PDI Workshop Series: Physical Repression and Online Dissent: Evidence from Saudi Arabia

March 7th, 2019

Note: This workshop is open only to faculty and scholars at Stanford University and other academic institutions, not the general public. 

Physical Repression and Online Dissent: Evidence from Saudi Arabia

Governments worldwide are using physical intimidation to constrain online expression. While the study of online censorship has received widespread attention, the relationship between physical repression and online dissent is not well understood. We begin to fill this knowledge gap by examining the impact of arrests of Saudi elites on online dissent. We analyze over 300 million tweets and Google search data from 2010 to 2017 using automated text analysis and crowd-sourced human evaluation of content. We find that although physical repression decreased online activity by arrested elites and constrained their criticisms of the government, it did not reign in dissent overall. For the millions of Saudis who actively followed the arrested elites on Twitter, observing repression mobilized their interest in the elites and increased their criticism of the regime and its policies. For similar elite actors who were not arrested, observing repression had no impact on their online activity. 

This is joint work with Jennifer Pan, Assistant Professor of Communication at Stanford University. 

About the Project on Democracy and the Internet Workshop Series:

The Project on Democracy and the Internet organizes regular workshops, hosted by Nathaniel Persily, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford, for scholars studying democracy in the digital age. The goal of this workshop series is to increase the sense of intellectual community and enhance the overall quality of research as we build this new field of study. 


  • Alexandra Siegel - Postdoctoral Fellow at the Immigration Policy Lab, Stanford University