The Utility of Social Media in Autocratic Middle Eastern Regimes

In our contemporary era of social media technology and global networking websites, observers of the Middle East widely agree on one point: unless autocratic regimes obstruct or heavily restrict Internet access, they will be subverted by technologically shrewd activists. This judgment suggests that the vast social networking platforms provided by venues like Facebook allow users to mobilize so discretely and in such substantial numbers that they have a better chance at successfully transforming their dictatorial governance structures than those employing more customary means of protest. Given the impersonal nature of Facebook and the extensive authority available to autocratic rulers, however, it is more likely that not only will Facebook-style campaigns fail to achieve desired results, they will also make it more difficult for advocacy groups to coalesce over the long term.

While the World Wide Web does make the task of connecting with other politically like-minded individuals more effortless, the Internet inevitably fractures mass movements at an early stage. Remote and essentially anonymous, the nature of the Web encourages users to interact in a fundamentally abnormal way (as opposed to the way they would in face-to-face exchanges). The psychoanalytic concept of “transference”—the process whereby emotions are displaced from one person to another—is particularly relevant to understanding the qualities of online relationships. As noted by John Suler in his hypertext book, The Psychology of Cyberspace, because the experience of the other person is often limited to text, there is a tendency for the user to project a variety of wishes, fantasies and fears onto the ambiguous and imperceptible figure at the other end of cyberspace (Suler 1998).

Related to this phenomenon of unconscious feeling-displacement is an experience called the “disinhibition effect,” a term used to describe uncharacteristic impulsivity, contempt for social conventions and a general lack of personal restraint. With specific regard to the Internet, the sensation of disinhibition is amplified through the anonymity and status neutralization afforded one by the web. When the effects of transference and disinhibition combine, uncensored web-based conflicts are easily brought to extremes. Simply consider the innumerable Facebook group discussion boards overrun by banal but heated arguments full of ad hominem and imprudently worded attacks. With the absence of visual and auditory cues, individuals perceive their Internet communications as occurring primarily in their heads and therefore make remarks publicly that they would ordinarily only think to themselves. Essentially, the Internet induces anomie and erodes social capital by enabling users to retreat into an artificial and unexamined world that has become a substitute for concrete social interactions (DiMaggio 2001). This effect predictably makes enforcement of ideological conformity more difficult than when individuals are forced to assemble in the streets.

What does this mean for the Middle East, where Facebook, Twitter and other forms of new media have been hailed as innovative and effective ways of circumventing suppression? It means that what appears to be legitimate social activism is actually a potentially divisive force as well as a low-cost way of avoiding more open forms of protest. Facebook and its messaging service cousins threaten to estrange not only members within a group but also entire groups from members of the outside world who are engaging in more aggressive forms of activism. The majority of Internet-powered campaigns depend on the assumption that raising awareness is enough to resolve an issue, an unproblematic expectation for some local causes such as gay marriage but a completely hazardous one when it comes to questions of genocide, authoritarian regimes, etc. Indeed, interactive digital media is making it extremely difficult for many Pan-Arab initiatives, such as a recent attempt to liberate an incarcerated Egyptian dissident through translation and publication of his blogs, to elicit direct action from inhabitants of the Middle East. This dilemma is epitomized on the aforementioned campaign’s website, which features a sign reading, “Don’t Donate. Take Action.” (Evgeny 2009). As further affirmation of the disconnect between residents of cyberspace and reality, dissidents in Egypt complain that Facebook-literate citizens, extolled for bringing Egypt’s political currents and opposition figures into greater profile, give Egyptians the impression that physical unity is extraneous. A vibrant, computer-based civil society has come to displace tangible civil society to the extent that those experienced with communication technologies no longer feel it imperative to coordinate or migrate offline (Shapiro 2009).

Moreover, while interactive media is generally impervious to government resistance, autocratic regimes can easily follow Facebook activity and can even more easily distinguish, and consequently apprehend, specific protestors. As stated before, autocratic regimes’ overwhelmingly efficient response to this perceived new danger (in the form of arrests, blocks on Facebook and positioning of law enforcement at possible congregation sites) means that those Facebook-ing and Twitter-ing from home seldom or never take to the streets to execute their proposals. Furthermore, the West is apparently not sympathetic to Facebook activists as it has barely acknowledged these fresh and ill-treated oppositional voices and has certainly not pressed for their release from various prisons, which presently hold a growing number of individuals considered delinquent only because they engaged in visible dialogue.

While the role of digital new media in contributing to the emergence of a reawakened regional Arab consciousness and national identity is limited, information technologies do have their distinct advantages. Development, communications and culture researcher Dr. Loubna Skalli observes that the Internet is a driver of sociopolitical transformations that have allowed women to contribute to and participate in civic and political endeavors. Through the diverse apparatuses of new media, which do not discriminate on the basis of gender, women are finally redefining the public sphere by disseminating alternative knowledge about women, citizenship and political participation and by creating trangressive spaces (Skalli 2006). Ultimately, while micro-blogging and social networking services alone may not subdue autocratic regimes, they at least create heterogeneity among their society’s political participants and present a voice to segments of society once inaudible.

Works Cited

DiMaggio, Paul. “Social Implications of the Internet.” Annual Review of Sociology, no. 27             (2001): 307-336.

Morozov, Evgeny. “It Feels Like Activism.” Newsweek. 29 6 2009.

Skalli, Loubna. “Communicating Gender in the Public Sphere: Women and Information    Technologies in the MENA.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, no. 2 (2006).

Shapiro, Samantha. “Revolution, Facebook-Style.” The New York Times Magazine. 22 1 2009.

Suler, John. The Psychology of Cyberspace. 1998.