Day Two of the Fifth ACRPS International Winter School, “Social Media, Surveillance, and Societies of Control,” began with a lecture by Associate Professor of News, Social Media, and Public Communication at the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, Ahmed Al-Rawi. The lecture, titled “Misinformation, Surveillance, & Trolling on/in the Middle East,” focused on the evolving phenomena of misinformation, trolling, and surveillance in the Middle East. He argued that in some Arab countries, the state is not the only party involved in information operations but many political parties and even militias have developed their own cyber armies used to discredit their opponents and silence dissent. Using large datasets, interviews with human rights activists, and guided by empirical evidence, he showed how critical journalists and activists are often targeted with coordinated social media disinformation campaigns to tarnish their credibility and harm their reputation.
Following the presentation, there was a roundtable discussion on the role of social media in war, which Ahmed Al-Rawi, Marc Owen Jones, Mohamad Hamas Elmasry, Mohamed Zayani, Nadim Nashif contributed to by drawing on their own research. Some of the most notable contributions looked to issues such as how the use of social media has engendered a mix of algorithm-driven content curation, misinformation, and disinformation, leading to a fragmented and polarized understanding of conflicts and the weaponization of social media by various actors for propaganda.
After the roundtable, two participants presented their papers. Ahmad Abozaid presented his paper “Counterterrorism, Cybercrimes Legislation, and the Robustness of Digital Autocracy,” which illustrated the dialectical relationships between counterterror discourse and human rights violations. Elsayed Elsehemy Abdelhamid presented his paper “Digital Contestations in Former Prisoners’ Counter-Narratives and the Formation of Liminal Subjectivities,” paying attention to the forms of solidarity that social media potentialize in connecting former prisoners.
The opening lecture for day three, “From Greenwashing to Pro-Dictator Tweeting: Harmful Deception Operations on X,” was given by Professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University, Marc Owen Jones. Jones explored the manifestation of climate change propaganda and astroturfing polarization strategies in Sudan on social media. The case studies highlighted the difficulties conceptualizing the “deception order” and “deception operations”, proposing a model to determine the interactions between deception agents and geopolitics.
Later, two participants presented their papers. Isadora Borges Monroy discussed her paper “Who is Mass Online Surveillance for? Framing Effects and Intergroup Relations’ Effect on Public Opinion,” measuring competing privacy claims and attempting to advance the privacy/surveillance literature beyond self-referential privacy concerns and sociodemographic heterogeneity. Noor Hamwy’s paper “The Influence of Disinformation on Identity-Based Grievances: A Study within the Jewish Diaspora of the United States” investigated the impact of disinformation on identity-based grievances and its potential role in fortifying in-group loyalty.
The third day concluded with a workshop by Fadi Zaraket, Associate Professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and Founder of the Digital Arabic Social Spaces Research Unit at ACRPS, titled “Reverse Engineering Social Media”. The workshop introduced a reverse engineering approach to social media platforms. It also presented methods to leverage reverse engineering to collect data and information and reconstruct it in a way that enables systematic academic studies.
Day four began with a roundtable on “Social Media, Surveillance, and Societies of Control”, featuring Ahmed Al-Rawi, David Lyon, Heather Jaber, Marc Owen Jones, and Taha Yasseri. The roundtable reflected on the main theme of this year’s IWS, focusing on two main concepts: surveillance and societies of control. The roundtable discussed the interaction between social media, surveillance, and control by governments and corporations, and the vulnerability of popular culture to manipulation and control through social media.
The two participants, Bruno Schmidt-Feuerheerd and Laura Schuhn then presented their papers. Bruno Schmidt-Feuerheerd’s paper “Posts, Patriots, and Propaganda: Nationalist Mobilization in Saudi Social Media” used Saudi social media as a case study to demonstrate how the state depends on the mobilization of its supporters to advance pro-government talking points. Laura Schuhn’s paper “The Transformation of State-Society Relations in the Digital Age: Social Media as a Responsiveness Facilitator in Saudi Arabia in Light of Climate Change,” discussed how social media serves as a facilitator of responsiveness in autocratic contexts.
The last two participant presentations focused on women’s digital activism in Iran. Parichehr Kazemi’s paper titled “Between Stealth and Capture: The Dynamics of Resistance and Repression in Iranian Women’s Digital Activism” looked at how the state attempts to quell women's opposition and how women shape their activism in response to state repression. Mitra Shamsi’s paper titled “Mediation of Iranian Feminist Activism: Politics of Visibility” argued that women’s campaigns are performed in hybrid spaces where online and offline platforms, alternative digital and mainstream media, are intertwined to mobilize support and catch the attention of both local and international mainstream media.
The Winter School will continue until 11 January 2024. The next two days will include another seven participant presentations and two lectures, in addition to a workshop on using social media and AI for community safety.