Poisoned apple: the curse of social media in the Gulf

MIDDLE EAST (openDemocracy) – Throughout the past decade, social media use has exponentially grown in the Arab world, especially in the Gulf states. They have some of the highest social media take-up rates in the Middle East, with over 80 percent of the population in each state using at least one or more social media platform and with the popularity of each platform, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube, varying from state to state.

Contrary to popular belief, the increasing consumption rates and enthusiastic embrace of social media in the Gulf states is not a step toward political and social change. In reality, Gulf monarchies feed citizens this poisoned apple, disguising the control and censorship that their regimes continue to maintain over social media beneath the juicy temptation to use it for change. Constant enactment of repressive laws and fear tactics by the Gulf states rob their citizens of freedom of expression, creates a panoptic gaze, and results in self-censorship by social media users. Simultaneously, governments paint an image of innocence, claiming to support social media use by engaging on various social media platforms and encouraging their potential in the business world.

Under the authoritarian regimes of the Gulf states, criticism of the government, royal family or Islam on social media is off-limits and punishable by law. The role of social media in the region in exposing revolutionary ideas for change and collectivizing citizens has long been diminished by the GCC. As evidenced by the Bahraini revolution of 2011, the resulting backlash of strict cyber laws by the regime was more powerful and discouraging than the messages posted inciting revolution and change. In response to revolts and protests, the government used social media, mostly Facebook and Twitter, to track down activists, and even encouraged other Bahraini citizens to turn them in, resultingin “mass arrests, incommunicado detention, torture, military trials, [and] harsh imprisonment sentences.”

Unfortunately, this type of action by the state is not unique to Bahrain. Other examples of punishment for social media posts in the Gulf states include the arrest in October 2012 of 26-year-old Rashid Saleh al Anzi in Kuwait, for allegedly tweeting remarks deemed offensive to the Emir; a poet sentenced to life in prison in Qatar for publishing a poem about the Arab Spring; the imprisonment of three prominent lawyers for posts on social media that criticized the justice ministry in Saudi Arabia. Censorship and punishment on social media imposes a barrier on social and political movements, which cannot survive with inhibitions to freedom of expression.

"2011 Egyptian protests Facebook & jan25 card" by Essam Sharaf

“2011 Egyptian protests Facebook & jan25 card” by Essam Sharaf

What’s more, in the past few years, Gulf state governments’ use of social media has been on the rise. In Bahrain, 50 percent of government ministries were using some form of social media, while 55 percent of ministries were using it in Saudi Arabia, 61 percent in Kuwait and 67 percent in the UAE. Increased use of social media allows Gulf regimes to create a positive façade for their online audience, one that seems progressive and cooperative with online users.

Coupled with this increased usage of social media by Gulf State governments are the various social media summits held by some states: Kuwait’s Social Media Summit in 2014, Dubai’s Arab Social Media Influencer’s Summit in March 2015 and Qatar’s Doha Giffoni Youth Media Summit in July 2015. While these events seemingly exhibit the states’ desire to “use social media channels for so-called citizen empowerment, awareness campaigns, and entrepreneurial purposes,” the truth is that these efforts seek to shift social media’s use away from political mobilization and conceal the governments’ extreme restrictions on social media. The combination of these tactics allows Gulf states to create a superficial image that by no means matches their underlying motives.

While the increased take up rates of social media in the Gulf region might signify some progress for its citizens, the extent to which it empowers them is greatly outweighed by the states’ surveillance of Gulf citizens through the same vehicle. As long as Gulf governments silently loom over social media users in the Gulf and threaten them with punishment, there can be no real social and political change in the Gulf states anytime soon. The rise of social media is nothing more than a juicy red apple filled with poison: tempting and promising on the outside, yet dangerous and threatening on the inside.

This report prepared by CHLOE MAJDIPOUR for openDemocracy.