Her support for the revolution rapidly gained traction among fellow Syrians and a widening global audience. But as her voice grew louder, she found herself the target of a sinister backlash. About one year after the start of the revolution, her Facebook profile—which she had used to connect with like-minded activists—was flooded with violent threats. Photoshopped nude photos of Sana began circulating, and profiles mimicking her identity popped up on the platform. Google sent her repeated warnings that state-sponsored actors were attempting to hack her email account. The various online campaigns she had organized against the Syrian regime were shut down as Facebook responded to false reports lodged against her pages. Sana believed she was the target of a pro-regime cyber militia known as the Syrian Electronic Army, which has attacked anti-regime activists globally.
“I stopped putting anything personal on social media posts,” she recalled in an interview with Citizen Lab—part of two research projects: one on digital transnational repression in Canada, conducted between 2020 and 2021, and the other an ongoing study of gender-based digital transnational repression against exiled women activists and journalists in various countries. Along with other interviewees, Sana’s real name and identifying information have been changed for this article. “I would never post about my children or where I was exactly. And my family also requested that I don’t post anything about them or my children. There were definitely a lot of worries and fears.”
Sana’s parents had fled Syria in the 1990s, and she had grown up with strained ties to her home country. In her experience, Syrians in the diaspora did not speak out much and feared contacting their loved ones still in Syria. With the 2011 uprising against Bashar al-Assad, this apprehension dissolved. Syrians overseas, like Sana, threw themselves into political activism amid an atmosphere of excitement for change. Their optimism was quickly undermined, however, as the regime brutally cracked down on protests with widescale arrests and torture and reduced entire cities to rubble. Cyber militias like the Syrian Electronic Army showed that Assad’s counterrevolution extended well beyond Syria’s borders, carrying repression globally through the internet.
Sana’s experiences reflect those of countless activists and journalists from across the Middle East and North Africa living abroad, who have found themselves on the receiving end of state-sponsored repression. With the Arab uprisings of 2011, exiled human rights defenders and diaspora activists used technology to mobilize international attention for social movements in their countries, while journalists working for international media helped circumvent censorship and propaganda. In these transnational online spaces, the women we interviewed—journalists and activists in exile or from diaspora communities with ties to the region—discovered channels to voice their opinions, connect with other like-minded women and gain visibility.
But digital technologies also allowed regimes to drastically extend their political controls over the diaspora, overcoming geographical distance and jurisdictional borders. Governments increasingly relied on the internet—using intrusive surveillance, malware attacks and disinformation campaigns—to punish and silence dissent outside of their territories. While many activists in diaspora are confronted with these threats, women face particular, gendered forms of digital transnational repression. Attacks take aim at their female identity, often in sexualized and misogynistic ways, to intimidate and shame, discredit and discourage them from speaking out.
Intimidating Activists Online
Aabir, a human rights defender from the Gulf, recalls receiving an email from a journalist she had previously communicated with. At first glance, the email appeared genuine. But the journalist asked her to review the case of a close associate who had just been released from prison. She wondered how the journalist could have known about the case. After re-checking the email, Aabir realized that the address closely resembled the official domain of the media outlet but was actually hosted on Gmail. She forwarded it to a digital security expert who confirmed her suspicion: Had she opened the attachment, spyware would have been installed on her device, giving attackers access to her confidential communications and contacts.
Digital technologies are increasingly aiding states to target dissidents in covert ways, minimizing the risk of detection or retaliation. Aabir believes that the attacks are intended not only to access information but equally to frighten activists from using their devices. “I live all of my waking minutes and hours and days anxious that my devices have spyware on them, that I am being listened to, recorded and tracked,” she says. “No matter where I am, what I am saying or whom I am with.”
Regime supporters also target women activists by attacking their reputations and raising questions about their sexuality to stir outrage, particularly among audiences with conservative social values. When Aabir speaks at conferences in European or North American cities, for example, the events’ associated Twitter hashtags invariably become flooded with tweets from pro-government trolls. Not only do they simultaneously portray her as an agent for the CIA, Mossad or Iran, they also spread rumors about her and her parents’ promiscuity. Recently, a government official in her home country posted an Instagram video alleging Aabir’s involvement in sexual affairs. They subsequently published her private phone number, inciting viewers to call her for more information.
“When they target a woman, it’s sexually explicit,” Aabir says of the online campaigns aimed at smearing women activists. “There is always something about sexual affairs, abortion, getting pregnant, having a boyfriend. And especially because I am Muslim, that’s the way they target.”
Shirin, an Iranian journalist working in Europe, has also been the target of sexually explicit attacks. In the fall of 2022, as the Women, Life, Freedom protests brought Iranians worldwide into the streets, Shirin found herself on the receiving end of a wave of online abuse and violent hate speech. It started after someone—she suspects Iranian government agents—managed to access and leak confidential communications between her and contacts inside Iran. The framing of the leaked information tapped into existing conflicts in the Iranian diaspora at a time when tensions were running high. As a result, online trolls flooded her email address and social media profiles, accusing her of being a “traitor” and “regime agent.” Beyond vilifying her for her work as a journalist in exile, Shirin was attacked specifically as a woman. Endless messages denigrated her as a “whore” and threatened her with rape. As Shirin explains, the messages included “a type of vocabulary that you can’t use for men.” Feeling as though her journalism career was falling apart, she says, “I had suicidal thoughts. For weeks I couldn’t get out of bed.”
While it remains difficult to directly tie state actors to the attacks against Shirin, other high-profile cases have shown regimes to be involved in similar operations. In the summer of 2020, private photos of Al Jazeera journalist Ghada Oueiss—who regularly reported critically on Saudi Arabia and the UAE—were posted on social media. The images showed her in a bikini emerging from a Jacuzzi. The smear campaign against Oueiss, amplified by high-profile public figures and pro-Saudi influencers with millions of followers, insinuated that Oueiss had built her career through sexual favors.
In addition to weaponizing their gender to silence critical journalists like Oueiss, the rulers of the UAE and Saudi Arabia appear to have conspired to use their advanced surveillance capabilities against women’s rights defenders in both monarchies. Loujain Alhathloul, a prominent Saudi women’s rights advocate, claims that in 2017, while she was living in the Emirates, operatives of the Abu Dhabi-based cybersecurity company DarkMatter used sophisticated surveillance techniques to hack her iPhone. The company had recruited cyberintelligence specialists from the national security establishment of the United States and the Israel Defense Force for a surveillance unit called Project Raven, which engaged in operations against a number of dissidents, journalists and foreign government officials in different countries. They also closely cooperated with UAE authorities, gaining lucrative government contracts.
The breach of Alhathloul’s phone likely allowed the UAE authorities to monitor her movements as well as her interactions with other human rights advocates, including organizations in the United States. Eventually, in March of 2018, Alhathloul was captured by Abu Dhabi police and forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia, where she was imprisoned, tortured and sexually harassed.
In May of 2023, she filed a lawsuit against DarkMatter, in which she alleges that during the interrogations agents mentioned details of her communications that had become available through hacking her device. Her arrest came as part of a broader crackdown against prominent women’s rights defenders opposing the kingdom’s driving ban on women and other restrictions. Saudi Arabia and the UAE regularly cooperate in the persecution of their respective dissidents based on broad agreements like the 2013 Gulf Cooperation Council joint security agreement, which allowed for the sharing of personal information across borders, institutionalizing transnational repression.
Through digital threats, authoritarian states spread uncertainty, mistrust and paranoia among dissidents abroad. Shirin, the Iranian journalist who became the target of a massive online defamation campaign during the Women, Life, Freedom protests, limited calls with close relatives in Iran to small talk and severed relations with all but a handful of her most trusted Iranian friends. Mentally exhausted and suffering anxiety attacks, she ultimately quit her work. Researchers focused on the security and well-being of human rights defenders in high-risk contexts have described responses like Shirin’s as “emotional attrition.” This distinct lever of repression works by subjecting activists to continuous threats and attacks, leading to exhaustion and disengagement, particularly when family or friends are affected.
As an activist who has advocated for human rights for more than a decade, Aabir has also grown concerned for her physical safety. Once, when she was speaking at a public briefing in Washington, DC, a man who was a leading editor with a government newspaper in her home country interrupted the event and shouted insults at her. At another event in Geneva, she was stalked by state media journalists trying to provoke her and catch her anger on camera. Whenever Aabir meets a new person from the region, she wonders if they could be working for the government. Whenever she stays at a new hotel, she scans the room for listening devices. Because of several judicial cases pending against her and an arrest warrant issued by her home country’s government, Aabir carefully considers her travel itinerary to avoid being arrested in transit and extradited. Human rights organizations wanting to work with her must do extensive risk assessments, and not all of them have the resources and willingness to do so.
Meanwhile, like Shirin, Sana also left behind her activism, feeling that the pre-2011 environment of fear that once stunted political action among the Syrian diaspora has returned.
Host States and Big Tech
Viyan is a Kurdish activist based in Germany. Like other women activists we spoke to, she has received violent threats and harassment, including emails with photos and videos showing female Kurdish fighters being tortured, raped or mutilated after being killed.
In 2021, Viyan filed a legal complaint against a persistent attacker who stalked and threatened her on social media for months, espousing a pan-Turkist racist ideology and support for the government of Azerbaijan. The case was taken over by Germany’s Staatsschutz, a police section tasked with handling politically motivated crimes. After some time, the police identified the individual, who had other complaints against him, and searched his house in a town near Frankfurt. The action reassured Viyan that the police would protect her. Since then, however, she has not received any updates about her case and wonders if, after her reporting, the perpetrator might be even more motivated to attack.
Much like reporting to state authorities, reporting online abuse and smear campaigns to social media companies like X (formerly Twitter), Meta and Instagram is a cumbersome process that most of the time has little impact. To systematically document the attacks and report the involved accounts, victims of online abuse must sift through heaps of violent messages and provide detailed descriptions, including links and screenshots, prompting them to relive the trauma of being singled out for attack.
For activists devoting all of their focus and energy to speaking up against a repressive regime, this process can seem overwhelming, as Maha, a women rights defender from Saudi Arabia points out. Notifying Twitter of an attack against her would take an extra effort that she simply cannot afford. “Unless it was from a public account with an obvious identity and enough followers, then I would try to document this. And I did raise it to Twitter but I don’t know what they did. You never know how to track that complaint,” she says.
So far, the most effective way to get support from social media platforms is to have inside contacts at the companies, which some activists and organizations have built over the years but which is inaccessible to most of the targeted community.
At X—which remains a central platform for activists from the region—the profound changes since Elon Musk’s takeover in October 2022 have disrupted such essential ties. Massive layoffs included staff crucial to countering and moderating disinformation and hate speech. Shirin remembers trying to report attacks that were happening against her shortly after Musk’s takeover. “I reported it internally to Twitter,” she said. “And they didn’t remove it. I reported it again. It just stayed.” Following the overhaul of the platform’s policies under Musk, groups like the Center for Countering Digital Hate have observed an overall sharp increase in racist, homophobic and misogynistic hate speech. Twitter’s parent company X Corp. subsequently sued the Center for this research.
Resistance Against Organized Repression
Social media platforms’ content moderation policies and practices have repeatedly proven insufficient in addressing online abuse and digital violence against women. Digital threats against diaspora communities introduce another layer of complexity. Addressing these threats requires people with the language skills and political knowledge to detect and flag attacks.
The proliferation of sophisticated “zero-click” surveillance tools, which can compromise devices without requiring action from the targeted individuals, is another growing threat. The Israeli NSO Group, which sold Pegasus to Saudi Arabia and a number of other authoritarian governments, is but one household name on a shadowy market for mercenary spyware. Globally, private businesses offering intelligence gathering, surveillance, hacks-for-hire and dark Public Relations—firms that will discredit the adversaries of paying customers—are thriving.
Over time, activists living in exile and within diaspora communities have learned to take security precautions and build resilience in their networks. They regularly change phones and SIM cards, promptly update device software to patch newly discovered security vulnerabilities and do not click on links or attachments in emails or text messages. They employ anonymity where necessary online and are diligent in separating work and personal email and social media accounts. Activists have also built solidarity networks that provide an important source of strength and information-sharing in the face of threats from their home country’s governments.
But leaving activists to fend for themselves in a rapidly changing technological environment gives authoritarian regimes free rein to continue engaging in digital transnational repression. Western European and North American states only gradually take note of the problem and have yet to come up with a firm response. The US government has taken first steps against the proliferation and abuse of commercial spyware. It has also introduced the “Khashoggi-Ban,” allowing for visa restrictions to be imposed on perpetrators.
Yet only three years after Khashoggi’s gruesome murder, President Biden publicly fist-bumped with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who likely ordered this brazen act of transnational repression. European governments, for their part, remain reluctant to take decisive action against commercial spyware such as Pegasus as they shield their national security interests and the surveillance capabilities of their own intelligence agencies.
The reality for now is that technology moves quickly and perpetrators constantly update their arsenal of digital threats. Activists like Shirin, Aabir, Maha and Viyan—unsure of where the next attack will come from—are left exposed to digital spying, abuse and harassment of authoritarian power holders, who turn their identity as women into a political tool for silencing dissent.
[Noura Aljizawi is a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab. Siena Anstis is a senior legal advisor with the Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Marcus Michaelsen is a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab.]
 Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud, Pegasus: How a Spy in Your Pocket Threatens the End of Privacy, Dignity, and Democracy (New York: MacMillan Publishers, 2023).
 Alejandro M. Peña, Larissa Meier and Alice M. Nah, “Exhaustion, Adversity, and Repression: Emotional Attrition in High-Risk Activism,” Perspectives on Politics 21/1 (2023), pp. 27–42.