The worst attacks against Rania Amdouni began in February. The 26-year-old human rights activist and artist had been on the front lines of a new wave of protests in Tunisia for months — fist raised, often wearing the Gay Pride flag or a brightly-colored wig, shouting until her voice went hoarse.

Sparked by unemployment rates that had worsened during the pandemic, the nationwide demonstrations, which began as clashes between police and marginalized youth in mid-January had broadened their scope. Around 1,700 protestors — many of them minors — had been detained and there were reports of police torturing and abusing many of those held in custody. In the capital, hundreds of young Tunisians and civil society activists peacefully took to the streets, calling for economic equality, an end to police brutality and the decriminalization of homosexuality and marijuana.

Photographs of Amdouni — who is openly lesbian and a committed feminist — had begun to circulate on Facebook back in October, when she had protested against a law that stood to shield security forces from criminal liability after the use of lethal force. But the online campaign against her reached its peak at the beginning of this year, when hundreds of photographs of her were posted by various Facebook users, accompanied by captions mocking her size, sexuality and appearance. Other messages threatened her life.

“I will destroy your vagina, you dyke” read one private message on Facebook. Some posts explicitly questioned her gender identity, speculating that she was a man. Others described her as “ungodly” and a “pervert.” Amdouni was also doxxed. After her address and cell number were published, her phone rang constantly with calls from unknown numbers. 

“I received so much hate, so many threats, that I became almost accustomed to it,” said Amdouni, sitting in a bar in central Tunis. “It really affected me. My psychological state is now very fragile because of it. I am so exhausted by these threats. I can’t even go out in the street alone.”

Amdouni had become one of the most recognizable faces of the protests, making it much easier for the police to identify her. She says that officers would frequently stop her and check her ID, sometimes delaying her for up to an hour and echoing the insults she had received online.

On February 27, Amdouni could not take it any longer and headed to her nearest police station to report the harassment she had been subjected to, both online and on the streets. She was arrested on the spot. Two days later, she was formally charged with insulting a police officer — a charge punishable by one year in prison — based on reports that she had shouted and cursed outside the station after officers failed to register her complaint. On March 4, she was sentenced to six months in jail.

Social Media and Surveillance 

Amdouni’s case is an extreme example of how social media is being used in Tunisia as an authoritarian tool. Activists fear that the right to protest in Tunisia has been on a gradual decline in recent years. Many believe that the country is reverting to the police state it was before the 2011 Arab Spring, when a popular uprising ousted the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Arrests and prosecutions based on Facebook posts have become more frequent. Meanwhile, the police have turned to social media to discredit their critics and stoke violence. During recent protests, observers noticed that members of the LGBTQ community were being repeatedly targeted and mistreated by law enforcement. Despite its shift toward democracy after the revolution, Tunisia remains a conservative, predominantly Muslim society. Homosexuality is still a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison. 

In February, Human Rights Watch released a report that collected testimonies and documented dozens of cases of online harassment, doxxing and forced “outing” of LGBT people. The organization noted that several protestors had also been subjected to arbitrary arrest, physical assault, threats to rape and kill, and that many had been refused access to legal counsel. 

A large number of the social media posts targeting LGBTQ activists were being published on Facebook pages affiliated with the Tunisian police. Much of the harassment Amdouni faced was spearheaded and encouraged by such groups, which activists say gave a green light for further violence and intimidation, online and in the physical world.

Dozens of Facebook pages are associated, both officially and unofficially, with Tunisia’s police unions. The largest, The Syndicate of National Security in Tunisia, has 430,000 followers and was created in September 2011. After the revolution, which called for the end of the country’s police state, officers took advantage of new-found freedoms to unionize and protect themselves. Today, the unions claim to have over 100,000 members, almost the entire number of police officers in Tunisia. 

Rights groups state that the Tunisian government allows the police to act with near total impunity and that such organizations have further entrenched their power. There have also been instances of unions mobilizing to obstruct justice. In 2018, dozens of officers stormed a courthouse in an attempt to disrupt a trial in which five colleagues were facing torture charges.  

The Facebook groups which represent national and regional unions, are very active, posting several times a day and attracting hundreds of likes and shares. Analysis of dozens of such pages found that the majority of the content posted serves to push security forces propaganda, portraying officers as heroic protectors of the nation. The pages mostly show posts about the latest drug bust or the arrest of petty criminals. There are also photographs of heavily-armed officers handing out flowers to women, assisting citizens in distress or posing with small children. Many are religious in nature, while others comment on the politics of the day.

What is of particular concern to rights’ advocates, however, is the groups’ use of disinformation to incite violence against specific sections of society. Nessryne Jelalia, president of Al Bawsala, a Tunisian NGO promoting democracy and human rights, says that this trend has grown over the past year, with police starting to publish photographs and publicly humiliate individual protestors. 

During the winter demonstrations, surveillance drones were often seen hovering over the crowds and plainclothes officers could be seen filming from rooftops. Aerial shots of the protestors, some with alternative haircuts or piercings, were then posted on Facebook. Images of same-sex couples kissing in the crowd were also captured. In a country where pre-marital sex is illegal and public displays of affection are taboo, the aim was clearly to identify and disgrace the demonstrators.

“The police are making intrusions into people’s private lives — especially gay people, activists and human rights defenders — in order to discredit them. That has always been a technique of the former regime, to discredit opponents,” said Jelalia.

Experts have also noticed that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, previously vital to the success of Arab Spring movements, are now being used to attack pro-democracy activists. 

Marwa Fatafta, Middle East-North Africa policy manager at the digital rights group Access Now, says that this tactic is being reflected across the region. 

“Today, you can’t control the flow of information because, where people use social media to document human rights abuses and speak their mind, the counter effort from the government is to try to spread fake news or disinformation in a way to counter the narrative of the activists and to smear them. It’s hard for activists to fight against this,” she said.

Electronic armies

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Ragheb sat drinking beer and eating lamb couscous with his friends in downtown Tunis. Most of the people at the table were members of the local LGBTQ and minority rights group Damj. Several of the organization’s activists have been targets of online harassment and have collected evidence of it. It was a week or so after Amdouni had been sent to jail and everyone was on edge. 

Suddenly Ragheb got up and went around the room embracing each of his friends in turn. “I’m doing this because we’re never sure how much time we actually have together,” he said. 

Ragheb, who asked for his last name not to be used, had recently taken to wearing a Spongebob mask to the demonstrations, so that his identity would be hidden from the drones and cameras. Although he is out to his family, he comes from a small town outside of Tunis and fears that if neighbors were to see his photograph online, his relatives could be subject to intimidation. 

“The narrative being propagated by these police union Facebook groups is creating rifts within our society and it’s alienating us,” he said. “They try to stir up more angst and anger.” 

Many of the posts use offensive language to describe demonstrators and tend to focus on the most contentious aspects of the protest movement, such as the drive for gay rights and the legalization of marijuana. All neglect to mention that they were also out on the streets to demand economic equality for all Tunisians.

“The posts characterize us in a very specific, extreme way that is intended to offend and shock many members of our society. They construe us as drug addicts, sodomists, atheists,” said Ragheb.

One post, made in March on a page for a police union in the coastal city of Sfax, reads: “What you are seeing is an image of protest that has been imported from abroad —and in excellent taste! Gay boys, stoners, Satan lovers… this is a disgusting class of people who want anarchy.” 

Another, from February, appears to threaten human rights activists directly: “To the NGOs and NGO staff, the eunuchs, the homosexuals, the trashy gays, the revolutionaries, the human rights defenders and their followers: remember that we have the power of bullets — but the bullets are expensive and the target is cheap. Long Live the National Police Unions.” The page has 43,663 followers and the posts were liked and shared hundreds of times.

“We do not allow hate speech directed at the LGBTQIA+ community, harassment or death threats,” wrote a Facebook spokesperson in a statement to Coda Story. “These policies apply to everyone. We’ve recently removed a number of these pieces of content for violating our policies and we continue to investigate to find any others. Keeping people safe on our services is something we take extremely seriously.”

The two posts described above have since been removed. Ragheb explained that many of the posts tend to be disseminated by pro-police “electronic armies” comprised of bots and fake accounts, but also of profiles and pages associated with Tunisia’s leading Islamist parties Ennahda and Al Karama. “We call the Ennahda profiles “blue flies” and the Al Karama profiles “green flies,” he said. 

“Electronic flies” have caused similar havoc in online spaces across the MENA region, from Saudi Arabia spreading disinformation after the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Algeria’s attacks on the pro-democracy movement.

“Because it’s a swarm of individuals — some real, some not — it’s hard as an activist to push against these troll farms or shut them down,” said Fatafta. It’s a way of intimidating and silencing activists — especially women and queer people.”

“Why did the police arrest me?” 

On 17 March, Tunis Appeals Court released Amdouni after 19 days in detention. Her case had been fought by at least 20 pro-bono lawyers. She believes that international attention helped to secure her early release.

Enjoying a beer at a popular bar in downtown Tunis a week after her release, Amdouni seemed upbeat and optimistic, already making plans for a performance piece based on her time in prison. A few days earlier, she had been sleeping on the floor of a cramped and filthy cell with 36 other women.

“Why did the police arrest me? Because I was among the main organizers of the protest, because I was very visible, because I declare that I’m a lesbian, that I’m a feminist, that I’m queer,” she said.

“In prison, I was strong but I was also very depressed, very wounded because I knew that I didn’t deserve this. It hurt me that my own country, my own government, was doing this to me. And why? All because I’m different.”

On April 5, Amdouni’s defiant resolve gave way. Left by herself for a moment at home, she took an overdose of medication and was rushed to hospital where she was treated for the next few days. According to friends she was distraught and overwhelmed by recent events. 

After being discharged, Amdouni took to Facebook: “Friends, forgive me, but I’ve recently lived through such disappointing and disgusting things. We make one desperate decision and, in a moment, we can lose everything.”