Elon Musk, the richest man in the world and, as of 2022, the owner of what he has called the world’s “digital town square,” agreed to flip the proverbial kill switch on accounts critical of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Musk claimed that this act of censorship was for the greater good. As the company’s Global Government Affairs account explained in a tweet, it was better to restrict a handful of accounts than to have the site closed down in Turkey in the weeks before an election.
Such kowtowing of tech companies to autocrats is neither singular nor new. Indeed, X did the same in India in April of 2023—blocking prominent journalists, activists and a member of parliament at the request of the populist Modi government.
Musk’s actions serve as a potent reminder that Big Tech companies, and not just states, are active players in transnational repression across the globe. In the Middle East, particularly in the wealthy authoritarian GCC states, high digital penetration rates offer alluring markets for exploitation.
Authoritarian regimes and tech companies possess a striking similarity: an appetite for information about their populations. While Big Tech leverages this data for advertising profits, authoritarian states use it to tighten their grip on their populations.
The Big Tech Behemoth
Social media companies like Facebook and X (Twitter), have long tried to position themselves as the vanguard of revolutionary movements, especially during the Arab uprisings. But as Tunisian writer and critic Haythem Guesmi has argued, it is more accurate to say they’ve been instrumental in the counter-revolutions.
With trust in corporations higher than in governments, some may find the emphasis on the role of Big Tech specious. But that would be a mistake. Corporations are not simply subservient to the state. History is littered with examples of how corporations—in the words of William Dalrymple writing of the East Indian Company—“can run amok…and become more powerful, and sometimes more dangerous, than nations or even empires.”
Transnational repression in a digital age often results from the interaction between tech corporations, governments and social movements. These entities form the “supply chains” of digital repression, where private companies sell products to states who then use them in repression. Political consultancies, governments and Public Relations firms use digital technology to carry out surveillance and harassment or spread disinformation and propaganda.
Big Tech may not always be the warhead, but these companies are the rocket carrying the payload. They have engineered the technology that has helped create the digital datafied subject, whereby our digital selves become heavily surveilled commodities through internet and smart phone use, sold to advertisers and others for profit. This model, along with the ubiquity of internet-connected digital technology, has helped contribute to one of “the most comprehensive system of surveillance ever created.”
The Drive for Profit
Tech companies are corporations, not charities. They exist to make money. These companies seek to maximize profit by expanding audiences and preserving access to authoritarian state revenue.
The regimes themselves are repressive in their own right, but tech companies provide useful tools of surveillance and intimidation. Moreover, companies like Meta are hesitant to address transnational repression if it hurts the bottom line. As one example, curation algorithms designed to limit hate speech or what Meta has called “bad for the world content,” were tempered when it was found they reduced the amount of time people opened Facebook.
The drive for profit is also the drive to minimize expenditure. Digital and transnational repression is enabled by the proliferation of hate speech and disinformation, which tech companies do not always allocate resources to combatting. Hate speech on Facebook helped fuel the genocide in Myanmar, in part, because there was a dearth of content moderation in the Burmese language. Content moderators cost money, and while Myanmar was a market ripe for exploitation and profit through users, it was not a market deemed important enough for investment. Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias have called this ethos of companies in the global north exploiting data in the global south with minimal responsibility “data colonialism.”
In Zhang’s experience, digital repression was only really a problem when it came from the United States’ enemies and not its allies. On the flipside, social media companies can facilitate repression when it comes to countries the United States considers strategic allies, like Israel. Facebook’s curation algorithms, for example, have suppressed content supportive of Palestine, reducing the exposure of Palestinians online.
Meanwhile, companies like Google and Amazon have been criticized for supporting the occupation, for example, by participating in Project Nimbus, a $1.2 billion agreement to supply Israel and its occupying forces with artificial intelligence and other technological services. In August of 2022, Ariel Koren, a marketing manager at Google quit after facing internal retaliation for organizing against the company’s role in Project Nimbus. At the time she wrote, “Google systematically silences Palestinian, Jewish, Arab and Muslim voices concerned about Google’s complicity in violations of Palestinian human rights—to the point of formally retaliating against workers and creating an environment of fear.”
Also in 2022, Google, which forbids political advertising on its platforms, allowed Israel’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs to pay for ads attacking and smearing Amnesty International after they published a report documenting Israel’s apartheid treatment of Palestinians.
Similarly, X prohibits paid political advertising. Yet, citing local context as a reason, the platform allows political propaganda that supports autocrats in countries with human rights violations, like Saudi Arabia. With around $1.89 billion dollars of shares, Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Company (KHC) and the private office of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, are the second largest shareholders in the company.
A Bleak Horizon
The problem of digital repression and digital authoritarianism is often framed as something done exclusively by states like China, Iran or Russia. But this framing is a misconception. Authoritarian regimes across the world and US-based Big Tech converge in transnational repression through a combination of content control, surveillance and data collection. Driven by profits, Big Tech platforms often selectively moderate content, amplifying certain narratives while suppressing others based on corporate interests or geopolitical alignments. These tech giants, with their vast reach and influence, exceed or complement the power of states, enabling a broader scope for repression.
By forming alliances or complying with state demands, Big Tech becomes a tool for these regimes, influencing global discourse and furthering digital authoritarianism. The relationship facilitates a digital ecosystem where free expression is jeopardized, and the digital space becomes an extension of state control.
The future is bleak. Despite some rhetoric about attempting to combat aspects of digital repression such as hate speech and disinformation, tech companies are also spending a lot of money lobbying and funding research against measures that could protect citizens, such as tougher privacy legislation and antitrust measures. Elon Musk’s takeover of X has prompted other tech companies, like Meta and YouTube, to roll back their own commitments to tackling hate speech, disinformation and other forms of harmful content. Moreover, tech companies continue to vie for audiences and capital from authoritarian states in the Middle East and North Africa. This expansion into the region may be accelerated if tech companies seek to plug financial gaps left as a result of stricter privacy laws in big markets like the European Union.
[Marc Owen Jones is an associate professor of Middle East studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University.]
 Monica Potts and Jean Yi, “Why Twitter Is Unlikely To Become The ‘Digital Town Square’ Elon Musk Envisions,” Five Thirty Eight, April 29, 2022.
 Mike Hynes, “The Digital Behemoths”, The Social, Cultural and Environmental Costs of Hyper-Connectivity: Sleeping Through the Revolution, Emerald Publishing Limited (2022), pp. 19-37.
 Paul Starr, “How Neoliberal Policy Shaped the Internet—and What to Do About It Now,” The American Prospect, October 2, 2019.
 Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias, “Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject,” Television & New Media 20/4 (2018), pp. 336–349.
 Julia Carrie Wong, “How Facebook let fake engagement distort global politics: a whistleblower’s account,” The Guardian, April 12, 2021.
 Nico Grant, “Google Employee Who Played Key Role in Protest of Contract With Israel Quits,” The New York Times, August 30, 2022.