran is deemed a supporter of the regime. But if promoting revolution was the goal of the IranDisinfo project, then it too, has not succeeded.
One of the biggest casualties of this weaponisation of digital technology is not technology itself, but trust between citizens. With cyber utopianism came cyber naivety, a willingness to accept other accounts at face value.
However, legions of sock puppets, trolls, bots and honey traps have damaged any assumption that it is easy to forge meaningful networked relationships between like minded activists without fearing some form of infiltration. This has reduced the trust necessary to form strong opposition movements online, or at least to do so easily.
Even without regime interference, technology can be ambiguous in times of social upheaval. People’s prejudices can be magnified and amplified across social media. Videos of regime brutality can elicit trauma, provoke polarisation,and promote violence, as the endless horrific videos from Syria, Yemen and Libya have highlighted. The rise of unintentional misinformation highlights how a lack of digital literacy and access to technology can, often without ill intent, promote harmful rumours. Bad actors can manipulate the online conversations to their advantage.
Technology is rarely, or inherently, good or bad. The functionalities of technology coupled with the conditions in which it is used ultimately decide the outcomes of its uses. Technology sold by loosely regulated developed corporations in the ‘global north’ will inevitably be weaponised when it becomes useful social control tools for authoritarian regimes.