At the end of July, the hashtag "Tunisians revolt against the Brotherhood" began to trend on Twitter—the Brotherhood being the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement maligned in particular by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It spread online just as Tunisian President Kais Saied suspended parliament, deposed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and concentrated other powers in his hands, in what is widely accepted now as a "self-coup" or autogolpe. Since then, Saied has indefinitely extended the period of emergency under the Tunisian constitution that he used to justify his power grab, ignoring his own 30-day deadline to unfreeze parliament, amplifying concerns about authoritarian retrenchment in the country.
Saied's worrying reversion to autocratic rule was met with apparent support by many Tunisians who were fed up with a corrupt and broken political class that hasn't lived up to the promise of Tunisia's democratic transition since 2011. But it was also cheered on, noticeably, by many social media influencers in the Gulf, who crowded out other voices. Despite the myriad political and economic problems facing Tunisia, anyone looking for Arabic language content about Saied's moves on Twitter would have been mostly confronted with simplified propaganda that what was happening in Tunisia was a revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood.
That narrative was not coming out of Tunisia primarily or from Tunisians in general. Instead, it was largely the work of Saudi and Emirati influencers and other Twitter accounts based in the Gulf. At least on Twitter, a Tunisian political issue was being framed through an Emirati and Saudi lens, and heavily manipulated by propaganda. Saied's "self-coup" was an opportunity to smear political Islam and encourage anti-democratic disinformation, casting Saied's actions as a necessary and popular move to quash an existential enemy.
The flames of controversy and disinformation are being fanned on Twitter from a number of dubious accounts likely emanating from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Saudi and Emirati influencers themselves.
- Marc Owen Jones
A few weeks later, the hashtag "Qatar votes in the Majlis ash-Shura" started trending on Twitter in both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as Qataris prepared for new polls in October to elect two-thirds of the advisory Shura Council. Those tentative steps toward democracy in Qatar, however, were mired in some controversy after voting laws meant that many Qatari citizens were left without the right to vote.
While many users who posted the hashtag appeared to be from Qatar, the most influential ones were—as with Tunisia—opportunistic propagandists from outside the country, such as Emirati media personality Mubarak al-Yafei (@M999ad), who tweeted a hashtag claiming that Qatar was in revolt and suggested that the tribe of Al Marra was more legitimate than the Qatari government.
Others included suspicious anonymous accounts such as @Qattar_Affairs, purporting to be a news portal but likely an account created to spread manipulative, adversarial narratives against Qatar from its rival neighbors in the Gulf. Many were bots and paid-for-marketing accounts artificially boosting the hashtag and spreading disinformation about the Shura Council vote. Twitter later suspended at least 350 of these accounts as the hashtag "Qatar revolts" spread. That hashtag was also promoted by two verified Twitter accounts, one of an Indian entrepreneur and the other of an Australian journalist, which had been hacked and used to disseminate the propaganda.
In recent years, Twitter has suspended accounts purporting to be Qatari royals and Qatari opposition figures, after they were linked to a Saudi-led disinformation operation. Some spread fake rumors of a coup in Qatar, and also fabricated statements from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Once again, the flames of controversy and disinformation are being fanned on Twitter from a number of dubious accounts likely emanating from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Saudi and Emirati influencers themselves. The voices of actual Tunisians and Qataris, whether or not they were in agreement with the sentiments of these hashtags about Saied's power grab and the Shura Council elections, have been drowned out by deceptive external voices that are also being amplified by bots.
Narratives against democracy prevail on Arabic Twitter not because that is what the majority of Arabic-speakers think, but because so many of those who use Twitter cannot really say what they want.
- Marc Owen Jones
These Twitter trends are just two examples of the political imbalance of Arabic social media today, where propaganda and self-serving narratives from large, repressive states dominate, reflecting the wider power dynamics in the Middle East. Just as they do with their hard power, states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a strategic advantage over the likes of Tunisia and Qatar when it comes to social media. The result in the case of Arabic Twitter is a sort of gerrymandering of information. Larger populations, inculcated with hypernationalism or particular ideologies promoted by authoritarian leaders, can dominate Twitter by virtue of their size, drowning out minority views or the views of less populous countries.
As the writer and activist Brian Stone has argued, "social media is not just creating borderless speech, but also borderless propaganda." The same is true for borderless disinformation, fake news and just about any form of content online today.
This is not an argument against people discussing international affairs, wherever they are from; after all, borderless speech can be an asset of social media. The problem is when certain influencers, from states that discourage freedom of expression, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are able to monopolize a particular narrative or news event to reflect that state's propaganda or even foreign policy position.
It is a case of some countries carrying more of what I call in my forthcoming book "digital media power." Broadly speaking, digital media power is an actor's ability to use or co-opt digital media technologies in order to assert ideological influence and power over a community, or communities, by regulating or simulating the thought diet of a target demographic, inside and outside the state.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a terrible record when it comes to human rights and freedom of expression, and influencers there generally have to toe the government line. There is no free market of ideas where individual citizens can say what they want.
On Arabic Twitter, this is why narratives against democracy prevail—not because that is what the majority of Arabic-speakers think, but because so many of those who use Twitter cannot really say what they want. Even when they do, they are drowned out by anti-democratic messaging and outright propaganda reflecting the foreign policy interests of two authoritarian countries in the Gulf that are trying to chart and control the course of political development in the Arab world.