Digital Surveillance and Transnational Repression

How do dictatorships control dissent outside their borders? Authoritarian regimes increasingly use surveillance, malware attacks, online harassment and disinformation campaigns to compromise civil society networks and mute their voices. Because digital communication technologies facilitate the monitoring of and response to transnational activities rapidly and on a large scale, they influence established tactics of extraterritorial state control and also enable new tactics. My current research project (DIGIACT) in the LSTS research group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels investigates transnational forms of surveillance and repression against political activists, journalists and human rights defenders from the Middle East and North Africa who reside in the European Union.

The project analyses how repressive regimes disrupt the communications and constrain the activities of government opponents and critics outside their state territory. It also examines the impact of digital threats on the targeted communities of transnational activists, their strategies of resistance as well as the implications for freedom of expression, privacy and other human rights. My first insights were presented in an essay about the toolkit of digital transnational repression that appeared in a Special Report from Freedom House.

DIGIACT (2020-2022) has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research programme under a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship (Grant Agreement 845988).

Previous research on this topic has been conducted under an Information Controls Fellowship of the Open Technology Fund, hosted by the Middle East and North Africa program of Hivos.

Silencing Across Borders

Transnational Repression and Digital Threats against Exiled Activists from Egypt, Syria, and Iran.

Research report for Hivos.

Authoritarianism in a Global Age

How do authoritarian rulers respond to global information flows, the movement of people as well as transnational networks of associations and non-governmental organisations? The 5-year comparative research project “Authoritarianism in a Global Age” at the University of Amsterdam investigated how contemporary authoritarian rule is affected by and adapts to globalization. One of the project’s key contributions was the idea of considering authoritarianism not  as a form of governance bound to a specific nation-state and territory, but rather as practices of accountability sabotage. Authoritarian practices disable access to information or disable voice. They can occur in established democracies, at the subnational level, or in arrangements involving private companies and international organizations.

As a member of the project (2014-2017), my work focused on the ways in which authoritarian states control and regulate, but also benefit from the internet. Building on the idea that internet governance can be considered as a field of global power struggles, I approached authoritarian internet controls not only as a response to domestic dissent but also within the context of international relations. In a paper on the international politics of internet control in Iran, published in the International Journal of Communication, I showed how external challenges, such as cyberattacks, democracy promotion and the development of anti-censorship technology, stimulated the defensive and offensive capacities of the Iranian state for controlling internet infrastructure and usage. The paper was part of a special section on “Authoritarian Practices in the Digital Age” that I co-edited. In the prologue (that I co-authored with Marlies Glasius), the twin concept of digital illiberal and authoritarian practices was introduced to identify and disaggregate how three categories of threats in a digitally networked world – arbitrary surveillance, secrecy and disinformation, and violations of freedom of expression – can be produced and diffused in transnational and multi-actor configurations.

In another research axis, I started to investigate the methods and effects of digitally enabled transnational repression. My article on Iran’s exiled activists and the authoritarian state laid the groundwork for what has become an independent and long-term research program.

The “Authoritarianism in a Global Age” project built on fieldwork in seven countries, and our team wrote a book distilling our joint experiences and reflections. Research, Ethics and Risk in the Authoritarian Field responds to the demand for increased attention to methodological rigour and transparency in qualitative research, and seeks to advance and practically support fieldwork in authoritarian contexts. The book is accompanied by a comic strip series in which the fictional heroine Alice encounters some of the challenges discussed in the book.

Digital Media and Political Change

A techno-utopian view of the internet as a liberation technology has accompanied the worldwide proliferation of the web from the very beginning, culminating in the labelling of the Arab uprisings in 2010-2011 as ‘Facebook Revolutions’. Critically engaging with prevalent assumptions of the internet’s democratising effects, my PhD dissertation examined the use of digital media by civil society and political opposition in Iran. Building on in-depth fieldwork in Tehran, content analysis of original media sources as well as interviews with Iranian bloggers, journalists and politicians, I developed a more nuanced picture of the role that digital media has played in political change and mobilization in Iran.

I traced how news websites, blogs, and ultimately social media supported the gradual emergence of critical counter-publics. When the protests against the manipulation of the presidential elections erupted in summer 2009, Iran’s Green Movement was able to build on established networks and a culture of online information exchange to promote its collective identity and mobilize international attention. The findings of my research have been published as a monograph (in German) as well as in contributions to edited volumes, including Global Activism: Art and Conflict in the 21st Century, edited by Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2015).

Wir sind die Medien

Internet und politischer Wandel in Iran

transcript Verlag

I have also coordinated and edited a collaborative (English/Persian) book project with a group of Iranian journalists, in which the authors describe their personal experiences during and after the controversial presidential elections of 2009, starting from the agitation of the election campaign and the initial protests up to the period of repression, arrest and exile that followed.

Election Fallout

Iran’s Exiled Journalists on their Struggle for Democratic Change.

While living in Pakistan from 2006 until 2012, I had the opportunity to apply part of the theoretical framework I had developed for my PhD thesis to a research project for the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, one of Germany’s leading political foundations. The report New Media vs. Old Politics investigated the possible contributions of digital media to a process of democratization in Pakistan, and the emergence of a more inclusive and tolerant space for debate and civic engagement.