How do you help people protect themselves from digital threats they may not even recognize yet? In the Middle East and North Africa, Salam@’s answer includes relentlessly connecting digital safety to everyday local reality.
Salam@ (سلامات , pronounced sa-la-MAT) comes from an Arabic word for safety. Since 2019, this Foundation-supported team has been promoting digital safety for women and youth across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Four years on, after supporting 35,000+ people directly—plus millions more through public awareness campaigns—they have helpful insights to share.
Across the MENA region, people are taking great advantage of new Internet technologies. Women and girls in particular are surmounting old barriers through online work and education opportunities. They’re connecting with fresh sources of news and information. They’re finding support through new personal and professional networks—and finding new ways to be heard.
But embracing cyberspace also deepens women’s special vulnerability to cyber crimes, including hacking, harassment, sextortion and blackmail. Public awareness has been slow to catch up: Salam@ regularly hears from women who are struggling to understand how they became digital victims. Social and cultural norms can also amplify impacts of digital harms here. The team is painfully aware of digitally-targeted women taking their own lives to escape social shame.
Salam@ helps at-risk people build their own digital resilience. They do that through training sessions, digital clinics, direct support and innovative efforts to foster digital champions. They also help victims of digital harms, including by guiding them into local psychosocial and legal referral systems. And to strengthen resilience at a population level, they’ve leaned heavily on public awareness campaigns.
This awareness-building work comes with a fundamental challenge. Digital threats are real and growing—but to many, they feel technical and distant. As one team member put it: “How do you bring digital resilience to people who don’t know they need it?” The team’s answer includes vigorously localizing and humanizing the world of digital safety.
Localize, humanize, repeat
The tried-and-true way to introduce tough new ideas is to link them to everyday life. But whose life? Since 2019, Salam@ has targeted no fewer than seven MENA countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. The differences between these populations belie the regional label. So the team put tremendous effort into connecting with local cultures, norms and languages.
Language has been central. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of media, literature, schools and public debate. It’s also the language of Salam@’s training materials, how-to guides and other formal digital-safety products (more on this below). But in everyday life and social media—where public awareness takes root—national and local dialects dominate.
That’s why Salam@ decided to build distinct Facebook and Instagram channels for each of those seven countries. With guidance from locally-based national coordinators, each features local dialects and visual standards (even colour palettes) that reflect local norms. While there’s a shared content strategy, coordinators continue to adapt messaging and imagery for local impact. (You can find links to all these channels in the Campaigns section of Salam@’s MENA Digital Safety Portal.)
Localization helped these channels become safe places for women and youth to discuss and even disclose digital harms. Localization also built a baseline of trust that helped teams to get creative about humanizing content—adopting local personas, proverbs, art, humour and more. (We’ll share a few examples below.) And this has been key to getting people engaged in the world of digital safety.
It has been a journey of adaptation: teams repeat and build on what works. This approach has helped Salam@ succeed where previous efforts did not. Salam@’s nearly 30 million online engagements is an achievement to expand on. And this awareness-raising has already opened many doors for Salam@’s more targeted efforts to foster digital resilience across the MENA region.
WATCH: Examples from the field
Since 2019, Salam@ has implemented ten major and many smaller awareness campaigns—on themes ranging from phishing scams to remote-schooling in COVID times. Each was delivered with a local flavour in seven countries (and sometimes beyond). Here, we’ve selected just a few examples of teams’ efforts to localize and humanize digital-safety messages to connect with people on the ground.
Youssef and Hala:
Dramatizing digital safety in Morocco
Morocco is the one country where Salam@ focused exclusively on youth, and the content creativity here was striking. Many young artists and rappers stepped up to make songs and comedy sketches to boost awareness of digital harms targeting youth.
Youssef and Hala, for instance, are young actors from Meknes. With the team’s support, they produced and starred in a series of Facebook videos in Darija, the vernacular spoken by most Moroccans. They called their series “KON 3LA 3ILM, KON 3LA BAL” (roughly, “be aware and keep in mind”). With a locally-inspired sense of humour, they acted out stories driving home the importance of strong passwords, downloading safe apps, backing up data, and so on.
Here, Youssef plays a thief who breaks into Hala’s house—but fails to unlock her phone because it’s protected with a strong passcode and touch ID.
When their home WIFI starts lagging, Youssef wants to flip over to a public WIFI he sees available—launching Hala into a litany of the digital harms this could unleash.
Algeria: Duaa’s disarming comedy
Duaa is an Algerian student and content creator. She creates comedic sketches—using humour as a disarming lens to critique life conditions for youth in her country. When she brought her comedic brilliance to Salam@ Algeria’s campaigns, she brought thousands of new female followers to its social media channels.
Duaa’s personas are always hilarious, often biting, and sometimes disguised as male characters to drive her point home. She has tackled gendered stereotypes and sensitive topics such as dating websites, sextortion and blackmail. Her performances connect digital safety to the realities of women and girls in a conservative society. Some of her pieces (like this one) have been viewed nearly half a million times.
Duaa’s “desperate lady” consults “Naima” the human development specialist. A neighbour she’d refused to marry says he’ll publish photos of her eating chalk and wearing socks with sandals. Naima confirms it’s digital harassment and refers her to Salam@ for help.
Another Duaa persona excitedly tells a friend about a dating site where she met a “blond foreigner” …
and while the friend questions her, her dastardly neighbour shows up (Duaa again!) to blackmail her with the photos she’d accidentally sent him online.
Kuwait: Echoing influencer trends
Salam@’s Kuwaiti social media channels and messaging were initially among the slowest to catch on. So the team looked carefully at what was engaging women online, and built on that. A classic example was to echo a popular trend of Kuwaiti influencers sharing their skincare routines.
Salam@ regularly talks about good digital hygiene: adopting strong passwords, recognizing dangerous links, and so on. They just needed to push the metaphor further. So they created a mock line of beauty products to protect your skin—and digital devices—from the ravages of the everyday.
The sense of familiarity drew engagement. Each “product” was for practical advice on some digital safety practice. And the underlying message: You can do this. With a little knowledge, keeping your devices clean is as simple as your skincare routine.
Fostering familiar faces of digital safety
Another key humanizing approach is to entrust Salam@’s message to local personalities. Those have included familiar faces, and faces that became familiar to users through exposure.
In Tunisia, Leila M. worked her way from a Salam@ trainer into the role of national coordinator. Along the way, she created a series of personalized videos presenting digital safety through the lens of local trends and dialects. That series helped motivate thousands of Tunisians to take steps to protect themselves—and opened doors to media interviews on digital resilience. And in Jordan, Shahed Jehad produced another series of personalized videos, again using local dialects. She drew on her experience as a working journalist to bring a local storytelling sensibility to serious digital-safety issues.
Shahed invites users to imagine a house full of precious belongings—with no locks or even doors for security. Comparing this to social media accounts, she teases an upcoming campaign on two-factor authentication.
Leila introduces forms of phishing links that are commonly shared in Tunisia, and how clicking through can lead to digital harms. She concludes with practical advice to protect devices with antivirus and 2FA.
In all seven countries, leaning on local voices has been key to connecting Salam@’s digital resilience message to local realities. Salam@ team members have become some of their countries’ most familiar online voices on digital issues. Some have also become go-to authorities for mainstream media where—through 450+ media appearances—they are growing the digital resilience conversation on a whole new scale.
Building an inclusive culture of digital resilience
Honouring local dialects and local realities is an indispensable tool for engagement. But vitally, Salam@’s goal has always been to foster a shared culture of digital resilience across the MENA region. Of course, this culture includes elements of shared language. In short, the team is local dialect to popularize a more global Arabic lexicon for digital tools, harms and safety strategies.
It didn’t take long to see that Deaf communities across the MENA region face a significant barrier in discussing digital safety (DS). Sign-language expressions for new DS-related terms can vary wildly from place to place. So Salam@ pulled together a team of 20 specialists from nine countries to begin developing a shared lexicon. Last November, they launched the first-ever online dictionary of Arabic digital safety terms in sign language.
This is very much a work in progress. In six months, the dictionary has grown from 100 to nearly 200 terms—each presented with a visual demonstration. There is no direct tie-in to other, grander (and sometimes controversial) efforts to create a unified sign language for the Arab world. Instead, this is practical effort that brings together the Deaf and DS communities to make regional conversations inclusive and possible. And we’re already seeing signs that it’s doing just that. Stay tuned. (Want to learn more? You can consult the dictionary itself in Arabic. Or read about the dictionary in English.)
This Foundation-supported project promotes digital resilience across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Core activities include training, mentorship, direct support and public awareness campaigns. The team primarily supports at-risk women, youth and civil society organizations. Most recently (2019-2022), they led intensive work with partners in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. >Learn more.