Marc Owen Jones

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Marc Owen Jones explains how governments and non-state actors use social media and digital technology to deceive and control citizens.

ver the past ten years, and in the wake of the Arab Spring, while writing about various aspects of Gulf politics and media, I have received death threats, threats of rape, and online pile-ons. I have had caricatures drawn of me as an Iranian puppet, and websites set up for the sole purposes of defaming me and other academics and activists. I have had impersonators set up social media accounts and write to local newspapers with political opinions contrary to those that I hold.

I have been the subject of multiple, often contradictory, smear campaigns. If my attackers are to be believed, I am both gay and homophobic, both an Iranian and Qatari stooge, both Shi’a and an atheist, and at times a Western secret agent. My colleagues and friends have been sent malicious spyware that steals their passwords, monitors phone calls, and even records videos from their webcams.

I have been banned from entering Bahrain for criticising government repression online, and even had my Twitter account temporarily suspended after numerous smear campaigns. I have drunk coffee with people who were later incarcerated for merely writing a tweet deemed too critical by their government. Over time, I have witnessed the psychological change and damage, within me, and others, who have been subjected to continuous online violence. 

Welcome to the world of digital authoritarianism, where digital harassment, surveillance and disinformation are used in an attempt to control human behaviour. Digital authoritarianism is the “use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations”.

It includes a wide gamut of repressive techniques, including “surveillance, censorship, social manipulation and harassment, cyber-attacks, internet shutdowns, and targeted persecution against online users”. An increasingly worrying component of social media manipulation is disinformation and misinformation; terms often used interchangeably to describe attempts to manipulate public opinion or give the illusion of public support for specific issues.

Although this book deals with multiple aspects of digital authoritarianism, its primary focus is on disinformation and deception through social media. Fundamentally, it asks how governments and other non-state actors use social media and digital technology to deceive and control citizens living in the MENA region, and more specifically, the Gulf region.  

Disinformation and fake news 

From Washington, DC in the United States to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, disinformation and what is sometimes termed “fake news” is a global problem. It is part of what Claire Wardle describes as a growing “information disorder”. Since 2008, academic attention across disciplines, but especially psychology and communications, has been directed at understanding the purpose of disinformation. 

However, while disinformation is not new, the digital technologies that are being exploited by those spreading disinformation are relatively recent. No longer are the more centralised mediums of television, print news and radio the sole – or indeed, the primary – means of distributing disinformation.

The new reach afforded by digital media and social media platforms, abetted by the growing ubiquity of internet-enabled smartphones, is shifting the scale of the information disorder, and disinformation is fundamentally altering people’s perceptions of established truths and facts. 

This is no different in the Middle East and North Africa. As a profoundly unequal region, the impact and takeup of digital technology are varied and differentiated according to governmental, business and consumer adoption. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar are among the top countries in the world with regard to digital consumer adoption, “with more than 100 per cent smartphone penetration and more than 70 per cent social media adoption” in 2016. 

This is higher than in many parts of the United States and Northern Europe. Yemen, on the other hand, is one of the poorest countries in the world, and this is reflected in the fact it has the lowest internet penetration in the MENA region. Yet while internet penetration rates are increasing or have plateaued, social media is more subject to fluctuation.

For example, use of Twitter and Facebook is declining in the MENA region in general, although Saudi is still the world’s fifth-largest Twitter market, with 38% (10 million) of its population considered active users. Although the use of Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and, to an extent, Instagram is generally falling across the Middle East, in countries such as Egypt, Facebook use is increasing. Despite changing trends, the numbers of those using social media remain high.

New platforms may rise and fall, but the reality of how we communicate has been irreparably changed by digital technology. As a result, the extant challenges such technologies pose for the spread of disinformation are not going to disappear any time soon. 


Marc Owen Jones is an Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at HBKU, and a Senior Non Resident Fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now and the Middle East Council for Global Affairs.



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