Marc Owen Jones, Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Deception, Disinformation and Social Media (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Marc Owen Jones (MOJ): In many ways my new book was a natural progression from my previous monograph, Political Repression in Bahrain. Political repression is all about how hegemonic forces attempt to weaken or destroy social movements and opposition, and a key aspect of political repression that I defined in my book on Bahrain was information controls. Information controls are the use of media, surveillance, and other means of shaping the information space to weaken resistance to a particular entity. They aim to persuade, convince, or deceive opposition forces, and give the differential power of knowledge to the hegemonic order. Digital authoritarianism is the use of digital technology within transnational authoritarian structures, that manifests itself through digital repression.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MOJ: The book is highly empirical, and documents in detail a number of the many investigations I have undertaken into fake news and disinformation campaigns across the Middle East. It draws on literature around disinformation and propaganda, but also authoritarianism and neoliberalism. It makes several arguments but key among them is that the Middle East, while often overlooked in disinformation literature, should be seen as a key exporter of disinformation. The Gulf in particular, I argue, is going through a “post-truth” moment. Trump’s maximum pressure on Iran, the Gulf Crisis, the rise of Muhammad bin Salman, all prompted social and political changes that necessitated and/or have been accompanied by the need for persuasion campaigns. Indeed, such influence campaigns are a key part of big political decisions, such as conflicts or large shifts in foreign or domestic policy—all of which have occurred in the past ten years.
I also argue that as a result, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are deception superpowers, i.e., they have the technology and will to launch influence operations on three fronts—domestically, regionally, and internationally—in a sustained and evolving manner. I also suggest the trajectory of digital authoritarianism, coupled with the emerging sultanism of Mohammed bin Zayed and Muhammad bin Salman, is turning the region away from authoritarianism, and more towards tyranny. Indeed, digital technology can fundamentally shape the nature by which we might define regime type, as it allows hitherto impossible access to people’s private lives. I also argue these regimes, in collaboration with Western public relations and tech companies, are forming disinformation supply chains and authoritarian synergies. Indeed, digital technology helps despatialize authoritarianism, and Gulf countries are increasingly deploying these assets beyond the Middle East, to the West, and beyond.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MOJ: Digital Authoritarianism is simply a more specific focus on this aspect of repression. Studying Bahrain at the time of the 2011 uprising revealed the emerging role of social media and digital technology in state control strategies. At a time when people were asking whether the internet and social media would offer a path to democratization, I was studying how it was being deployed as a tool of control and censorship. My latest book takes this idea further, and while the theoretical framing of information controls is narrower than political repression, the case study is broader, covering numerous countries in the Middle East and across the globe, instead of just Bahrain. So, it is theoretically more focused, and regionally broader.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MOJ: I would like the book to be read by anyone working on the Middle East, especially the Gulf—whether they are policy makers, academics, activists, politicians, or diplomats. Perhaps this is what everyone says, but I have written it (I hope) to be engaging and relatively easy to read for non-specialist audiences. In doing that I wanted to impress on people the urgency and importance of the dangers of new digital technology, and how so much of the manipulation is unseen until made visible. The book goes to the core of the reliability of data increasingly used by social science researchers and policy makers. In short, anyone who wants to try to learn about the region needs to learn about the limitations of digital data, and the dangers it poses—I hope this book can do that. I also think it is important for digital scholars the world over, as a clear problem I highlight is the transnational nature of digital repression, and the multiple actors involved.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MOJ: I am currently trying to consider comparative examples of digital repression, and whether we can delineate different digital authoritarian ecosystems. I am also continuing my ongoing work of trying to do first-responding to disinformation campaigns, especially when it concerns digital misogyny or online harmful speech. I am also working on tracking and mapping out anti-Palestinian harmful speech in Arabic. This is a problem I see getting worse now with the normalization of some Arab states’ relationships with Israel.
J: Where do state and transnational forces intersect in digital authoritarianism, and how have we moved away from the idea that digital technology would enable a more vibrant public sphere?
MOJ: This is a large question, but the underlying argument is that social media use very much reflects the confluence of local political factors, along with the idea of “neoliberation technology.” Here “neoliberation technology” is my ironic take on “liberation technology,” the misguided idea that technology will liberate people from authoritarianism. The discourse of liberation technology is reminiscent of the civilizing mission discourse that technology will “solve” problems and bring democracy, and thus its proliferation is a utilitarian force. In fact, these companies, like many other companies, are profit-orientated, and they do not desire barriers to selling their product. Thus, authoritarians and tech companies both share a key thing in common, a desire to know more and more about their populations. For big tech, it must sell this data to advertisers; for authoritarians, it is to better control the populations. This confluence of neoliberalism and “liberation” discourses is the basis of neoliberalism technology, the normalization of technology into our lives that benefits the increasing destruction of our private spheres, and thus increasing potential for authoritarianism or exploitation of citizens. This transnational collaboration forms the basis for the despatialization of digital authoritarianism.
Excerpt from the book (from the Preface, pp.xiii to pp.xvi)
Liliane Khalil had everything. She was young, intelligent, and her career as a journalist was blossoming. It was 2011 and Khalil was writing about the Arab Uprisings. Wearing a pair of her favourite Jimmy Choos, Liliane stepped out with members of the British consulate in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a warm spring night and a huge moment for her: a gala celebration at the Hilton Hotel to celebrate the launch of the Atlanta bureau of the Bahrain Independent, a blossoming news organisation. Khalil, an up-and-coming journalist, would be heading the bureau. Quite an achievement at such a young age. She already had thousands of followers on Twitter, including many well-known journalists, politicians and academics.
Despite her short career, Khalil had already interviewed some very prominent names in the Arab world, such as Hanan Ashrawi and the king of Bahrain. She had been a guest speaker at New York University, Oglethorpe University, and had written for a number of international news outlets. Sometimes she’d work late at her various gigs, pausing only to fulfil the new obligation of our digital age, stopping to take a photo to post on social media, in this case, a photo of the CNN logo and posting it on Twitter. Her fame had come in large part off the back of the Arab Uprisings, but she was doing an important job keeping people informed of what was going on.
Khalil was also riding the wave of techno-utopianism. With people touting Facebook and Twitter as liberating platforms, it was great to see a young woman from the region able to make a name for herself through brave and outspoken journalism. Khalil was modest and humble too, writing for the big outlets such as TRT, but also emerging and little-known platforms such as BikyaMasr, a new Egyptian blog. Her job was dangerous too. After writing about an event in Libya, her Twitter account briefly disappeared – it had been hacked. Khalil re-emerged online again a few days later. She was OK, much to the relief of her followers, who included other well- known journalists, pundits and commentators.
Despite all this, one question lingered. Why would such an up- and-coming journalist take a relatively humble job at a small, new Bahraini outlet? But in the Gulf, with heavyweights like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya emerging from Qatar and Saudi, maybe it was Bahrain’s turn to contribute to the Gulf media renaissance. Yet just as Khalil’s career was reaching new heights, things began to fall apart. I started asking questions. Sure Liliane Khalil was a rising star, still early in her career, but why was there so little evidence of her interviews with many of these famous figures? I could not find her interview with the king of Bahrain, or Ashrawi, or others. Other things did not add up. Why had Liliane Khalil, a journalist who appeared to be supporting the Arab Uprisings, backed the Bahraini regime? Why had she written a piece that promoted the propaganda issued by the Bahraini state, namely that the uprising wasn’t a democratic revolution, but a religious movement inspired by Iran? Why had a Dutch academic, Katje Niethammer, taken issue with Liliane Khalil’s misrepresentation of her work? Was Liliane being paid by the Bahrain government? Had she sold out, and taken a lucrative salary in exchange for journalistic integrity?
Perhaps contacting those who knew Liliane would be useful, maybe her colleagues at the Bahrain Independent. They did not respond to my emails, and appeared mostly to be preoccupied with smearing activists criticising the Bahraini response to the uprising. I contacted the Hilton Hotel in Atlanta to ask about the gala night, where she had photographed herself side by side with women from the British consulate. They said there was no such event. I contacted the British consulate in Atlanta to ask if the staff photographed in Liliane’s photo were available for comment or interview. They denied that the women in the photo even worked at the consulate. Oglethorpe and NYU had no records of Liliane Khalil ever having given a talk. Other things began to unravel. A quick scan of some of the articles Khalil had posted showed they had been plagiarised. One article she had written for the Turkish site Sabah was actually copy- pasted from Reuters.
The story got weirder. One of the images used by Liliane Khalil directed to the LinkedIn profile of a woman called Gisele Cohen. There were more too, other accounts using her photo and biography led to profiles called Lily Khalil, Victoria Nasr, Gisele Mizrahi, Gisele Azari and Gisele Khadouri – a veritable rabbit hole of slightly altered identities featuring the same photos. I compiled all these bizarre findings into a document and posted it online. Soon it went viral. Al Jazeera did an interview with me, as did France24. The Washington Post wrote an article on it. Soon media outlets were clambering to get an interview with the elusive Liliane Khalil. The only condition they placed was that she appear on camera. After all, one of the central questions was, is Liliane Khalil who she says she is, the attractive young woman in the photos? Liliane agreed to be interviewed onscreen on a number of occasions but always pulled out at the last minute.
After lashing out numerous times, and getting a publicist who also worked for a company doing PR for the Bahraini regime, Liliane agreed to a phone interview with me. The woman on the phone sounded older than the woman in the photo, and began her interview with a sob story, no doubt designed to elicit sympathy. She often attributed things to poor memory. In one instance I asked her about the time she had copied and pasted a Reuters article and claimed it as her own, but she said she was drunk and didn’t remember. It became clear that Khalil was a fraud, but a fraud who had duped a few thousand people into following her. What’s more, a fraud who had made grandiose claims, seemingly without anyone bothering to verify them.
Liliane Khalil was neither the first nor last fraudster to remind people, especially journalists, to be vigilant; but she was a new breed, exploiting digital media and regional conflict to spread pro-government propaganda. Many people put too much trust in social media, and do little to verify the veracity of what they consume. At the same time as Liliane Khalil, the world had been transfixed by a similar scandal. A gay Syrian-American who had been blogging from Damascus called Amina Amaraf suddenly disappeared, prompting fears that the Syrian regime had arrested her. This provoked a real-life manhunt, and journalists and activists raised alarm bells about her fate. However, it turned out Amina was a man called Tom McMaster, an American postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Techno-utopianism bought with it the notion of techno-naivety. The euphoria and hope engendered by the Arab Uprisings had often made people forget that technology was not just the tool of the protester or the revolutionary. It was also the tool of the propagandist, the fraudster and the state. It could be used for good or ill. Social media, a highly unregulated and easy to manipulate space, was ripe for such impostors. This book is not an epitaph for the demise of techno-utopianism, or liberation technology, but rather a reminder that hope requires vigilance and not complacency, and that power accumulates as nodes within networks. It is also a critique of the liberation paradigm, which served as political cover for neoliberal capital, which has sought to emphasise the internet and its spread as a means of creating new untapped frontiers for investment.
With the rise of any new technology, unbounded optimism can serve to leave us off guard, blind to the insidious encroachment of malicious actors seeking to reaffirm or maintain control over a digital space that could, in a theoretically possible but likely unattainable context, offer us so much good. However, as the book shows, since the demise of Liliane Khalil, the rise of post-truth politics and deception have shown no sign of abating. It is unclear if we are becoming better at exposing manipulation, or if manipulation is getting worse, but the confluence of a breed of new populists, along with a disinformation industry facilitated by loosely regulated social media companies, is sustaining digital authoritarianism and illiberal practices in both the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and across the globe. It is the hope of this book to shed light on the causes, nature and impact of this weaponised deception.