Repression Grows in a Desensitized World: Case Studies in Transnational Repression

This Argument appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

By Heather Marie Vitale


What do you do when information from official sources can no longer be trusted? Or when that information is weaponized against your community? A poisoned information environment is not just toxic for a functioning civil society, but also for the personal safety and wellbeing of the global citizenry. A desensitization from trust in facts most acutely harms vulnerable populations, particularly exile and diaspora communities targeted by their native country’s governments. Poisoned information environments are largely driven by disinformation campaigns—malign efforts by individuals, institutions, or regimes to deliberately mislead the public to sow discord, distract from global scrutiny, or harm other countries or communities. Disinformation—a modern buzzword most recently gleaned from Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election—is not a new concept, but one that has increasingly become institutionalized as technology significantly lowers barriers to entry. More actors in the disinformation space implies greater amounts of deliberately false information in the world and directed at target audiences. With that much distortion, one can become alienated from the truth and from one’s community.

The poisoning and desensitization of information environments also enables more sinister outcomes: wider passageways for regimes to commit acts of transnational repression against targeted communities. As detailed in Lawfare, transnational repression “describes instances in which authoritarian regimes expand their oppressive policies and practices beyond their borders and into the territory of other countries to silence, harass, or threaten dissidents and activists through various means.”[1] Transnational repression is more than the brute force of physical assault, rendition and false imprisonment, or assassination; repression efforts can take the form of digital harass ment, spyware, family intimidation, or mobility control, among others. These latter methods are enabled by technology. Transnational repression is likely to continue to broaden in scope and aggression as increasingly sophisticated technology allows for greater access to individuals. According to human rights organization Freedom House, transnational repression has spread widely due to technological advances lowering the overall costs and increasing regime perception of the threat of exiles, the erosion of international norms against extraterritorial violence, and the lack of stringent repercussions for crimes.[2] When these digital tools can be used to both mislead and repress targeted individuals or groups, the lower the cost and the greater the incentive for regimes to continue their efforts. Transnational repression can exist outside of disinformation environments, but disinformation more easily begets conditions ripe for repression. Repression grows in a desensitized world.

This paper will examine three examples of regimes—China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—employing disinformation operations and transnational repression campaigns, to demonstrate the interconnection of technology-enabled disinformation and transnational repression.


Based on available evidence, China is the most prolific transnational repression actor and is deeply invested in building a global image as a powerful, progressive nation flourishing under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). China’s disinformation operations are largely targeted against Western nations to engender more favorable policies, sustain economic ties, dodge international criticism for human rights violations, and meet the CCP’s strategic goals. China uses its broad communication, media, and diplomatic networks to propagandize, obfuscate the truth, and deflect blame. Dissimilar to countries like Russia, Chinese disinformation is not necessarily about sowing discord in other states, but ultimately in bolstering itself. However, disinformation about and targeted to specific diaspora communities remains an important tool in cultivating China’s global image ultimately leading to repression.[3]

Beijing employs a full range of coordinated tactics to repress any person or group that would tarnish its image, particularly ethnic and religious minorities, as the CCP views them as a threat to domestic control and the projected image of unity under communism. The CCP considers as threats mostly Muslim Uyghurs, Buddhist Tibetans, pro-independence Taiwanese, Hong Kong democracy activists, and members of the religious group Falun Gong, which Beijing denies is a religion and calls an anti-communist cult.[4] The diaspora communities of these groups are equally vulnerable to disinformation and repression and still susceptible to physical harm in their new countries.[5] Many dissidents, foreign-based Uyghurs, and other minorities report being harassed and threatened—both in-person and online—by CCP operatives, and in some cases have seen their China-based relatives kidnapped and used as a means of coercing silence.[6] Pro-democracy activists in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have been threatened, harassed, and physically attacked as a means of coercion and preventing protest.[7] These repressive activities serve to push activists and critics out of the spotlight and isolate individuals from their communities, families, and support systems. This is important because a strong sense of community can help prevent desensitization to facts and to information environments.

The Chinese government holds an advantage over other repressive regimes for having access to advanced targeting and surveillance technology, a monumental amount of exfiltrated personal data, and well-developed institutional systems of espionage and influence.[8] As such, Beijing is a pervasive user of digital tools of repression, including the incredibly popular messaging app WeChat. Chinese hackers developed tools to access targets’ cell phones to surveil their movements and activity and exploit social media platforms to spread malware.[9] This surveillance and direct involvement from the Chinese state increases mistrust in truth and facts.

Despite greater interest, insight, and action from Western nations to counter and prevent Chinese disinformation and transnational repression, China’s integration into the global economy, growing power, access to technology and data, and relentless pursuit of its unified message will be increasingly difficult to overcome.


Iran’s disinformation efforts have operated on a smaller scale than other major regimes’ campaigns and remain largely detectable; however, recent reports indicate its campaigns have become increasingly sophisticated. This sophistication is due in part to greater understanding of and access to Western technological tools that can reach more individuals and social media networks.[10] Although its latest public efforts have attempted to sow discord and emphasize societal divisions in the West, much of Iran’s disinformation has focused on projecting an image of strength and legitimacy in spite of sanctions.[11] As such, Iran’s narratives focus on denigrating those that get in the way: other states, global institutions, diaspora communities, and individuals. It is this specific focus that informs violent and aggressive transnational repression campaigns. Particularly in the wake of the protests following the brutal murder of Mahsa Amini, an aspiring lawyer arrested for allegedly incorrectly wearing hijab, in September 2022, these repression campaigns are likely to increase in intensity and violence as a means of silencing dissent.

Iran uses disinformation and transnational repression campaigns as a low-cost way to bolster its position in global society. Iran categorizes its repression efforts as part of its campaign against its traditional adversaries, labeling targeted individuals as terrorists against the regime. According to Freedom House, Iran’s efforts “result in intense intimidation of the Iranian diaspora, from which even those who avoid physical consequences ultimately suffer.”[12] As part of these efforts, the Iranian regime will often threaten a target’s Iran-based family, sometimes forcing them to publicly denounce the individual on state television.[13] The Iranian regime also coerces Iranians abroad—often via technical means—into spying on, harassing, or otherwise threatening targeted individuals.[14] This serves to isolate members of diaspora communities, building mistrust in information systems, family members, and support systems.

Iran also uses its state and proxy media network to denigrate individuals in the diaspora and journalists critical of the regime, including through smear campaigns—sometimes involving fake news websites that mimic real ones—to offer false statements about the journalists and individuals to discredit them and their work.[15] These websites appear as genuine news sites, reinforcing the messages of disinformation under a veneer of legitimacy and increasing the likelihood of increased mistrust in the media information environment.

Iran maintains an advantage over other regimes due to its status as a prolific, malicious cyber actor with significant hacking, phishing, and spyware capabilities. The regime’s cyber outfit routinely executes offensive cyber operations, advanced spear-phishing campaigns to tailor individual targets, and implants malware and spyware onto victim’s mobile systems.[16] This poisons the information environment, in which constant phishing emails breed distrust in communication.

Iran’s technological prowess and steadfast commitment to maintaining its global image will require a tailored approach at curtailing disinformation and transnational repression efforts, likely through continued use of sanctions and removal of Iranian websites and content from the Internet.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s disinformation and transnational repression campaigns are singularly focused on boosting the Kingdom’s image globally—including that of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—particularly in the West. The Saudis hold seemingly endless monetary resources to fund their operations, allowing for significant financial means of influence against foreign governments, human labor for social media “troll armies,” and investment in sophisticated spyware and other technologies. U.S. social media platforms have identified and deactivated tens of thousands of accounts and pages run by the Saudis as a means of spreading propaganda and disinformation, including propaganda denigrating other states, institutions, and individuals. Saudi hackers also took over around 70 verified Twitter accounts from public figures to share the Saudi’s pro-regime messaging with a pretense of validity.[17] The breadth and pervasiveness of this disinformation network— including on messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram—deeply poisons the information environment, consistently drowning out truth and facts with threats and redirects to pro-regime messaging.[18]

This need to control information at all costs directly leads to the Kingdom’s repression operations. Saudi Arabia is arguably the most notorious repressive regime following the state-backed assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Khashoggi’s murder is indicative of the Saudi’s highly personalized repression campaign: a single instance of a pattern of targeting, threatening, and violence against perceived enemies of the regime.[19] This personalization exponentially increases the stakes and consequences to individuals, ensuring increased isolation and desensitization to legitimate communications in a toxic information environment.

In addition to the Saudis’ substantial manipulation of social media, it is also a pervasive user of spyware and other malicious technological tools to surveil targets. According to reports from CitizenLab, a Canadian Internet research lab, Saudi Arabia has been perhaps the most prolific user of the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware system against users around the world, including Khashoggi’s family and confidants, anti-regime activists, and journalists.[20]

Khashoggi’s assassination serves as another important marker of the increased global trend of transnational repression campaigns. The Kingdom faced blowback from the international community, including sanctions from the United States and the United Kingdom, but rendered few lasting consequences for the regime. Most importantly, the official sanctions against the Saudis focused on lower-level operatives and did not reach bin Salman. This reaction is critical to understanding not just Saudi Arabia’s actions, but the actions of other adversarial regimes: if a state can order the gruesome assassination of an outspoken critic and still stay in the good graces of its major Western allies, then these activities can continue with little consequence, albeit more clandestinely. Saudi Arabia has continued to use technology to repress outspoken regime critics, including similar methods of surveillance to those used against Khashoggi and others in his orbit.[21] Given the Kingdom’s position as an ally—and key Western partner in the Middle East—effectively countering Saudi Arabia’s disinformation and repression activities will be politically and diplomatically complex.

Implications And Opportunities

Global disinformation and transnational repression campaigns will continue to foster and grow without significant dedicated efforts from liberal democratic states to counter these malign activities and messages. This fight presents a consequential challenge that will deeply impact generations of refugees, exiles, journalists, and human rights advocates for years to come. This fight also calls for a multi-pronged approach driven by collaboration among the U.S. government and its foreign partners and allies, including the executive branch, Congress, state- and local-level lawmakers, nonprofits and advocacy groups, and private institutions—particularly telecommunication and media companies.

Increasing the economic, political, and reputational costs to disinformation and repression campaigns could shift regimes’ cost-benefit calculations to diminish the perceived benefits to these activities. Existing efforts have already made an impact on the access of certain tools of disinformation and repression, as well as improvements in law enforcement mechanisms to add teeth to international countering activities.

As of early 2023, a number of bills are ready to be passed in the U.S. Congress that could result in action. The most notable of these laws and legal protections include:

  • The Magnitsky Act, which blocks human rights abusers’ entrance to the United States;[22]
  • The Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act, which protects U.S.-based Saudi dissidents and enact export and arms controls with Saudi Arabia;[23]
  • The Homeland and Cyber Threat Act, which allows claims by a U.S. person in federal or state court against foreign states that conduct or participate in cyber attacks against U.S. nationals;[24]
  • The U.S. State Department’s “Khashoggi Ban,” which imposes visa restrictions on individuals believed to be directly engaged with transnational repression activities on behalf of a foreign state;[25] and
  • The addition of the NSO Group by the U.S. Department of Commerce to its export control entity list as a means of curbing illicit use of the Pegasus spyware system.[26]

Law Enforcement officials in the U.S. have taken action to combat individuals and institutions engaging in transnational repression, including:

  • The US Department of Justice (DOJ) charged eight individuals as illegal agents of China for harassing and stalking Chinese diaspora members in an effort to return them to China, and 13 operatives for assaulting members of Falun Gong;[27]
  • The DOJ charged four Iranian intelligence officers on kidnapping charges for plotting the rendition of a US-based female Iranian journalist for her criticizing the regime;[28] and
  • The DOJ charged two former employees of Twitter for acting as illegal agents of Saudi Arabia by using their employee credentials to gain illicit access to private information of certain users of interest to the regime.[29]

Social media companies must improve their monitoring protocols and verification procedures, which should include the following:

  • Social media platforms increasing monitoring of networks coordinated inauthentic behavior, disinformation and threats, and having expedited removal of them from their platforms;
  • Social media platforms identifying accounts that are officially affiliated with a foreign state, particularly state media pages; and
  • An expansion of worldwide fact checking and verification organizations to provide an independent level of legitimacy and trust that information is correct, combined with public media literacy campaigns.

There is also an abundance of opportunities for governments and institutions to engage with and educate the public and vulnerable populations to prevent desensitization. Examples include:

  • Offer financial and community support for targeted diaspora communities, including awareness campaigns of available resources and protections to strengthen ties and reduce dangerous isolation;
  • Build directed media literacy and awareness campaigns for targeted diaspora communities on relevant and culturally sensitive topics to improve understanding of disinformation and trust in information environments; and
  • Incentivize public-private partnerships to combine the resources and expertise of governments, nonprofit organizations, and private companies to amplify impact.

There are also additional government actions available to increase the costs of disinformation and transnational repression activities. Some of the most notable include:

  • Increased use of sanctions against perpetrators of malign information operations and repression, up to and including the regime leader;
  • Reductions of international and military aid;
  • Greater restrictions of imports and exports of goods to regimes;
  • Increased charges and indictments of regime operatives with substantive consequences; and
  • Sanctions and interventions from international organizations such as the United Nations.

[1] Noura Aljiwazi and Siena Anstis, “The Effects of Digital Transnational Repression and the Responsibility of Host States,” Lawfare Blog, May 27, 2022,

[2] Nate Schenkkan and Isabel Linzer, “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: The Global Scale and Scope of Transnational Repression,” Freedom House, February 2021,

[3] U.S. Department of State, “PRC Efforts to Manipulate Global Public Opinion on Xinjiang,” Global Engagement Center, August 24, 2022,

[4] Nate Schenkkan and Isabel Linzer, “China: Transnational Repression Case Study,” Freedom House, February 2021,

[5] United States District Court Eastern District of New York, “Memorandum and Order on Plantiffs,” Defendants’ and Court’s Motions for Summary Judgment, Civil Action No. 18-12037-JGD,” 30 May 2018,

[6] Uyghur Human Rights Project, “Repression Across Borders: The CCP’s Illegal Harassment and Coercion of Uyghur Americans,” August 2019, pdf; U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Eight Individuals Charged With Conspiring to Act as Illegal Agents of the People’s Republic of China,” October 28, 2020, www.justice. gov/opa/pr/eight-individuals-charged-conspiring-act-illegal-agents-people-s-republic-china.

[7] Ben Quinn, “Hong Kong protesters in UK say they face pro-Beijing intimidation,” The Guardian, October 18, 2019,; Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China and Amnesty International Canada, “Harassment & Intimidation of Individuals in Canada Working on China-Related Human Rights Concerns,” March 2020,; Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Public Remarks by FBI Director Christopher Wray, “Countering Threats Posed by the Chinese Government Inside the U.S.,” January 31, 2022,

[8] Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Public Remarks by FBI Director Christopher Wray, “Countering Threats Posed by the Chinese Government Inside the U.S.,” January 31, 2022, www.

[9] Nicole Pertroth, Kate Conger, and Paul Mozur, “China Sharpens Hacking to Hound Minorities, Far and Wide,” The New York Times, October 22, 2019,; Mike Dvilyanski, “Taking Action Against Hackers in China,” Facebook, March 24, 2021,

[10] Jack Stubbs and Christopher Bing, “Special Report: How Iran spreads disinformation around the world,” Reuters, November 18, 2018,

[11] Sonja Swanbeck, “How to Understand Iranian Information Operations,” Lawfare Blog, February 19, 2021,

[12] Nate Schenkkan and Isabel Linzer, “Iran: Transnational Repression Case Study,” Freedom House, February 2021,

[13] Masih Alinejad, “Opinion: Iranian officials have declared they want to kidnap me. It’s happened to others before.,” Washington Post, August 10, 2020, iranian-officials-have-declared-they-want-kidnap-me-its-happened-others-before/.

[14] Schenkkan and Linzer, “Iran”; Farnaz Fassihi, “He Was Iran’s Homegrown Tech Star. The Guards Saw a Blackmail Opportunity,” The New York Times, August 21, 2020, world/middleeast/Iran-technology-arrest-spy.html.

[15] Schenkkan and Linzer, “Iran”; Reporters Without Borders, “Open letter about threats to Iranian journalists in six EU countries and US” January 22, 2020,

[16] Elias Groll, “Spear Phishing in Tehran,” Foreign Policy, August 9, 2016, spear-phishing-in-tehran/.

[17] Marc Owen Jones, “When It Comes to Disinformation, America’s Gulf Allies Are Worse Than the Russians,” Time, August 24, 2022,

[18] Katie Benner, Mark Mazzetti, Ben Hubbard, and Mike Isaac, “Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider,” The New York Times, October 20, 2018, saudi-image-campaign-twitter.html.

[19] Nate Schenkkan and Isabel Linzer, “Saudi Arabia: Transnational Repression Case Study,” Freedom House, February 2021,

[20] Bill Marczak, et al., “Research Report #113: Hide and Seek: Tracking NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware to Operations in 45 Countries,” Freedom House, September 18, 2018, hide-and-seek-tracking-nso-groups-pegasus-spyware-to-operations-in-45-countries/; Dana Priest, “A UAE agency put Pegasus spyware on phone of Jamal Khashoggi’s wife months before his murder, new forensics show,” Washington Post, December 21, 2021, hanan-elatr-phone-pegasus/; Omar Abdulaziz, “Opinion: Saudi spies hacked my phone and tried to stop my activism. I won’t stop fighting.,” Washington Post, November 14, 2019, opinions/2019/11/14/saudi-spies-hacked-my-phone-tried-stop-my-activism-i-wont-stop-fighting/; Noura Al-Jizawai, et al., “Research Report #151: Psychological and Emotional War: Digital Transnational Repression in Canada,” CitizenLab, March 1, 2022,; Bill Marczak, et al., “Breaking the News: New York Times Journalist Ben Hubbard Hacked with Pegasus after Reporting on Previous Hacking Attempts,” CitizenLab, October 24, 2021,

[21] Jones, “When It Comes to Disinformation, America’s Gulf Allies Are Worse Than the Russians”; Spencer S. Hsu and Shane Harris, “Former Saudi intelligence officer accuses crown prince of ordering his assassination in Canada,” Washington Post, August 6, 2020,

[22] U.S. Congress, 114th Congress, Public Law 114-328: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, December 23, 2016,

[23] U.S. Congress, 117th Congress, H.R. 1392 Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act of 2021, February 26, 2021,

[24] U.S. Congress, 117th Congress, H.R. 1607 Homeland And Cyber Threat Act, March 8, 2021, www.

[25] U.S. Department of State, “Accountability for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi”, February 26, 2021,

[26] U.S. Department of Commerce, “Commerce Adds NSO Group and Other Foreign Companies to Entity List for Malicious Cyber Activities”, November 3, 2021,

[27] U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Eight Individuals Charged With Conspiring to Act as Illegal Agents of the People’s Republic of China,” October 28, 2020, www.justice. gov/opa/pr/eight-individuals-charged-conspiring-act-illegal-agents-people-s-republic-china; U.S. District Court Eastern District of New York, “Memorandum and Order on Plantiffs’, Defendants’ and Court’s Motions for Summary Judgment, Civil Action No. 18-12037-JGD,” 30 May 2018, pkg/USCOURTS-mad-1_18-cv-12037.pdf.

[28] U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York, “Manhattan U.S. Attorney Announces Kidnapping Conspiracy Charges Against An Iranian Intelligence Officer and Members of an Iranian Intelligence Network,” July 13, 2021,

[29] U.S. Department of Justice, “Two Former Twitter Employees and a Saudi National Charged as Acting as Illegal Agents of Saudi Arabia,” November 7, 2019,