Egypt Claims to Counter Disinformation, but Whose Disinformation is Sisi Fighting?

By Dounia Mahlouly|March 29, 2023|Arab uprisings, Digital cultures, Social media, The Middle East, Uncategorized|0 comments

Misinformation – whether deliberately harmful or unintentionally misleading – is nothing new. Political actors have always competed for attention and legitimacy by strategically framing their narrative, occasionally distorting the facts or counteracting alternative versions of the truth. The term ‘disinformation’ however became somewhat of a buzzword in recent years (Bennett and Livingston, 2018). In today’s media environment, the debate surrounding this issue specifically pertains to unverified or misappropriated claims as well potentially harmful deepfakes circulating on both mainstream and emergent platforms. Communication scholars and media practitioners have argued that these instances of disinformation are likely to increase polarisation in a context of public mistrust with limited opportunities for quality independent journalism. In Europe and the Unites States, the issue became particularly salient in light of the misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 epidemic and the alarming success of far-right populism (Krämer, 2018). In these instances, the declining credibility of well-established media outlets contributed to the growth of alternative news sources likely to circulate unverified and politically biased information (Masood and Nisar, 2020).

In Western neoliberal democracies, the case of right-wing populism in fact demonstrated that domestic political actors may capitalise on such a polarised environment to promote their anti-establishment rhetoric. This allowed a number of reactionary populists to portray themselves as the advocate of a subversive counter-culture, by framing their conservative agenda as a kind of radical anti-conformism. In this context, communication experts have called for the implementation of tighter media regulations and a recentralisation of the public debate. Accordingly, the emphasis is often placed on the importance of fact-checking and the need to restore public faith in expert knowledge and professional journalism (Ball, 2017; Pomerantsev, 2019). However, this approach is often limited to the vantage point of the Global North insofar as it relies on the Eurocentric model of the public sphere, where public deliberation was historically dominated by an intellectual elite. As such, it tends to overlook the importance of peripheral communication networks in the Global South. Indeed, this perspective often disregards the emancipatory potential that these alternative channels can have in highly centralised and state-controlled media markets. Yet peripheral communication networks are often crucial to civil society engagement in the Global South, as they act as a means of expression for minority voices. Empirical research also demonstrates that they contribute to rebuild and maintain community trust and resilience in times of crisis and in the absence of social welfare (Houtson et al, 2015). In light of this, it appears that a critical and counter-intuitive approach is perhaps better suited when it comes to advise policy responses to disinformation in the Global South.

Besides the argument of recentralisation, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine recently diverted attention away from domestic disinformation to focus on the threats associated with foreign actors. This new Cold War recently pushed the debate on disinformation a step further into the realm of global and national security. Under the banner of national security, disinformation has been conveniently invoked across the Global South to legitimise a process of securitisation of the public space. In these cases, the security lens that underpins policy responses to disinformation follows the same approach as in the prevention of hate speech and extremist content. Yet this approach is often modelled on the experience of Western neoliberal democracies and eventually reapplied in contexts, where the national media market is already highly centralised. The case of Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) is a striking example. The policy was initially designed to limit far-right content by enforcing stricter censorship against hate speech, but soon exported to other countries, where its implementation has dramatic consequences for freedom of expression. Empirical research points to a number of Global South countries like Kenya, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam amongst others (Machangama and Fiss, 2019), where there is very little transparency around the prohibition of disinformation. As is the case for hate speech and extremist content, the legal and conceptual definitions of the term remain problematically vague. Despite the lack of agreed upon terminology, ‘disinformation’ is often applied as a generic term to question the trustworthiness of peripheral (i.e. unregulated) networks of communication. The case of Egypt perfectly exemplifies this point.

Egypt’s legal framework around fake news (or ‘false information’) shows that this concept can be easily weaponised by dominant political actors who seek to justify their monopoly over the national media market. Most importantly, it reveals that the imperative of countering disinformation can be used to reassert the agenda national security, at the expense of pluralism and freedom of expression. In 2018, President Sisi passed a new ‘cybercrime’ legislation allowing a court to block any website deemed a threat to the state. The new law exposed content providers to ‘jail terms of up to five years and fines ranging between 10,000 and 20 million Egyptian pounds’. The law even extended the scope of these penalties to users, who may have unintentionally accessed websites banned for threatening the country’s economic interests and national security. The same year, the Egyptian parliament passed another law, subjecting social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers to prosecution if they were to publish false news. In line with the rhetoric of the Trump administration, the Egyptian government intended to tackle the issue of disinformation as part of its broader project of Internet securitization. Without providing any clear definition of ‘fake news’, the bill reserved all powers to implement the law to the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media. ‘Fake news’ was weaponized to repress civil activists like the women’s rights advocate Amal Fathy, who was arrested in May 2018 for posting a Facebook video holding the government accountable for the issue of sexual harassment (Amnesty International, 2018). In this case the charges included ‘spreading false news’, ‘harming national interest’ and incitement to terrorism (Michaelson, 2018). This only intensified in the recent context of the global pandemic, which further legitimized the implementation of tighter mechanisms of control and surveillance over local information channels. In 2020, EuroMed Rights released a report stating that opportunities for social media activism were continuously shrinking:

The narrative behind eliminating coronavirus fake news became a new Trojan horse to further curtail the space for independent voices. Arrests for social media posts are frequent, and while repression was already the norm, the current circumstances have rendered it more concerning as ‘the government is simply using this COVID-19 situation to do whatever they please’. (EuroMed Rights, 2020: 2–3)

The country experienced a peak of Covid-19 cases between March and June 2020, during which activists and journalists were arrested and accused of spreading misinformation detrimental to the management of the health crisis. They were charged on the basis of the laws on Anti-Cybercrimes (2018) and Anti-terrorism (Ifex, 2021).

In spite of this alleged crackdown on disinformation, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Press has welcomed strategic communication partnerships with Russian stakeholders interested in developing their reach and media operatives in North Africa. In 2018, the largest state-owned newspaper Al Ahram signed a protocol with the Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik. Following the announcement of this agreement, the Egyptian media outlet populated news stories produced by the Russian agency, spreading disinformation designed to increase revenues thanks to misleading sensationalist headlines. Prior to this, Al Ahram Foundation had indulged in Russian-style populism with the aim to discredit the civil opposition. The media contributed to frame the 2011 uprisings as a foreign plot by quoting Wikileaks documents alleging the involvement of the U.S State Department in a 2009 plan intended to support the mobilisation of opposition forces.

Whilst claiming to proactively fight disinformation, the military regime indulged in a nationalist state-propaganda that resonates with – and is conducive to – Russian populist rhetoric. This political discourse feeds into a general feeling of disillusionment with the liberal values traditionally perceived as an emblem of Western neoliberalism. By claiming to fight disinformation with disinformation, Sisi demonstrates that the legal and conceptual definition of this concept is relative to the political context (Mejia et al. 2018). Ironically, the term ‘disinformation’ was initially invoked to restore a feeling of trust and certainty, by conjuring a sense of absolute and verifiable truth (Pomerantsev, 2016; 2019). The Egyptian case however demonstrates that the terminology around ‘fake news’, which is currently applied in policy and practice may be reappropriated to serve different political agendas.


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