Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman was appointed on May 6 to the 20-member Facebook Oversight Board – consisting of journalists, lawyers, and a former Danish prime minister. The board, which aimed to have a “wide range of views and experiences” from its members, will have the final say on whether Facebook and Instagram should allow or remove specific content.
Yet Karman has fallen victim to an ongoing Saudi Arabia-led smear campaign. Countless bots and trolls have used social media to slander her with absurd accusations and vile name calling. The hashtag “Expose Tawakkol” circulated on Twitter throughout May, while Saudi Arabian, UAE, and Egyptian media outlets have also stoked this abuse.
Tawakkol Karman won the Nobel Prize in 2011 for her leading role in Yemen’s Arab Spring revolution.
Tawakkol Karman won the Nobel Prize in 2011 – the first Arab woman to obtain the award – for her leading role in Yemen’s Arab Spring revolution, and was acknowledged for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Having played a tireless role in organizing demonstrations and sit ins, she became known as the “Mother of the Revolution,” and some Yemenis referred to her as “Iron Woman.” This came after much previous activism, including with the organization Women Journalists Without Chains, which she co-founded in 2005.
TIME magazine also placed Tawakkol Karman among its “100 Women of the Year,” describing her as “the torchbearer of the Arab Spring.”
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Tawakkol Karman said: “I left Yemen following the Houthi militia coup and its takeover of Yemen’s capital and several other cities. I’m part of a non-violent civil rights struggle, so there is no place for me when violence breaks out.”
“I could not return, however, because Saudi Arabia and its coalition created militias in every liberated area and did not allow Yemen’s legitimate government [which, she deplores, Saudi Arabia controls] to extend its influence over there.”
Now residing in Istanbul, Karman advocates for peace in her country and beyond. The Istanbul-based Tawakkol Karman Foundation, which Karman herself founded, also strives to promote positive humanitarian work and peace activism.
“As a peaceful fighter, I have always prepared myself to make sacrifices. But this has to do with the fact that my peaceful struggle from outside Yemen, on many platforms, gives me more ability to influence than if I were inside Yemen,” said Karman.
Recently, she has used her vast social media following to support the Black Lives Matter movement and raise awareness for the detained Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Alhathloul.
She is also known for her outspoken criticism of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ war on Yemen since 2015, which has caused what the UN called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Karman also criticizes their counterrevolutionary agendas, which aim to destabilize Yemen and secure their own geopolitical influence over the country.
Though she has been balanced in her criticism by also condemning the role of the Iran-aligned Houthi militias, she has been accused of being biased as such smear campaigns have long aimed to tarnish her reputation.
“I have always been subjected to carefully orchestrated campaigns of incitement, threat, and smear led by Saudi Arabia.”
“I have always been subjected to carefully orchestrated campaigns of incitement, threat, and smear led by Saudi Arabia,” said Karman, “with the aim of silencing my criticism of its poor human rights record, and my opposition to its war on Yemen and the unjust blockade and comprehensive destruction of the country.”
“Because I am a human rights activist who opposes tyranny and I call for people to enjoy freedom and democracy, Saudi Arabia shows its enmity toward me and leads smear campaigns against me and everyone who shares my struggle.”
“Almost every statement or criticism by me is followed by a campaign of this kind,” she added. “They repeat the same conflicting allegations that ‘she is a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist; she is a freemason; she is a troll used by the West to destroy the Arab nations; she is an enemy of Islam; she is secular.’ All this is accompanied by a huge amount of obscenities and fabrications.”
Saudi Arabia is known to operate an army of state-aligned bots which promote the regime’s narratives, while praising the kingdom’s policies and vilifying its perceived adversaries like Qatar and Iran. These trolls have also targeted overseas critics of the Saudi regime like the late Jamal Khashoggi. They aim to create a sense of “group-think” on platforms like Twitter.
Meanwhile, the Saudi Gazette claimed selecting Karman for Facebook’s Oversight Board is “both surprising and shocking for many in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
As a more extreme case, Saudi Arabia’s killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 reflects the kingdom’s aim of brutally silencing those living abroad. Karman, a friend of the slain journalist, also displayed her sympathy for Khashoggi. She condemned his killing and said his death “cannot go unpunished,” while also slamming his son’s apologetic stance toward his father’s murderers.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has driven this increased hypersensitivity toward critics – at home and abroad. The evolution of social media grants certain regimes, particularly that of MbS, the sophisticated tools they need to publicly disparage such individuals.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE seek to control narratives across the region, aiming to counter regional democratic transitions.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE seek to control narratives across the Arab region, aiming to counter regional democratic transitions, from Egypt and Libya to Tunisia and Bahrain, fearing positive reforms within these countries could inspire others within their own regimes. Karman’s recognized position as a revolutionary figure for Yemen’s independence has therefore long placed her as a primary target. The fear that Karman’s prominent position on Facebook could help counter such toxic social media discourse likely explains the recent increase of attacks on her.
“On the one hand, targeting those struggling for rights and freedoms is aimed at silencing them; and on the other, it aims to silence whoever is tempted to oppose [these regimes] or engage in human rights activities, as well as at limiting their influence on regional public opinion,” Karman said.
In her support of regional revolutionary movements, Karman also opposed Abdel-Fattah al Sisi’s military coup against Mohamed Morsi in 2013, backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which crushed Egypt’s revolution and turned Cairo’s regime against her. The Sisi regime, largely under the Saudi and Emirati sphere of influence, has also echoed such hostility to its opponents, including Karman.
Karman’s case shows how Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, are open to abuse, as well as the importance of countering disinformation and cyber-bullying.
“The solution lies in continuing our struggle and these campaigns should not be allowed to intimidate and silence us and make us compromise or delay our struggle,” said Karman.
“Saudi-backed campaigns published by the Saudi media or [on] social media cannot be seen as spontaneous viewpoints of ordinary people.”
Highlighting the need for greater regulations, Karman called for “applying the standards of social media platforms to those campaigns, including working to uncover false identifiers and confirming identities of all accounts so that a real person has only one account, whether [on] Facebook or Twitter.”