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Digital Authoritarianism and the Public Sphere

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

Session Submission Type: Full Paper Panel

Session Description

The online public sphere matters. Digital communication technologies and platforms increasingly shape the world’s politics, society, economics, and culture—and the Middle East is no exception (e.g., El-Nawawy and Khamis 2013; Howard and Hussain 2013; Mellor 2017; Wheeler 2017; Zayani 2015). Across disciplines, academics are increasingly recognizing the relevance of the online public sphere as a venue for communication and manipulation of information and preferences, such as important work done in the political science field on the content and weaponization of digital media platforms in the Middle East region (Chadwick 2017; Karpf 2016). The field of information communication technology provides further insights on the efficiency of digital media as communication tools between political entities and their publics, enabling unprecedented citizen participation and interaction but also contributing to the spread of the political powers’ discourse (Akdenizli 2015; Jones 2016). And in media studies, digital media are also seen as ways of mobilizing public sentiment and organizing collective action to achieve common goals, including governmental transparency, protection of human rights, and improved socioeconomic conditions (Beyer 2014). Yet while the Arab Spring and the Iran election protests were considered Twitter-spurred revolutions, digital media has also been used by regimes as tools of monitoring and repression, such as in Bahrain (Jones forthcoming).

These disparate disciplines converge on the realization that the online public sphere provides both promise and danger to societal engagement, discourse, and networking, especially in authoritarian regimes. In these types of regimes, where physical public space is tightly controlled and/or inaccessible, the internet can serve as an alternative public square (Abdul Ghaffar 2014; Zayani 2015). But trolls and bots, often encouraged or hired by political authorities, can hijack the online public sphere and drown out alternative and anti-establishment voices through targeted and purposeful campaigns of disinformation—a rising trend that has been documented in Russia, China, Turkey, and even the US (Forestal 2017; Gunitsky 2015; King, Pan, and Roberts 2017; Roberts 2018). Rather than a space for free exchange of ideas and preferences, the online public sphere has become an arena of contestation and manipulation between, and among, states and societal groups.

How does the politicization of the online public sphere impact authoritarian regimes in the Middle East? To investigate this question, this panel showcases new, original work of four scholars working on issues related to digital authoritarianism and the public sphere in the Middle East. Overall, the four papers interrogate the ways in which authoritarian regimes are using digital media (mass media and/or social media) to influence domestic, regional, and international audiences. The collected papers advance both theoretically and empirically the topic of the online public sphere in authoritarian polities, through multimethod research, including textual and content analysis, interviews, historical archives, and new methodologies for analyzing digital media. As well, the depth of the panel’s case studies—on Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—increases contextual and comparative knowledge of digital media in non-Western contexts. Two papers use Saudi Arabia as their primary case study: The first paper examines the way in which automated “bots” on social media are negatively impacting the access to high quality factual information that is needed to promote useful public debate on policy and governance issues in the country, while the second paper argues that Saudi Arabia’s investments in international mass media outlets overlap with a worldwide network of Islamic organizations to both consolidate the modern state and promote the kingdom’s interests domestically, regionally, and globally. A third paper analyzes the tug of war between two Arab authoritarian regimes (Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and opposition activists (whether citizens, activists, or journalists) over the dominant narratives appearing on online platforms, noting that both parties have demonstrated learning curves in their attacks and counterattacks. The final paper investigates whether the Gulf diplomatic crisis (June 2017–present) has changed the online discourse of governments and citizens, and concludes that old battles are being fought on the new stage of social media. The panel’s two discussants and chair are established scholars of digital authoritarianism in the region, and bring their own insights and expertise to help integrate our findings with broader disciplinary research on the mediated public sphere. The central goal of our panel is to move our analyses beyond regionally-bounded questions to inform and advance the topic of digital authoritarianism and the public sphere in the discipline as a whole.

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