The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Twitter can empower opposition forces in authoritarian countries

(Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States is grappling with the impact social media had on this year’s presidential election. This is something the countries in the Middle East and North Africa have been dealing with for years. After an initial hype as “liberation technology” in the aftermath of the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, more recent case studies point out social media’s destructive impact on society and politics in the region.

Neither view is necessarily wrong. In fact, our own research based on three case studies of Twitter debates in the Middle East and North Africa — sexual violence on Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2014, anti-fracking protests in southern Algeria and Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen in 2015 — affirms that the impact of social media on political and social processes may vary strongly across different local contexts and depending on the user networks engaged in a particular debate.

The impacts range from mobilization, amplifying events in social and geographic peripheries otherwise not in the international spotlight to deepening social divisions and promoting narratives of authoritarian and radical actors.

Twitter: Divided by Nations

Possibly the most surprising finding of our study — one much in line with neo-nationalist tendencies in Europe and the United States — has been that, despite Twitter’s character as a transnational communication platform, the Twitter space was strongly divided by language barriers and national framings. In all three debates we examined, the main frame of reference of the respective Twitter users was strongly national. Whenever similar topics were picked up in other national settings, they were re-contextualized locally.

How social media undermined Egypt’s democratic transition

Lebanese Twitter users reframed the Saudi military operation in Yemen to proclaim their local sectarian loyalties. Environmentalists from across the globe drew on the fracking protests in Algeria to advance their respective domestic struggles against shale gas drilling. The case studies also show that Twitter debates spread only when an issue resonated in a local context. Efforts by Egyptian and Tunisian users to trigger local anti-fracking dynamics failed.

Promoting identity politics

Where Twitter did serve to build bridges on a transnational level, it did so primarily between the like-minded, creating an echo-chamber. For instance, in Algeria it enhanced solidarities between different marginalized communities as well as between activists at the country’s center and on its periphery. Twitter also constituted an important platform for interaction and the exchange of information for anti-sexual harassment and human rights activists across the Middle East, Africa, and the West. The main trend was that Twitter united sectarian, ethnic, religious, and other ideology or value-based communities across the Middle East and beyond and pitted them against one other.

Real world conflicts, we found, were not only reflected in online discourses, but also reproduced and often reinforced in the virtual sphere. Twitter’s truncated format encouraged pointed statements, so less restraint was exercised than in traditional media formats. Single-issue Twitter debates, could immediately become politicized and ideologically loaded, revealing historical traumas, contemporary political fault lines, and conflict-ridden negotiations of identity.

In our case studies, Twitter thus tended to amplify simplistic notions of the “other” and the “enemy.” In Algeria, the Twitter debate rhetorically further cemented the gap between the “regime” and the “population.”

The Saudi intervention and Egyptian debates were ultimately examples of identity politics, with sectarian language and conflicts between the supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and those of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the Saudi-Yemeni case, particularly with Arabic-language users, Twitter did not amplify moderate or marginal voices, but primarily Saudi government positions, thus giving the regional power hegemony in the Twitter debate.

A tool for activists and governments alike

We found that the smaller a Twitter community is in terms of the number of local users, the more dominant are civil society activists and voices critical of the status quo within the community. In the small Algerian Twitter community, journalists from the private media, actors from the small private sector, communication specialists as well as democracy and human rights oriented activists were those most present and active.

Similar communities still exist in Morocco, Tunisia or Jordan and they also did in the early stages of Twitter in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But as Twitter communities became more visible, government efforts to curtail their freedoms increased, while moderate, pro-human rights and democracy voices were increasingly marginalized.

In Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s largest Twitter community, those driving the debates are now state actors, conservative clerics and public personalities who do not cross red lines. The latter is also a corollary of masses of new users having joined Twitter, as the medium gained popularity within a particular national context.

In this context of a rapidly growing social media community, influence on Twitter debates by individuals could be achieved through building networks. Rather than quantity, however, it was markedly the quality of followers — local and international media, foreign officials, large organizations — that defined a local user’s capacity to amplify an event. In the Algerian fracking case, the local Twitter community and international media did not act as two separate spheres, but bounced off one another to amplify and internationalize issues.

Mass outrage on social media can be influential and provoke political reactions. In the Egyptian case, the rapid spread via Twitter of a video showing a rape on Tahrir contributed to forcing President al-Sisi to pay a visit to the victim. In the same debate, social media outrage caused a TV-personality publicly defending the rape to lose her job.

At risk of manipulation

Whenever Twitter communities exist, they can also be identified and manipulated. In the Saudi intervention debate, two accounts, claiming to be based in Sanaa and with more than 100,000 followers each, began tweeting in Arabic, influencing the debate over a sustained period starting April 2015. These accounts tweeted anti-Houthi, pro-Saudi messages and were able to drive the debate because of their overwhelming following. Judging by user names and profile pictures, however, users retweeting these accounts were primarily based in the Gulf countries. Here, due to the Gulf’s high Internet penetration, the Twitter populations dwarf that of Yemen. With 2,414,000 users, the Saudi population is one of the most active users of Twitter worldwide. Furthermore, not all followers were actual humans. Some were bots, too, automatically retweeting tweets to influence the overall discourse. Many of these accounts have been suspended.

In other words, our findings suggest that sweeping demonization of social media throws out the baby with the bathwater. At least in the regional context, social media continue to fulfill the important function of spreading information otherwise not easily accessible in authoritarian contexts. For the variety of information and discourses present on Twitter is greater than the debates on traditional media. And although censorship in traditional media and by extension in social media is pronounced in Saudi-Arabia and Egypt, Twitter still provided a space for oppositional voices to different degrees.

Particularly in countries with high levels of censorship, marginalized groups, oppositional voices and human rights activists continue to use the platform to express their demands and to mobilize. In authoritarian political contexts, moderate and liberal discourses exist on social media next to radically illiberal positions expressed by groups such as the Islamic State, and next to political disinformation campaigns. It should not come as a surprise that within the context of liberal democracies, this infrastructure is also used and potentially manipulated by illiberal groups.

Mareike Transfeld is a doctoral fellow at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies at the Freie Universität Berlin. Isabelle Werenfels is Head of Middle East and Africa at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin. Together they co-authored the SWP Research Paper: #HashtagSolidarities: Twitter Debates and Networks in the MENA Region.