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Technology, Media and Autocratic Resilience

Panel V-26, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • Co-Authors: Albert Vidal Ribe
    The Effects of Foreign State Media on Political Preferences in the Maghreb Social media has been intertwined with the process of contentious politics in the Maghreb since 2011. Early reports on the Arab Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt quickly declared the protests to be “Facebook Revolutions.” Over time, this assessment has proven overly simplistic. Subsequent research has found that authoritarian regimes equally used these same media platforms to spread disinformation and counter the narratives presented by opposition groups. Today, social media as a space for political expression is defined more by contestation than revolution. However, attempts to systematically measure the proliferation of false narratives have remained limited and methodologically skewed. Due to Twitter’s public API, scholarship has under-examined Facebook, despite its dramatically higher usage rate in the Maghreb region of North Africa. This sampling bias has the potential to obscure and misrepresent significant trends regarding the scale of Maghrebi interactions with foreign information campaigns. To shed some light on the effects of such interactions, this paper asks whether the spread of foreign state media on Facebook has a statistically significant effect on political preferences in the Maghreb. It also asks whether periods of socio-political tension in the region correlate with periods of increased interactions with foreign state media on Facebook. These questions will be assessed using a two-stage research design. First, the researchers will use Facebook’s URLs Dataset to determine which foreign state outlets receive high levels of interactions in the target countries–namely Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya–and how the level of these interactions varies over time. Second, the researchers will implement a survey experiment through Facebook to quantify the priming effects of prior exposure to foreign state media on susceptibility to political disinformation. This research represents a novel use of data to quantify the effect of foreign state media dissemination on political preferences in the Maghreb, particularly with respect to the region’s most significant social media platform. More broadly, this research will also contribute to the extant literature on contentious politics and soft power projection. Ultimately, it seeks to illuminate the extent to which street politics is implicated by transnational systems of power projection and digital influence.
  • Who are the Saudi nationalists? The growing body of social science research on mis- and disinformation campaigns in autocratic states emphasizes manipulative state strategies and bot armies. And while repressive regimes and state-led bot accounts are certainly relevant, this research focus misses the important role that bottom-up pro-regime movements can play to defend and authenticate autocratic regimes, particularly in episodes of autocratic change and renewal. This chapter uses the Saudi nationalist pro-regime movement (the Watanjiyya) that defends the Saudi nation, state, and monarchy on Twitter and attacks any critical voice as case-study to explain the existence of bottom-up pro-regime activism. The chapter draws on more than 90 original interviews with Saudi nationalists that I conducted across the kingdom between November 2021 and May 2022, previously disregarded data from Saudi online forums from the early 2010s and data from the Saudi Twitter sphere. First, the chapter finds that the Watanjiyya emerged as a bottom-up reaction to labour market pressures in the late 2000s and particularly to geo-political and (perceived) identity threats during the the Arab Spring (2011), pre-dating the state-led national identity project under Prince Mohammed bin Salman since 2015 by many years. This demonstrates that the Watanjiyya are not just attached to MBS or are a mere result of his policies. Second, the chapter shows that the Watanjiyya are motivated by the belief in the legitimacy of the regime, instead of receiving material benefits of some kind, developing into a crucial pillar of Saudi regime stability. The chapter highlights the relevance of bottom-up movements for the stability of autocratic regimes beyond mere state strategy.
  • This study adopts a Discourse Analytical approach to investigate how a form of Iranian nationalism is represented and reproduced on popular social networks, particularly on Twitter, in response to the growing emergence of ‘the minority issue’ and reaction to their ethnic claims and demands. With ‘the minority issue’ resurfaced in public debates in recent years, particularly in social networks, Iranian nationalists are to directly respond and take a stand on issues like the place of minorities in modern Iran, the state’s role regarding cultural diversity, and the relation between the mostly Persian-speaking Shiite center and the non-Persian-speaking Sunni peripheries. While there is an optimistic argument that social networks can turn into a new, easily accessed and managed space for cultural inclusivity, minorities recognition and pluralized participation of ordinary citizens, Iranian nationalists, feeling threatened by the growing number of ethnolinguistic movements, seize the opportunity provided by social networks to construct a reactionary Iranian nationalism and to categorically reject ethnic demands as an existential threat to the country’s political integrity and cultural homogeneity. With the help of Twitter which features the convergence of the production, consumption, and circulation of information in one technology and offers opportunities for the fast-spreading of information through networks of contacts, Iranian nationalists propagate numerous myths of Persian origins and ancestry and memories of the Persian ‘golden age in the hope of creating a sense of intimacy with and devotion to the country.
  • This paper problematizes the role that Arab First Ladies play in the legitimation of Arab authoritarian regimes vis-a-vis Western publics and governments. We argue that some Arab First Ladies have attempted to position themselves as “modern,” “Western-oriented” and "progressive" through their high-profile social, economic, and cultural activities focused on women and children. Moreover, the gendered character of their activities, focusing on the traditional “women’s sphere,” functions to “soften” the image of otherwise highly repressive and corrupt regimes, distracting from their authoritarian character. Using multiple-methods and comparative research, we examine Jordan’s Queen Rania, Egypt’s Suzanne Mubarak, and Syria’s Asmaa Al Assad, and examine how each has represented their work, including through social media. We analyze Arabic and English language media coverage and the social media presence of these First Ladies (Queen Rania has over thirty million combined followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram). In addition to both quantitative and interpretive analysis of 1286 Instagram posts and 2200 tweets by Queen Rania, and 897 Instagram posts by Asmaa Al Assad, we also utilize State Department cables available through Wikileaks and Foreign Aliens Registration Act filings for Queen Rania and the Jordanian and Egyptian governments. We supplement this with three interviews with people who worked directly for Suzanne Mubarak and Asmaa Al Assad in their development and charitable activities. Our research reveals that all three First Ladies purposefully curated images of themselves, with varying degrees of success, as “modern,” “progressive,” and “Western-oriented” Arab/Muslim women “reformers,” eliding the autocratic, character of their regimes. Queen Rania, Suzanne Mubarak, and Asma Al Assad also leveraged their “Western connections” to their advantage, as all three speak English fluently, are unveiled, and have significant personal and/or educational connections with the West. For all three First Ladies, their highly curated self-presentations and focus on the traditional “female sphere” was used instrumentally to “soften” the image of their repressive, corrupt, and autocratic regimes. Our research both draws upon and contributes to literatures about gender and authoritarianism, the durability of authoritarian regimes, and social media and politics.
  • This paper examines the process of adopting information and communication technologies (ICTs) within public administration in Türkiye, with a specific focus on Digital Government reforms. The research delves into the intricate dynamics that have been unfolding between these reforms and political transitions since the 2010s. The primary aim is to comprehend both the material and ideational conditions that empower political leadership to garner support for Digital Government reforms, as well as to elucidate the consequences of these reforms on the governmental system. The concept of Digital Government entails the integration of ICTs into the delivery of government services, underpinned by the notion that ICTs possess the potential to enhance public administration by rendering it more efficient, transparent, and accountable. Nonetheless, the pursuit of heightened transparency and inter-agency collaboration can potentially clash with the established interests and practices of state bodies. By adopting a perspective that regards the state as a multifaceted entity characterized by competing interests, this paper emphasizes the political factors, discourses, and processes that influence the implementation of these reforms within the Turkish context. The contention put forth is that the rivalry among political elites assumes a pivotal role in shaping the priorities and outcomes of Digital Government reforms. These political elites leverage Digital Government reforms to renegotiate their positions of power within the state apparatus's hierarchy and to expand their resources. Drawing upon a qualitative methodology that combines institutional analysis, textual analysis, elite interviewing, and participant observation, the paper offers an empirical account of social construction of technology within the domain of public administration. Moreover, it revisits the relationship between ICTs and regime resilience.