In this series of articles, Al Jazeera examines how Twitter in the Middle East has changed since the Arab Spring.
Government talking points are being magnified through thousands of accounts during politically fraught times and silencing people on Twitter is only part of a large-scale effort by governments to stop human rights activists and opponents of the state from being heard.
For human rights activists, journalists, dissidents and free speech campaigners, social media has long been a double-edged sword, representing both the positive and harmful aspects of open communication on the internet.
But on the other, the nature of open communication raises the risk of being followed, exposed or worse, as some governments increase their digital surveillance capabilities.
As a result, governments around the world are turning social media against their citizens.
China is the country where government control of the internet is by far the most egregious, but many countries in the Middle East are not far behind when it comes to using the internet against those who fight for a more open society, the annual Freedom of the Net report by Freedom House concluded.
Mohamad Najem, executive director at Beirut-based SMEX, a digital rights organisation focusing on issues related to freedom of expression, online privacy and safety, said social media movements had taken the Middle East by surprise and governments adapted relatively quickly, using social media against protesters and civil rights activists.
Over the last decade, SMEX has tracked how the use of social media platforms like Twitter, both by activists and governments, has changed.
“In 2011, access to these tools was still kind of new and governments underestimated them,” Najem told Al Jazeera.
Social media allowed people in the Middle East to voice their concerns and question those in power.
During the Arab Spring, protesters were able to organise on social media, a tool that connected their realities with the rest of the world.
But governments were watching, too, and continue to closely monitor.
“Between the Arab Spring and now, we have witnessed that all the countries in the region are moving more and more towards criminalising speech,” Najem told Al Jazeera.
“The online sphere we used to go to in the Middle East to express ourselves, to talk about politics, has started to close down slowly because of all these regulations,” he added.
“People were prosecuted, thrown in jail, or they had to flee the country.”
To show what laws Middle East governments have introduced in recent years, SMEX launched Cyrilla, a website listing all proposed and passed legislation aimed at curbing free speech.
The database, which offers texts in Arabic and English and covers the entire region, shows clearly how digital liberties in the Middle East have come under attack.
Between the Arab Spring and now, we have witnessed that all the countries in the region are moving more and more towards criminalising speech.
“Across the Middle East, there is a large number of countries that have specifically instituted anti-terrorism and cybercrime laws that contain vague prohibitions on free speech,” Jillian York told Al Jazeera.
York is the Berlin-based director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which aims to protect civil liberties in the digital world.
As an example, York cited Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism legislation from 2014, which criminalises defamation of the state and defines calling for atheist thought as a “terrorist” action.
Recently, prominent Norway-based pro-democracy activist Iyad el-Baghdadi, a Palestinian who has been outspoken in his criticism of Saudi authority figures, made a plea for his safety after US intelligence agency CIA found a credible threat to his life from authorities in the kingdom.
El-Baghdadi is behind The Arab Tyrant Manual, which focuses on global authoritarianism and the struggle for democratic liberties in the Arab region. He is also a fellow at Civita, a leading liberal think-tank in Norway, where he sought asylum after he was forced to leave his home in the United Arab Emirates in 2015.
Spare a thought for all the dissidents, activists, journalists, and private citizens in the Arab world who get beaten, arrested, tortured, murdered without being passed tips and without being offered protection. They are the real heroes, and they are the real victims. Not me.
— İyad el-Baghdadi | إياد البغدادي (@iyad_elbaghdadi) May 16, 2019
But it is not just Saudi Arabia, as documented by organisations including Amnesty International and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights show.
Governments in the Middle East have started using platforms such as Twitter as amplifiers, using both automated bot accounts and well-known social media influencers to promote state-approved messaging, Najem said.
So, while activist voices are being drowned out by government-approved messages, sometimes amplified by fake Twitter accounts, campaigners also risk being jailed or are forced to leave the country because of newly implemented cybercrime or “antiterrorism” laws.
Last April, Saudi Arabia arrested three bloggers without giving any reasons for their arrest.
Similarly, the Turkish government cracked down hard last year on Twitter users who used the platform to voice their criticism of the Turkish military operation in northern Syria, claiming they were spreading “terrorist propaganda”.
The UAE, meanwhile, made it a criminal offence to show support for Qatar in the ongoing GCC crisis, claiming people who did so violated the federal decree on Combating Information Technology Crimes, possibly facing a jail term from three to 15 years, and a fine not less than 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).
According to both Najem and York, it is not just governments that are to blame for the crackdown on activists.
Part of the responsibility falls on social media companies for failing to address the issue of automated propaganda accounts and willingly helping governments in the region.
“One of the challenges with companies like Twitter – and most tech companies – is that they are based in Dubai. This is an issue because this is a country that has no respect for human rights, which means they have no respect for digital rights either,” Najem told Al Jazeera.
“We have a problem that all these companies that are being used for free speech, such as Twitter, are based in the Gulf. These are countries that are not signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, so Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights [giving everyone a right to freedom of opinion and expression] is not part of their mandate and freedom of expression is not something they care about.”
To add, York explained, the opaque deals these companies make with governments lead to more censorship, which is often hard to notice.
I think Twitter and all these other companies are responsible for when they say 'yes' whenever an authoritarian country comes to them to ask to censor certain speech.
“Governments sort of wisened up and, due to a number of other factors, they began instead utilising these companies to do this censorship for them,” she said.
“This is a more palatable form of censorship for the people because they don’t notice what is missing. Instead of getting an error page when you visit a website like Twitter or Facebook, the content is just missing – it has disappeared,” she added.
“That has allowed these companies to continue to engage and grow in these markets while not being blamed for the censorship.”
York believes that these companies should be incredibly limited in how they regulate speech.
Another problem, she says, is that these companies consider the Middle East as a single monolithic entity and fail to look at the nuances between different countries.
“It’s very culturally ignorant to think that Lebanese people would want the same rules as the Saudis,” she said.
“To give a concrete example of this, search engine Microsoft Bing for years censored its results in the entire Middle East based on what Saudi Arabia asked them to censor.”
As a result, York explained, Bing instituted a blanket ban for certain keywords in the whole Middle East, so, for example, because Saudi Arabia wanted all mentions of the word “breast” removed from search results, people in Lebanon were not able to use Bing to search for “chicken breast”.
Meanwhile, accessing pornographic websites directly was still possible in Lebanon.
“So, I think Twitter and all these other companies are responsible for when they say ‘yes’ whenever an authoritarian country comes to them to ask to censor certain speech.”
“These days they just do it, they don’t push back on it any more.”
Wael Abbas, an Egyptian human rights activist and blogger, used to document police brutality in Egypt.
“It’s quite clear from Abbas’s case that he was being attacked by trolls on Twitter that he alleges were government paid, but we don’t know that for sure,” York said.
More and more we see people moving towards private platforms like WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram, which all provide more privacy.
“Nevertheless, he was attacked by government supporters on Twitter, he fought back and then his account was shut down by Twitter, probably because he used language that was in their rules considered hate speech.”
His account remains suspended.
“In Wael’s example, they should not have kicked him off of the platform for using harsh language,” York said.
These sustained efforts have instilled fear among activists, many of whom have largely moved away from public platforms like Twitter and Facebook to more closed systems.
“More and more we see people moving towards private platforms like WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram, which all provide more privacy,” Najem said.
While the increased privacy of closed platforms provides some more safety for activists, reaching an audience as they did during the Arab Spring seems impossible.