Is digital transnational repression “spreading” among states?

By Marcus Michaelsen - 21 March 2023

Marcus Michaelsen provides the third chapter to Global Policy e-book on 'Digital Repression: Causes, Consequences and Policy Responses'. The e-book's chapters will be serialised on Global Policy over the course of 2023. Please find the other chapter's here.

The Iranian regime has gone to great lengths to silence Masih Alinejad. In summer 2022, a man armed with a loaded assault rifle was arrested outside Alinejad’s house in Brooklyn, New York. Together with two other members of an Eastern European criminal organization known for its ties to Iran, he had conspired to murder the outspoken Iranian-American women’s rights activist. Only a year earlier, US law enforcement agencies had broken up a plot to kidnap Alinejad and forcibly return her to Iran, where she likely would have faced execution after a show trial (Weiser and Thrush 2023). For the past decade, Alinejad’s relatives in Iran have been put under relentless pressure. Her brother was sentenced to eight years in prison and her sister forced to disown her on state television. Her parents have stopped talking to her, pressured and brainwashed by the regime (Alinejad 2018). Programmes on state television portrayed Alinejad alternately as a drug addict, a prostitute, rape victim, or foreign agent.

These attacks were prepared by and embedded in a barrage of digital threats. Ever since Masih Alinejad started the Facebook campaign ‘My Stealthy Freedom’, in 2014, which collected photos and videos of Iranian women without the mandatory headscarf, she became a target for online harassment and other threats. “The day I post something on the page of the campaign, I will get 300 similar comments. ‘Death to Masih Alinejad’, they write with different identities”, she told me in an interview in 2015. “They also leave a lot of other insulting and vulgar comments. I don’t fear these threats, but they nevertheless leave an impression on my thoughts. It’s a lot of pressure.” Around the same year, in one of the numerous digital attacks directed against Alinejad, Iranian regime agents hacked into the Facebook profile of a young relative in Tehran to reach out and trick her into revealing the passwords of her own accounts.

With her persistent campaigning against the compulsory dress code and other restrictions on women’s freedoms under the Islamic Republic, Masih Alinejad clearly became a thorn in the eye of the regime. When the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests erupted inside Iran in September 2022, Alinejad seemed vindicated for having endured almost the entire range of known methods of transnational repression. Her case exemplifies how digital technologies have allowed diaspora activists to mobilize for and participate in political struggles in their country of origin. Yet, it also shows how authoritarian regimes use these same technologies to intimidate and threaten dissidents in exile.

As assertive autocratic rulers extend coercion across borders, digital threats are a key instrument in their toolkit. These regimes use surveillance, malware attacks, online harassment, defamation and disinformation campaigns to monitor, undermine and suppress activism in the diaspora (Michaelsen 2020b). Digital transnational repression enables state agents to reach far into foreign territories - and into the personal lives and political activities of targeted exiles (Al-Jizawi et al. 2022). Moreover, digital attacks are often closely connected to other methods of transnational repression which range from threats against home-country families to assassinations (Schenkkan and Linzer 2021).

The repertoire of digital transnational repression is as broad as the array of states using it. Governments in countries like Egypt, Iran and Vietnam are behind wide-ranging phishing campaigns that seek to infiltrate the communications of exiles. They use tailored messages to trick their targets into opening files compromised with malware, steal their credentials and expose domestic counterparts (Amnesty International 2018, 2021). Chinese agents regularly call members of the Uyghur diaspora via WhatsApp and other messengers from their parents’ home as a means of intimidation (Jardine and Hall 2021). The Azerbaijani regime has relied on coordinated inauthentic Facebook profiles to attack exiled journalists (Wong and Harding 2021). Many other governments, too, use paid trolls and artificial social media accounts to shape online narratives and mute critical voices (Jones 2022; Monaco and Nyst 2018).

For campaigns of targeted surveillance, governments purchase sophisticated spyware on a thriving, but obscure market of surveillance technologies (Deibert 2022). The rulers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Rwanda, among others, have used the notorious Pegasus spyware, sold by the Israeli NSO Group, to hack into the smartphones of opponents abroad (Marczak et al. 2018). The powerful tool infects digital devices without a single click, giving operatives access to phone calls, personal files, emails, chats and geolocation data. The gruesome murder of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was likely prepared by Pegasus infiltrations in his close circle, if not his own device (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 2019).

Women activists and journalists are particularly exposed to threats that instrumentalize their gender to intimidate and discourage them from speaking out. Rape threats, misogynistic hate speech and harassment from regime actors are often picked up and amplified by loyal supporters. Intimate photos, fake or real, are dumped online to smear women’s reputation. In the Gulf region, for instance, such material was spread on social media, after the phones of several high-profile women journalists got infected with spyware (Solon 2021).

Given the central role of digital communication in all aspects of professional and personal life, digital transnational repression can have deep, and often disturbing impacts. The targets of social media harassment or intrusive surveillance operations report mental stress, paranoia and social isolation (Al-Jizawi et al. 2022). Uncertain about digital spying from regime agents, they reduce contacts to families and friends; for fear of a possible backlash, they engage in self-censorship (Michaelsen 2020a).

Spreading along the ties that link migrants to their homeland and exposing them, once again, to the arbitrary control of regime agents, digital transnational repression clearly is a manifestation of globalizing authoritarianism. At the same time, the tools and practices of digital repression are also spreading from one country to another, in constellations of actors that stretch across democratic and autocratic, state and non-state divides (Glasius and Michaelsen 2018). Leading perpetrators, like China and Russia, export technology and know-how for pervasive surveillance and information controls (Weber 2019). Authoritarian states are learning from one another how to control social-media-fueled protests.

With the commodification of surveillance, data exploitation and influence operations, private companies cater to the needs of unaccountable and oppressive power holders. Oblivious to the vulnerabilities of users outside their main markets, big tech platforms often fail to provide appropriate protections and remedies to those targeted by digital repression. And finally, the securitization of digital space is also driven by the practices of Western democracies in anti-terror policies or migration controls (Bauman et al. 2014; Molnar 2020). Such entanglements need to be taken into account in any response to digital repression that seeks to defend civil society’s continued ability to use digital tools to freely exchange, organize and mobilize.



Marcus Michaelsen is a Senior Researcher for the Citizen Lab in a project on gender-based digital transnational repression. His research encompasses digital technologies, human rights activism and authoritarian politics, whilst his ongoing work centres around digital transnational repression.  Between December 2019 and February 2022, Michaelsen was a senior post-doctoral researcher in the Law, Science, Technology and Society (LSTS) research group at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Photo by Sima Ghaffarzadeh




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