In this age the Pharaoh’s crook is digital. Nine years ago revolutionaries, literally, revolutionized the role of social media as a tool of mobilization and political dissent. Contrary to what some believe, the Egyptian state is neither static nor without foresight, particularly in matters of security and intelligence gathering. In the intervening 108 months, the regime has set about defending its share of the political/economic pie offline and is now on the offensive in the digital arena. Even though Facebook and Twitter are “social’’ media platforms, the Egyptian deep state cares most about the political lives of millions of Egyptians on social media. How the security octopus sought to manipulate, control, surveille and utilize Facebook and twitter is a story that has not garnered the attention it deserves.
“You had to live- did live, from habit that became instinct- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except, in the darkness, every movement scrutinized’’. Egypt may not be George Orwell’s 1984 yet, but its military autocracy wants it to gallop there and is intent on utilizing social media as the head of the spear.
As deep state control gripped all forms of media, simultaneously the men in trench coats set their sniper scope on the two social media platforms which include more than a third of the population. While there are multiple reasons for this strategy, crushing dissent in a largely unmoderated cyberspace could certainly be high on the list. After all, Egyptians now populate a public sphere where all roads lead to jail. High ranking officials are arrested for merely considering running for president, citizens like activist Alaa Abdel Fatah are arrested for Orwellesque “thought crimes’’, others, like Ahmed Badawi, for the gruesome “crime” of carrying a banner trumpeting his opposition to the constitutional amendments that made Sisi a king for life. So when Twitter and Facebook become politicized as other avenues offered far less freedom, the regime’s instinct was to suppress where possible, come up with counter programs, and consistently manipulate discourse.
In #Egypt, propaganda is ever present and is channeled into the public psyche as "fact" by well-practiced operators. This highly controlled environment creates "fear" which triggers self-censure - the ultimate killer of freedom of expression.
“ With information control, the Egyptian state has a robust program” thus began a long conversation with a postgraduate Information Controls researcher focusing on Egypt - whose name is withheld for security reasons. These controls are far reaching, targeting personal and professional accounts. In the mind’s eye of Citizen X, communication with the public stream of consciousness is as simple as typing a tweet but in Egyptian cyberspace this, more often than not, is a Salmon’s upstream struggle, the dynamics of that invisible opposition are as complex as the Nile’s currents. “ Governmental control over Egyptian social media is absolutely pervasive...it is enacted through legal mechanisms, technical mechanisms and...social mechanisms’’, explained the research fellow.
“Walls have ears’’ was the modus operandi during Nasser’s time. Sisi’s state not only surveilles its citizens, it tells them what to think, manipulates what they say, punishes them through fines and jail sentences, and drowns out what they say with well-organized troll armies, aka digital armies.
Propaganda is ever present throughout the process and is channeled into the public psyche as fact by well-practiced state and non-state operators. This highly controlled environment has multiple impact; Chief amongst them is fear which triggers self-censure - the ultimate killer of freedom of expression.
Think of it this way, when the September 20th demonstrations broke out, security’s knee jerk reaction was at its most aggressive, mobile device searches were commonplace in the streets, the mere presence of a political article on your Facebook page was grounds for arrest. An opposition tweet or even reporting news of others’ opposition suddenly became a crime. The regime considered all guilty till found innocent, and sometimes even after that.
Despite fear of imprisonment and large fines the 40 million Egyptian Facebook users and the 2 million plus Tweeps present the autocratic government with a quandary: how do you manipulate, silence and “guide” a nation digitally in a manner extending your offline control?
Facebook is perceived as more dangerous to the Egyptian state than Twitter. Due to “its organizing power, the events you can create and its role in the revolution” 70% of arrests based on social media content originate from Facebook.
Surprisingly, the Information Controls expert points out, Facebook is perceived as more dangerous to the Egyptian state than Twitter. Due to “its organizing power, the events you can create and its role in the revolution” 70% of arrests based on social media content originate from Facebook. Understanding how Egyptian state actors attempt to manipulate Facebook is not easy because the application’s programming interface isn't open like Twitter’s, thus analysis becomes polemic. But those control mechanisms are a reality. Just this past summer, Facebook was able to interrupt an organized influence campaign by Egypt and the U.A.E when it announced it had “removed 259 Facebook accounts, 102 Facebook Pages, five Facebook Groups, four Facebook Events”. Invisibility, pervasiveness and organization make the state actor all the more dangerous.
We know more about efforts to control Twitter however.
When you dig in to the daily Twitter manipulation, be it via fake accounts, trolls, bots or hashtag manipulation, you discover a deep state which lays out the paradigm: “state agencies don't do these kinds of things themselves, they hire the right people to do so”. The software developer with deep familiarity with those tactics continued, “they are deeply involved in architecting’’ the nefarious activities. Due to reasons of technical complexity, or to keep their relationship to said acts opaque, state actors maintain a distance, in many cases, from these, often, foreign actors working on the regime’s behalf. Roles are divided, with the simpler tasks of surveillance of accounts, building thousands of fake accounts to amplify the state message while undermining dissident voices; the more complex tasks of hashtag manipulation, for example, are handled by technically savvy outside contractors. Other outside contractors, like the Italian Hacking Team , disregarding human rights concerns, have sold tech to security agencies in Egypt, facilitating spying on activists and endangering lives in the process.
While micro details matter, the Egyptian state cares deeply about the macro view. Flow of information, its quantitative control and the forest view of digital public opinion is the real goal- individuals are not the primary target. Those can be targeted by digital troll armies to make their online interactions more painful and to impune credibility while undermining branding. Ultimately, the software developer and the post graduate expert agree: so long as the state’s presence is pervasive, systematic, and goal oriented for individual actors, the ability to affect public opinion is stripped bare.
Put another way, even a politically influential account like Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, with a mammoth following of 6.3 million followers cannot hope to compete with a political message broadcast by the deep state. Tens of thousands of trolls, bots on Twitter, hundreds of Facebook pages and tens of thousands of accounts dedicated to flooding the Egyptian sphere with anything and everything pro government. This repeated pro government “noise’’ from countless accounts serves the brainwashing needs of the autocrat while silencing opposition.
If you think that the deep state trilogy - Ministry of Interior (MOI), Amn El Dawla (S.S) and General Intelligence Service (GIS) - isn't looking to become independent of third party actors you would be mistaken. “ The state is trying, more and more, to build its own capacity internally’’, asserts the Information Controls researcher, but the state is not “yet fully autonomous’’.
There can be no denying, just as revolutionary forces utilized both Facebook and Twitter in 2011 as platforms for revolutionary ideals and organization the state has reversed the tide. In the era of Egypt’s most dangerous autocrat, the ink blot of hegemony has spread to the digital landscape. If voices of dissent can ever counterpunch, they must do so with their own digital jab.