She led anti-government protests in Tunisia. Social media attacks forced her to flee

This series of case studies illustrates what’s at stake in global majority countries if Big Tech companies fail to protect people and elections in 2024. Tunisia is due to hold presidential elections in the fall of 2024. 

Before she fled to Paris, Tunisian human rights activist Rania Amdouni tried to take their own life three times, driven to the brink when supporters of the increasingly autocratic regime of Tunisia’s President Kaïs Saïed targeted them in a hateful social media campaign.

Amdouni’s ordeal began in January 2021, after the 28-year-old participated in anti-government protests, which had been sparked by unemployment rates that worsened during the pandemic. Lasting months, the demonstrations swept through Tunisia with over 1,500 protesters, including minors, detained and some allegedly tortured in police custody.

Openly lesbian and feminist, Amdouni quickly became a target. Facebook users, including ex-parliamentarians and Saïed supporters flooded the social media platform with the activist’s photographs deriding her looks and threatening her life. They were also doxxed, their address and cell number circulated online, phone ringing non-stop.

“I did not feel safe,” Amdouni recounts.“The publishing of my personal information on social media platforms in a dangerous and improper manner by the government and others led to real-world threats in my own home.”

When they wanted to register a complaint with the police, instead of receiving help, the activist was arrested, charged with “insulting a public officer during the performance of his duty,” and sentenced to six months in prison.

Activists and rights watchdogs spanning the globe are particularly concerned about this trend ahead of the 2024 presidential election – the first one since Saïed’s self-coup – which could result in the country becoming a fully-fledged autocracy.

They have been urging social media companies, including Facebook’s parent company, Meta, to invest more in Arabic-speaking content moderators and algorithm development, so platforms can respond to the growing hate speech and disinformation circulating across social media in Tunisia.

“Social media companies must safeguard all minorities and individuals who critique the government and other regimes,” says Amdouni. “If they fail to take resolute and tangible actions to stop this situation, and I firmly believe this is not a mere farce, they will become complicit in this violence.”

Amdouni’s online and offline persecution was a harbinger of what was yet to come.

By July 2021, President Saïed had shuttered the parliament with tanks, suspended the constitution and dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council. He later also took control of the country’s electoral commission, further consolidating power.

Since then, Saïed has made headlines for cracking down on dissenting voices, imprisoning dozens of opposition politicians and state critics.

But generating less international attention is a parallel cyber harassment campaign by Saïed’s supporters, who have weaponized social media to muzzle critical voices and support the president’s increasingly conspiratorial narrative – including his vilification of migrant workers, seemingly inspired by a xenophobic political party that supports him.

They have always been outspoken on Facebook – the most popular social media platform in Tunisia – but Saïed’s backers appear to have become emboldened after the 2021 coup.

Now, whenever the president publicly identifies targets, his backers attack them online, according to journalist Amine Snoussi, who argued the attacks involve at least some level of coordination with state authorities.

When a group of judges went on strike in 2022 to protest Saïed sacking almost 60 judges on allegations of corruption and support for terrorism, his social media army released personal information of female judges on Facebook. Among them were medical records showing the results of one judge’s court-ordered “virginity check.”

“It is so coordinated that it is difficult to imagine it being a grassroots campaign led by simple supporters. The leaking of judicial documents before authorities have released them is also evidence of collusion with state bodies,” Snoussi reportedly said in 2023.

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