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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.

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