One hundred and forty characters are all it takes.
Twitter users from Marrakech to Manama know—call for political reforms, joke about a sensitive topic, or expose government abuse and you could end up in jail. Following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, authorities in Libya and Tunisia unblocked hundreds of websites and dismantled the state surveillance apparatus. But overall, internet freedom in the region has only declined in the three years since the Arab Spring as authoritarian leaders continue to crack down on any and all threats to their ever-tenuous legitimacy.
As the online world has become a fundamental part of Arab and Iranian societies, leaders are waking up to the “dangers” of social media and placing new restrictions on what can be read or posted online. This shift has been most marked in Bahrain, one of the most digitally-connected countries in the world. After a grassroots opposition group took to the streets to demand democratic reforms, authorities detained dozens of users for Twitter and Facebook posts deemed sympathetic to the cause. Similarly, several prominent activists were jailed on charges of inciting protests, belonging to a terrorist organization, or plotting to overthrow the government through their online activities.
Conditions in Egypt—where social media played a fundamental role in mobilising protesters and documenting police brutality—continued to decline over the past year. In only the first six months of Mohammad Morsi’s term, more citizens were prosecuted for “insulting the office of the president” than under Hosni Mubarak’s entire 30-year reign. Cases have now been brought against the same bloggers and activists that were instrumental in rallying the masses to protest against Mubarak (and later Morsi) in Tahrir Square, while countless others were tortured by Muslim Brotherhood thugs or state security forces.
Even in the moderate kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan, state officials are looking to extend their existing controls over newspapers and TV channels to the sphere of online media. Ali Anouzla, a website editor in Morocco, faces terrorism charges in the latest attempt by the state to silence him and his popular online newspaper, Lakome. Access to independent journalism is even worse in Jordan, where over 200 news sites have been blocked for failing to obtain a press license. The government instituted burdensome requirements in a bid to deter any views that counter the state-sponsored narrative.
If governments are beginning to pay attention, it is because online tools for social mobilisation and individual expression are having a profound impact. Social media accounts were set up for every candidate in Iran’s 2013 presidential elections, despite the fact that Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are all blocked within the country. In Saudi Arabia – which now boasts the highest Twitter and YouTube usage per capita of any country in the world – social media has been used to promote campaigns for women’s right to drive, to highlight the mistreatment of migrant workers, and to debate sensitive subjects such as child molestation. Citizen journalism was vital in documenting chemical weapons use in Syria, and a new online platform alerts local residents of incoming scud missiles. Nonetheless, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria rank as some of the least free countries in the world in terms of internet freedom according to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net study.
Remarkably, the country that has made the most positive strides over the past three years, was once among the most repressive online environments in the region – Tunisia. Protest videos from the town of Sidi Bouzid led to an intense crackdown on online dissidents by the Ben Ali regime. Digital activists even enlisted the help of Anonymous, the hacktivist group, to rally international media attention, provide digital security tools, and bring down government websites. Since then, Tunisian authorities have ceased internet censorship, reformed the regulatory environment, and ceded control of the state-owned internet backbone. Tunisia is now the only country in the region to have joined intergovernmental group the Freedom Online Coalition.
So while the snowball effect of social media contributed to the overthrow of several despots, many of the region’s internet users conversely find themselves in more restrictive online environments than in January 2011. Authoritarian governments now know exactly what the face of revolution looks like and, over the past three years, have shown their commitment to counter the internet’s potential to empower citizens and mobilise opposition. Users in liberal democracies may joke about the insignificance of “liking” a post on Facebook or uploading a video to YouTube, but in a region where your social media activity can make you an enemy of the state, 140 characters can lead to serious repercussions.