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Between Digital Euphoria and Cyber-Authoritarianism. Technology’s Two Faces

Social media played a decisive role in the 2011 revolutions, allowing people to circumvent censorship and setting new forms of mobilization in motion. But the regimes quickly learned how to crush dissent by using the same weapons that had made it possible

This article was published in Oasis 31. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-08-29 21:51:50


The social media played an instrumental role in the 2011 revolutions, by circumventing censure and implementing new forms of mobilization. Very soon, however, it became evident that by themselves these tools are incapable of bringing about political change. Furthermore, the regimes the demonstrators revolted against learned to repress dissent using the very same weapons which were used to enable it. While resistance to despotism is not dead, it needs to reinvent itself.


When the Arab Spring uprisings erupted in 2011, they triggered a wave of hopes for a speedy and smooth transition to democratization and reform. These were coupled with, and inspired by, an equally unprecedented wave of techno-euphoria and high confidence in the strong potentials of social media as promoters of political change. Ten years after these uprisings began in Tunisia, igniting fiery protests in five other Arab countries, many of these hopes and dreams have dimmed. The outcomes in the so-called post-Arab Spring countries, with the unique exception of Tunisia, have been far from ideal, with an outbreak of civil war and a massive humanitarian crisis in Syria; statelessness and chaos in Libya; war and violence in Yemen; a forgotten and crushed uprising in Bahrain; and a return to military dictatorship in Egypt.


These reversals on the road to political reform and democratization have been accompanied and enabled by a surge in counter-revolutionary strategies on the part of repressive regimes, including “digital authoritarianism,” namely relentless efforts to crush dissent using the very same weapons which were used to enable it.


These developments compel us to revisit the potentials, and limitations, of the phenomenon of cyberactivism, or the reliance on social media to enact change. They also urge us to engage not only in an evaluation of their current dynamics, but also in a prediction of their future directions, in the midst of the ongoing digital tug of war between regimes and their opponents in this volatile region.   


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