Facebook Has Leverage Over Arab Regimes, but Will It Use It to Advance Civil Rights?

Social media greatly contributed to civil rebellions in the Middle East, but this lifeline has been regularly blocked by regimes and leaders who are afraid of civil uprisings

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Iranian pedestrians wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, walk along a street in Tehran on July 1, 2020.
Iranian pedestrians wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, walk along a street in Tehran on July 1, 2020.Credit: Atta Kenare/AFP

The boycott a number of giant multinational corporations have taken against Facebook, Twitter and Instagram due to their refusal to block racist content has caused Facebook’s shares to plummet and forced CEO Mark Zuckerberg to promise to mark inappropriate content.

This unusual enlistment of the corporate world has naturally given rise to the deep disagreement between supporters of freedom of expression and those who call to limit it based on ethical and moral criteria. This is a proper theoretical dispute, in which the two sides have powerful arguments, but in the end it is decided based on a single consideration: Money.

In Arab countries, this question has created a different type of debate. Social media is an essential escape hatch for the formal and informal opposition to the government, a stage for the protest movements and social activists who cannot express themselves in official media outlets. Contributing greatly to the development of the civil rebellion and the processes of the revolutions of the Arab Spring, social media is now also serving as the alternative media through which important information is disseminated on the wars and struggles going on in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iran. This lifeline has been regularly blocked by regimes and leaders who are afraid of civil uprisings or expressions of criticism and ridicule over their actions.

Where does the line fall between filtering out racist, misogynist and antisemitic content and the demand of leaders to remove content that is “anti-national,” “incitement,” and that “harms national security or the economy?” In Arab countries, they accuse Facebook of surrendering to dictators and helping persecute their enemies. But when Facebook appointed Nobel Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman from Yemen to its content oversight board, social media users erupted and demanded boycotting Facebook because this appointment came in spite of the fact that she has supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey is a regular and outrageous example of the use President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes of his authority to silence his opponents on social media. According to a new report released by the International Freedom of Expression organization, until 2019, some 410,000 websites were closed, 130,000 URLs were erased, 7,000 Twitter accounts were removed in addition to tens of thousands of tweets, YouTube videos and posts that were deleted – and in most cases their owners were summoned for investigation, and even put on trial.

Supporters of the opposition during a rally in Istanbul, June 23, 2019.
Supporters of the opposition during a rally in Istanbul, June 23, 2019.Credit: Onur Gunay/Imamoglu Media team via AP

Last month, Erdogan railed out after insulting posts were posted on social media against him and his daughter, Esra Erdogan Albayrak and her husband, the Minister of Finance and Treasury Berat Albayrak. Erdogan is now examining additional steps to restrict the use of social media, and it seems he will demand that these outlets appoint permanent representatives in Turkey to remove any content that the government requests, as well as establish storage servers for content produced in Turkey and make them available to the government at any time.

In response, social media representatives threatened that they will consider completely halting their activities in Turkey, in spite of the large profits they make in the country. According to data from FactSet, Turkey stands third in the world in revenues from advertising for Facebook, and if money is the main consideration, it seems Erdogan can mark up another victory for himself in the war against freedom of expression.

Alongside Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the leading two countries in the Middle East in Facebook use. According to internetworldstats.com, in spite of the restriction, there are some 40 million Facebook users in Iran out of about 67 million internet users. In Saudi Arabia, some 24 million accounts are registered out of a population of about 35 million residents – about half of whom are foreign workers. All told, some 133 million users (including about 5.7 million in Israel) are registered in the Middle East.

These figures, which while they do not include Turkey and North African nations, create an enormous potential for influence on the content of social media and the information the public receives about newsworthy events such as wars, the spread of the coronavirus and ways to deal with it, and the influence of economic steps on the population. This is a two-way pipeline through which the regimes also receive information about public opinion, preparations for protests, recruitment of social activists and even the planning of terrorist attacks.

Social networks also serve as an alternative source for watching television directly or reading newspapers. Viewing and reading surveys show that citizens actually prefer to read and watch traditional media through social media. A comprehensive survey of the commercial use of the internet in general, and Facebook in particular, reported on the Egyptian website Al-Youm al-Saba’a (The Seventh Day), shows that about 35 percent of Egyptians 15 and older have bank accounts and reasonable purchasing ability, and that some 72 percent of internet users bought goods and services online, a rate that has grown as electronic commerce has developed dues to improvements in transferring money and delivery services.

Egyptian riot police clash with anti-government activists in Cairo, Egypt, in 2011.
Egyptian riot police clash with anti-government activists in Cairo, Egypt, in 2011.Credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis

An Arab boycott of Facebook would mean not just being cut off from this information lifeline. It would sever the main advertising channel that is used by most small businesses, kill of the business of the self-employed who cannot afford to advertise their wares on the official channels and would block personal channels of communication between sellers and their customers.

What the huge American and European corporations can allow themselves to do, small businesses in Arab countries cannot. At the same time, while electronic commerce in Arab nations may have grown by 25 percent a year since 2014 and has reached over $12 billion in just six years, it is hard to attribute all this just to social media. Facebook does not release its revenues by region and it is hard to estimate how the world’s largest social network influences economic development in the Arab world, but it is possible to estimate the economic leverage it holds over Arab regimes that want to encourage local production. Will it make use of this leverage to advance civil rights in Arab countries too?

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