From Tweet to Repression: How Gulf States are Cracking Down Online
With the Gulf among the most wired places on earth, the region’s governments have wrestled between using social media to connect with their citizens while also using platforms to monitor dissent and shape new national narratives. The GCC boasts some of the highest internet penetration levels in the world making media–and particularly social media–a terrain for shaping politics, society, and culture.
Platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are effective communication tools for royals to engage with citizens. Yet, Gulf citizens have also turned to popular media platforms to test the limits of the rule of law, challenge social and cultural norms, and even openly protest the state. In response, Gulf states have retaliated with measures that range from censorship to imprisonment to counter criticism and contestation.
While governments have found social networking sites useful for surveilling expression, they have also adopted online hacking technologies to intimidate and silence activists, dissidents, and journalists, but also foreign critics and investors. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds have been imprisoned across the Gulf for their online activity.
At the same time, media has become an arena for internal disputes within the GCC. Following the blockade of Qatar, a Saudi blacklist targeting social media accounts expressing sympathy with the emirate demonstrated the kingdom’s capacity to stifle self-expression while mobilizing nationalist attitudes. Often, these narratives are amplified by high-profile ‘influencers’ as well as fake ‘bots’ to promote state policies but also attack adversaries.
These efforts have not spared traditional media, which has also undergone a nationalistic shift to assert control and unify publics around state agendas. When Saudi Arabia held various elites at the Ritz Carlton in an anti-corruption campaign, powerful media moguls were among those arrested.
Gulf states have received wide condemnation for their low tolerance approach to critics since even before the emergence of new and social media. Yet, their attempts today to curtail expression, incite audiences, and spread misinformation have largely avoided penalty. As their youthful populations become plugged in at increasing rates, Gulf states will likely continue to encourage online participation rather than dissuade it.
How did the media play a role in the recent regional tension? How did these policies affect societal relations and opposition figures and parties? How did Gulf governments use the media as a tool and a weapon? Will there be ramifications for the recent media policies by Gulf countries?
Featured Speakers: Tim Constantine (moderator), Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra, Dr. Marc Owen Jones, and Dr. Sahar Khamis.
Tim Constantine (moderator)
Tim Constantine is an accomplished talk radio host, a frequent television pundit and an award-winning writer at The Washington Times. His uncanny ability to hone in on the seemingly obvious yet often neglected reasoning behind political positions has proven to be an essential element in his recipe for success.
Tim’s travels have taken him to the Middle East as well as a wide variety of countries in Africa and Asia. Today Constantine broadcasts from Washington DC to listeners all across the United States. He combines his background in TV and radio, his experience in public office and his hard-nosed business approach with his understated sense of humor for one of the most entertaining radio programs anywhere. His award-winning work for The Washington Times is read across the country and around the globe.
Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra
Professor of Political Science, Kuwait University
Shafeeq Ghabra is a Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University and founding President of Jusoor Arabiya which focuses on youth leadership programs and strategic planning. He is a former founding president of the American University of Kuwait (2003-2006). He also directed the Kuwait Information Office in Washington, DC (1998-2002) and the Center of Strategic Studies at Kuwait University (2002-2003). Ghabra earned his BA from Georgetown University in 1975, his MA from Purdue University in 1983, and his PhD in Political Science from the University of Texas at Austin in 1987. He is the author of five books and numerous studies.
Dr. Marc Owen Jones
Assistant Professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University, Qatar.
Dr. Jones received his BA in Journalism, Film, and Broadcasting from Cardiff University in 2006, and a CASAW-funded MSc in Arab World Studies from the University of Durham in 2010. In 2016 he received his Ph.D. from Durham where he wrote an interdisciplinary thesis on the history of political repression in Bahrain and his thesis then won the 2016 dissertation prize from the Association for Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies.
Dr. Jones spent much of his childhood in Bahrain, and have also lived elsewhere in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria. Driven by issues of social justice and a specific area interest in the Gulf, his research spans a number of topics, from historical revisions, postcolonialism, de-democratization, and revolutionary cultural production, to policing, digital authoritarianism and human rights. Dr. Jones is particularly interested in strategies of control that affect people’s life chances in the service of elite power maintenance. Prior to joining HBKU, he was a Lecturer in Gulf History at Exeter University, where he remains an Honorary Research Fellow. Before that, he won a Teach at Tuebingen award, and wrote and delivered an MA module in Gulf Politics at Tuebingen University’s Institute for Political Science.
At the moment, Dr. Jones is working on a number of topics, including propaganda and Twitter bots, mapping sectarian hate speech, and archival work related to Bahrain and land appropriation.
Dr. Sahar Khamis
Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and an Affiliate Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies and the Consortium on Race, Gender and Ethnicity at the University of Maryland, College Park
Dr. Khamis is an expert on Arab and Muslim media and the former Head of the Mass Communication Department at Qatar University. Dr. Khamis holds a Ph.D. in Mass Media and Cultural Studies from the University of Manchester in England. She is a former Mellon Islamic Studies Initiative Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago. She is the co-author of the books: Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic Discourses in Cyberspace (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and Egyptian Revolution 2.0: Political Blogging, Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). She is the co-editor of the book: Arab Women’s Activism and Socio-Political Transformation: Unfinished Gendered Revolutions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). She authored and co-authored numerous book chapters, journal articles and conference papers, regionally and internationally, in both English and Arabic. She is the recipient of a number of prestigious academic and professional awards and a member of the editorial boards of several journals in the field of communication, in general, and the field of Arab and Muslim media, in particular. Dr. Khamis is a media commentator and analyst, a public speaker, a radio host, and a former human rights commissioner.