The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism in the Arab World: Surveillance, Censorship, and Disinformation Warfare


Alexei Abrahams

Data Scientist, The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

Harvard University

Marwa Fatafta

MENA Policy Manager

Access Now

Tamara Kharroub

Deputy Executive Director & Senior Fellow

Arab Center Washington DC

Mona Shtaya

Palestinian Digital Rights Defender; Advocacy Advisor

7amleh (The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media)

Bayan Tal

Media and Communications Specialist, Jordan

About the Webinar

On December 13, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted a webinar titled, “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism in the Arab World: Surveillance, Censorship, and Disinformation Warfare.” Panelists were Alexei Abrahams, Data Scientist at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University; Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy Manager with Access Now; Mona Shtaya, Palestinian Digital Rights Defender and Advocacy Advisor at the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh); Bayan Tal, Media and Communications Specialist, Jordan. Tamara Kharroub, ACW Deputy Executive Director and Senior Fellow, moderated the session.

In introducing the panel and laying out the scope of the session, Tamara Kharroub said that serious developments have taken place in the MENA region over the last decade regarding disinformation, misinformation, and free speech. Governments, she stated, have been investing in cyber capabilities and digital strategies to the point that social media in the region has now been weaponized against civil society actors and organizations.

  • On the weaponization of social media, Kharroub stated, “Not only are autocratic regimes using social media tools and surveillance technologies, and even weaponizing cybercrime laws to monitor, intimidate, and silence critics and human rights activists domestically, but they’re also employing disinformation campaigns and online troll armies to influence and manipulate foreign populations.”
  • On governments’ efforts to divide and rule using social media, Kharroub said, “Disinformation campaigns are being used to create doubt and uncertainty, largely by pumping conflicting and divisive narratives on social media and making it increasingly difficult for people to distinguish between fact and fiction online.”

Marwa Fatafta discussed the tools and methods that governments use to control information and to restrict free speech, as well as the role of social media companies in either facilitating or impeding governments’ strategies in this regard. She stated that the internet offers a space for Arab citizens to express their opinions, prompting Arab governments to try to control that space and to deploy various tactics to monitor people’s speech.

  • On governmental tactics, Fatafta said that governments’ “approach to freedom of expression has been through criminalization. A number of countries in the MENA region have passed very repressive, overly broad cybercrime legislation whose aim is to crack down on dissent and prosecute individuals, journalists, and human rights defenders.”
  • On Twitter’s role in the MENA region today after Elon Musk’s having taken over the platform, Fatafta stated, “There are concerns around access to users’ communications and access to their personal information…and around Musk’s own understanding of content moderation and freedom of expression. He sees it mainly from a US-centric lens.”

Mona Shtaya discussed the role of social media and digital surveillance in the Palestinian context, and specifically the censorship and manipulation of Palestinian speech by social media companies and the role that Palestinians play in Israel’s surveillance technology industry.

  • On Meta and other social media companies’ role in manipulating Palestinians’ speech online, Shtaya said, “[Social media companies] are changing the words, they are changing the narrative in order to manipulate or to play with the algorithms.”
  • On Israel’s use of digital surveillance on Palestinians, Shtaya stated, “[Israeli firms] are testing their surveillance and spying technologies on Palestinians before selling it worldwide and before exporting authoritarianism to other authoritarian repressive regimes around the world.”

Alexei Abrahams discussed the digital security risks that civil society organizations face, highlighting the significant absence of digital security and privacy among Palestinian NGOs, which he attributed to issues concerning digital literacy and what he called “digital fatalism.”

  • On the question of why Palestinian civil society lacks important digital protections, Abrahams said, “It may just be that organizations are simply unaware of the kinds of vulnerabilities that they are leaving open.”
  • On solutions to digital literacy issues and the role of US and EU donors, Abrahams stated, “There is agency to Middle Eastern civil society, to Palestinian civil society. We don’t have to wait, and we don’t have to take our cue from outside actors.”

Bayan Tal discussed the importance of media and information literacy, as well as the reasons behind the spread of disinformation in the Middle East, including a lack of trust, of effective governmental communication, and of action by media companies.

  • On the importance of organizing a broad, global effort to counter disinformation and to increase media and information literacy, Tal said, “Without international support, without civil society organizations coming together, none of the work can be done. It’s very important that we create a critical mass, where we advocate for the right for people to access information, the right for people to express themselves freely, and for a free press.”


Tuesday December 13, 2022


10:00 AM