Facebook, Tawakkol Karman and Arab cyber-bullying

Appointed to the Facebook oversight board, Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman has faced hostility from Arab state media and social media users, who accuse her of Islamist ties. By Kersten Knipp & Ismail Azzam

By Kersten Knipp & Ismail Azzam

Yemeni human rights activist and winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Tawakkol Karman says she has been bullied and subjected to an ugly media campaign, after being named as one of 20 members of a new Facebook oversight board at the beginning of May.

The quasi-independent panel was set up to ensure compliance with the digital broadcaster's guidelines and values on its social media platforms and decide on thorny issues, such as what constitutes hate speech.

But the board has also been construed as having political influence, leading to accusations by some Arab media that Karman's alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential group that advocates political Islam, would colour her decisions.

I’m proud of the diversity of Oversight Board Members For Facebook and Instagram, Our unique global perspectives across professional, cultural, political, and religious backgrounds and viewpoints are just as important as our work. pic.twitter.com/59RhcLIP96

— Tawakkol Karman (@TawakkolKarman) May 7, 2020

On Monday, Karman wrote on Twitter that she hoped to be safe from the saw that was used to dismember the body of Jamal Khashoggi – a reference to the 2018 murder of the Saudi journalist, allegedly carried out at the behest of the highest levels of the Saudi state.

Tweets in English and Arabic directed at Karman have called her a "terrorist" and a "dog from Qatar", referring to the Gulf state considered sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Extremist or human rights defender?

Media outlets in several authoritarian states across the region accused Karman of being close to the Brotherhood due to her former membership of the Saudi-backed Islah, an affiliate political party in Yemen.

Egypt considers the Muslim Brotherhood a terror organisation, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) see its members as rivals for regional supremacy and a threat to their rule.

Facebook "risks becoming the platform of choice for extremist Islamist ideology," Saudi outlet Arab News wrote on Monday, quoting analyst Ghanem Nuseibeh.

Allowing Tawwakol Karman -who is known to be a member of Muslim Brotherhood terrorist organization- to be a member of @Facebook’s oversight board is a huge mistake. She’s biased and has always been serving extremist agenda!!#No_Tawakkol_Karman pic.twitter.com/sragwt9uFO

— Abdullah ALTmimi (@abdullah_288) May 9, 2020

But Karman's Nobel Prize and her work defending freedom of expression and democracy, especially for women in the Arab world, makes her appointment "absolutely justified," said Gunter Meyer, head of the Center for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz. Her former membership of Islah, he added, was merely an excuse for such an attack.

In 2018, Karman was ejected from the party after speaking out against the UAE and Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen's war and the toll it had taken on the country's people. At that point Islah was attempting to mend ties with Saudi Arabia, Meyer added.

An outspoken activist

The rights activist has previously provoked the ire of a number of rulers across the region. In 2011 she took part in protests against Yemen's president at the time, Ali Abdullah Saleh, accusing him of stalling on democratic reforms, rampant corruption and human rights violations.

In 2018, Karman told Qatari outlet The New Arab that Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought "a very ugly occupation and even uglier influence" in Yemen and that those countries' rulers deserved to be brought before the International Criminal Court.

After the 2013 military ousting of Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member, Karman told the BBC that the organisation and its followers, "who oppose military rule, will put the revolution back on the right path with their blood, determined steadfastness and faith."

That comment has been seized on by her critics in Egypt, with one Cairo-based lawyer demanding Facebook withdraw her appointment through an online petition on change.org.

But Meyer said her statement to the BBC was made in support of human rights. "Thousands of Muslim Brothers, who have been branded as terrorists across the board, are in detention, some of them without trial for years. Karman has publicly spoken up for them," he said.


A "concerted operation"

Despite the campaign against her, she has also received messages of support.

Marc Owen Jones, a professor in Middle East Studies at Qatar's Hamad Bin Khalifa University, said the campaign against Karman was a "concerted operation to discredit her," which shows how seriously "regimes in those countries perceive social media."

That sentiment is echoed by Karman's fellow Yemeni journalist Samir al-Nimri: "The criticism of Tawakkol Karman mainly comes from the circle of regimes that stand against the aspirations of citizens." These regimes, he said, had led the "counterrevolutions" during the Arab Spring, bringing chaos and a "tragic war" to Yemen.

Kersten Knipp & Ismail Azzam