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Re-visiting “Cyberwars”: Mediated Battles between Arab Authoritarians and Exiles

Fri, August 30, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Hilton, Embassy


A free press is crucial to the building of modern societies. It contributes to democratic transitions, through creating awareness, shaping public opinion, and boosting mobilization. It also plays the role of watchdog over ruling regimes, through exposing government corruption and human rights violations, and holding those in power accountable for their actions. Furthermore, it provides platforms for exercising citizen journalism, which constitutes an alternative sphere, free of governmental intervention and manipulation, creating the needed environment for active civil societies to grow and thrive (El Nawawy and Khamis, 2013).

However, there has always been a tug of war between authoritarian regimes and those who opt to expose their wrongdoings, whether they are activists, opponents, citizen journalists, or professional journalists. The authoritarian approach in dealing with critical news coverage and oppositional media is turning into an escalating, global trend, sadly described as “the new normal” for the opposition, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2018 census report. Of particular importance are the developments in the Arab region’s media arena, especially in the context of the “Arab Spring” uprisings and their aftermath (e.g., Khamis and Vaughn, 2011). Egypt and Saudi Arabia were among the countries that imprisoned more journalists and activists in 2018, compared to the previous year, marking a worsening press freedom record and an escalating level of authoritarianism. In fact, fresh waves of repression in Egypt and Saudi Arabia contributed to the global crackdown on press freedom for the third consecutive year (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2018).

The heightened levels of repression in these countries has triggered an increase in the phenomenon of journalists, activists, and opponents fleeing their home countries and living in exile, out of fear for their personal safety and the safety of their families. This new phenomenon of Arab opposition in exile, which has been on the rise in recent years, opens new doors and windows for resisting authoritarian regimes. One of the most important tools which have been deployed by members of the Arab opposition in exile has been the utilization of “cyberactivism,” defined by Philip Howard (2011) as the use of social media to advance a cause that is difficult to advance offline. Yet it also provides these regimes with opportunities to crack down on their opponents, sometimes with the brutal ultimate outcome of silencing them forever, as witnessed in the horrific murder of prominent Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.

While many activists, opponents, and journalists are resorting to online platforms to express their views outside state control and governmental intervention, many of these regimes are also building their own learning curves, in terms of inventing new measures to crack down on their opponents, not just on the ground, but also online, using techniques such as trolling, hacking, blocking, and sabotaging. As this tug of war between regimes and their opponents develops and escalates, both on the ground and online, both parties have sharpened their tools in launching attacks and counterattacks. The effectiveness of each party and its ultimate success in these mediated wars are a product of a myriad of complex factors, including, but not limited to, level of preparedness and technological savviness; the depth, breadth, scope and outreach of messages and campaigns; and, ultimately, the ability to mobilize the masses and galvanize support.

This qualitative research study explores how one of the major threats to press freedom moving forward is this digital tug of war between regimes and their opponents in the realm of cyberspace, commonly referred to as “cyberwars,” which opens new horizons for both liberation and repression simultaneously (Khamis, Gold, and Vaughn, 2012). This study gathers new mediated content by both authoritarian regimes and their opponents, including textual analysis of the Facebook pages and Twitter accounts of supporters and opponents of the Egyptian and Saudi regimes over a three-month period, interviews with members of the exiled Egyptian and Saudi opposition communities in the US, and interviews with members of professional organizations working on press freedom, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, and Reporters without Borders, to explore how these complex factors both pose challenges and necessitate adopting innovative protective measures for journalism in the Arab world in the future. By doing so, this study also helps to advance our theoretical and academic knowledge in the interdisciplinary, cross-cutting fields of international communication, digital media studies, and political activism, through unpacking the complex dynamics, nuances, and intricacies of this virtual, mediated tug of war between authoritarian regimes and their opponents in the post-Arab Spring era.