On 5 May the Bahraini regime arrested prominent human rights activist and 2012 Index award winner Nabeel Rajab for inciting violence on social networking sites. This is the second time Rajab has been arrested for so-called “cyber crimes”, and last year the regime accused him of publishing false information on Twitter.
These attacks on free speech illustrate how authoritarian regimes can use social media as a convenient “evidence-gathering” tool to prosecute those who dare speak out. Indeed, Rajab’s arrest is a warning shot to others: a reminder that engaging in online activism could result in a prison sentence.
While the fear of arrest is an important concern for many activists using social media, there are other factors at work that might deter people from criticising the Bahraini regime. One of these is trolling, an aggressive form of online behaviour directed at other web-users. It usually comes from anonymous accounts, and its severity can range from death threats and threats of rape, to spiteful comments and personal abuse. It is particularly common on Twitter. Here’s a little taster of what I’ve experienced:
@marcowenjones: ‘don’t you worry, we’ll cross paths one day. You’ll see, and I’ll remind of these days while my cock is inside u’ – Anonymous Troll
Human rights activists and journalists often find themselves being targeted by Bahrain’s internet trolls. Al Jazeera journalist Gregg Carlstrom tweeted: “Bahrain has by far the hardest-working Twitter trolls of any country I’ve reported on”. J. David Goodman of the New York Times writes about how internet trolls are attempting to ‘cajole, harass and intimidate commentators and journalists’ who are critical of the Bahrain government. Bahraini journalist Lamees Dhaif says that much of this trolling panders to Gulf Arab audiences, and that women are often accused of being promiscuous while men are accused of homosexuality.
For the thick-skinned, trolling might have no effect, but not everyone can brush it off so easily. Some users I have interviewed in the course of my PhD research have admitted that trolling has stopped them tweeting anything critical of the regime. Others have “protected” their Twitter accounts, which means that what they write can only be read by users approved by the author, thereby limiting their audiences. Trolling can therefore be seen as a type of bullying, one that uses intimidation to force people to engage in self-censorship. It is especially effective in times of political upheaval, when there is the constant threat of arbitrary detention or even torture. As Global Voices‘ MENA editor Amira Al Hussaini once said: “cyberbullying = censorship! Welcome to the new era of freedom in #Bahrain”.
Trolling in Bahrain has became so severe that a report commissioned to investigate human rights abuses in the country last year actually mentioned it. In particular, it focused on the actions of @7areghum, a Twitter account that “openly harassed, threatened and defamed certain individuals, and in some cases placed them in immediate danger”. The legal experts charged with compiling the report concluded that @7areghum broke Bahraini law and international law. Despite this, the Bahrain government do not appear to have asked the US government to subpoena Twitter to release information about the account.
Even harsh new laws designed to punish those guilty of online defamation seem little more than an attempt to intimidate those thinking of engaging in dissent. The insincerity of such laws is highlighted by the fact that the government are paying enormous amounts of money to PR companies to engage in clandestine activities to improve Bahrain’s image. Indeed, it appears that the managing director of one such company, which received 636,000 USD (approximately 385,000 GBP) to do PR work for the Bahraini government, runs a blog which routinely defames activists. The government seems happy to let this slide, further fuelling the belief that some internet trolls work for PR companies paid by the regime to spread propaganda and marginalise dissent.
Although it can be notoriously difficult to track down trolls and cyber-bullies, the government’s unwillingness to condemn the likes of @7areghum suggest tacit support of such methods. The recent announcement that the government would take action against all those who tarnish Bahrain’s image on social media also corroborates the notion that cyber laws only apply to those who oppose the regime. In the meantime, expect trolling to continue, for it is a useful form of devolved social control, one that allows the government to distance itself from accusations of censorship.