“Do you have a Facebook account?” That may not sound like a political question, but it was one of the first questions a university committee in Bahrain asked students following the pro-democracy protests there last February. As in many interrogations, those asking the questions already knew some of the answers. The investigators had screen shots of anti-government comments on the students’ Facebook accounts and any other information the investigators could glean about the students’ online activity.
Simply pressing the “like” button on a pro-democracy Facebook page could be grounds for dismissal, says one student who is still waiting to get back into Bahrain Polytechnic, where the committee summoned students for questioning. She believes that fellow students who were pro-government and were classified as “friends” in her private Facebook account turned her in.
The Egyptian revolution made citizen blogging and the use of Twitter and Facebook to organize demonstrations and share anti-government views famous. “Digital democracy” continues to thrive in the Arab world, with “Twitpics” of Egyptians lined up at the polls and Twitter posts of police teargassing Bahraini funerals, which have become one of the few places where the right to assembly can be exercised.
“Social media is our only way to express our opinions and let the international community know what is going on,” said a member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which has tracked the dismissals of Bahraini students and professors. The center, along with other local human-rights groups, last week published one of two reports criticizing the Bahraini government for violations of human rights and academic freedom.
This week, at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, sessions with titles like “The Politics of New Media in the Middle East” and “The Arab Uprisings: Women, Youth & Social Networking” will be looking at Internet-spawned forms of communication. The sessions will not focus on populist movements alone: One speaker will be taking a skeptical look at how the Israeli Defense Forces have used YouTube to justify its military activity, including the much-criticized commando raid on a flotilla in May that resulted in nine deaths.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, if not before it, social media has often taken an authoritarian turn. Pro-government forces in autocratic Arab countries have responded to democratization movements with updated versions of classic disinformation tactics. Governments and their agents, including Western public-relations agencies, do their best to paint those expressing anti-government views as criminals and terrorists.
The social-media battles can result in very real consequences for Web activists. This week, five men in the United Arab Emirates were released from seven months in prison, where they sat awaiting trial. The activists included Nasser bin Ghaith, an economics lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne), whose arrest stirred debate about academic freedom in the Middle East. One day the five men, who were arrested after signing an online petition with very bland calls for political change, got two- to three-year prison sentences for unspecified insults of government officials. The next day they received presidential pardons. Human-rights groups say the government has managed to get away without the international uproar that might come with actual prison time, but in the emirates themselves, the “chilling effect” is very real.
Rumors that some countries spy on the students that they send abroad turned out to be true in Britain. On Facebook last winter, a Bahraini student posted a time and a place to meet for a demonstration in Manchester to support the protesters back home calling for democracy. Soon the students’ parents back in Bahrain had security officials at their doors, showing them photographic proof of their children’s participation in political activity. The British students believe that a Facebook spy tipped off a security official, who went to the demonstration and recorded it.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights says that after the pro-democracy protests started in the Pearl Roundabout, authorities slowed down Internet speeds to block the uploading of videos about the demonstrations and blocked YouTube pages with protest videos. Twitter, the center says, was filled with cyber-thugs, “Twitter trolls,” who tried to emphasize the nation’s Sunni-Shiite split, to feed sectarian hate, and to portray the protesters themselves as violent. The government’s aim, the center believes, is “to break the confidence of followers in social networks as a source of independent information.” Students or bloggers who sent out tweets in favor of democratization were sometimes swarmed by tweets from the trolls, trying to drown out their messages, or smear them with accusations of promiscuity, heavy drinking, or homosexuality, which is not generally tolerated in Persian Gulf countries.
Students and human-rights groups fight back with what winds up being a collage of links, photos, videos, and testimony of witnesses to human-rights violations. Bloggers send out links, for example, to a loyalty pledge University of Bahrain students have to sign promising that they will not “organize or participate in any activity within the campus or outside that is irrelevant to student and academic affairs and authorized research.” That includes political protests.
Ultimately, of course, the Internet doesn’t have a truth filter. Those who read blog posts, watch videos, and study photographs have to evaluate evidence and assemble larger perspectives. In a break from writing this post, I noticed a “friend invite” on Facebook: a fellow alumnus at a university I attended, with a vaguely Arabic name. Of course, I thought at first, I should just click “confirm.” On closer inspection, the woman sending the invitation had only one photograph, which looked a little too good to be true, as if it was clipped out of a fashion magazine. Other elements of the profile seemed suspicious. A spy? A mere invader of privacy out to collect information? Most important, I didn’t know her. Clicking “ignore” seemed like the better course of action.