Big Brother. The Weapons of Mass Influence of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates

In Digital Authoritarianism in the Midde East, researcher Marc Owen Jones deciphers the new digital tools that support the Saudi and UAE regimes’ drift from authoritarianism to dictatorship. These textbook cases illustrate formidable strategies for controlling information and monitoring populations. Interview with Claire Beaugrand.

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Claire Beaugrand.After the publication of your previous book, Political Repression in Bahrain [2020, Cambridge University Press] what made you write this book?

Marc Owen Jones. — In many ways my new book was a natural progression from 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.

C. B.How are these two works connected and/or how do they depart from each other?

M. O. J.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 democratisation, 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.

C. B.What topics, issues, and literature does it address? What are your main findings?

M. O. J. — 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 MBS [Muhammad bin Salman], all prompted social and political changes that necessitated and/or 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 10 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 MBZ and MBS, 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 PR [Public Relations] and tech companies, are forming disinformation supply chains and authoritarian synergies. Indeed, digital technology helps despatialise authoritarianism, Gulf countries are increasingly deploying these assets beyond the Middle East, to the West, and beyond. ces outils hors du Proche-Orient, vers l’Occident et encore au-delà.

C. B.Is there a specificity of your chosen case studies or could your conclusions be applied to other GCC states or other states, authoritarian or not, more broadly?

M. O. J. — The basis for selection was really based on inductive analysis of social media, in particular Twitter. The most virulent and voluminous disinformation appeared to come from accounts representing foreign policy interests of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This was true as far afield as Libya and Somalia, Iraq, and the United States. An aspect of the argument is that these rich Gulf states can mobilise their high technological penetration rates and large populations to try and dominate the Arabic language information space. In many ways, the new digital authoritarianism is an extension of traditional efforts by rich Gulf states to co-opt the Arabic information sphere. While before this was done by paying off journalists and buying up satellites and media companies, the new form it takes is finding ways to dominate social media using fake accounts, surveillance, bots, and corporate espionage.

New political realities also facilitate digital authoritarianism, normalization with Israel is allowing the more permissive transfer of technologies such as Pegasus, which is used by regimes to target their political enemies and securitise all forms of private life. I argue for the creation of digital power. Like conventional warfare, large states with bigger armies are theoretically more powerful. In the case of digital technology, countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia (in terms of Arab states), are resourcing their digital control infrastructures more so than other GCC states.

C. B.How do see or evaluate the changes induced by social media in the Gulf?

M. O. J. — 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 civilising 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 are the basis of neoliberalism technology, the normalisation of technology into our lives that benefits increase destruction of our private spheres, and thus increasing potential for authoritarianism or exploitation of citizens. This transnational collaboration forms the basis for the despatialisation of digital authoritarianism.