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Authoritarian Information Control and Surveillance Across Borders: Digital Threats Against Activists from Egypt, Syria and Iran

Civil Society
Contentious Politics
Human Rights
Internet
Social Media
Technology
Activism
Marcus Michaelsen
Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Marcus Michaelsen
Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Abstract

The paper investigates forms of digitally enabled surveillance and repression against diaspora activists from three Middle Eastern countries: Egypt, Syria and Iran. I analyze how state actors monitor, threaten and control human rights defenders and journalists who operate outside their country of origin. I also discuss the potential impact of these threats on the targeted activists and their strategies of resistance. Building on a series of qualitative interviews with members of the affected communities, the paper presents first results of an ongoing research project. It aims to provide a deeper understanding of the threats diaspora activists face and the digital security practices they rely on in a shifting landscape of transnational sociotechnical risks. By investigating the motivations and capabilities of the regimes behind the threats and the effects on the targeted communities, the paper covers new ground: it overcomes both the technical leaning of research into digital threats against civil societies as well as the domestic focus of research on authoritarian internet control. Particular attention is given to how activists working in transnational advocacy networks perceive, imagine and adapt to the affordances of digital media for authoritarian control and repression. With this approach, the paper demonstrates how authoritarian power is exercised across borders, through practices mediated and aided by digital technologies, in an interactive process involving both regime agents and diasporic dissidents.