DUBAI (Reuters) – Twitter buyer Elon Musk calls himself a free speech absolutist, but that could be put to the test in the Middle East where critics say authoritarian governments use the platform to track opponents and spread disinformation.
In a region where the local media is often controlled by the state, millions of people rely on social media platforms to follow news and express their opinions.
Both Twitter and Facebook showed their potential to influence real-life events during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, when they played an outsize role in social upheaval.
But many democratic gains were reversed, partly because governments could follow the activities of opponents on social media sites and make arrests if they were criticised.
Marc Owen Jones, author of the forthcoming Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East and a assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, said Twitter had been co-opted by some countries which use it to disseminate propaganda and intimidate activists.
“Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter will simply aggravate the problems we see in the region. It will increase the likelihood that Twitter will be exploited as a tool of surveillance and repression,” he said.
“His ‘anything goes’ ideology will play into the hands of authoritarian states to just manipulate Twitter to create fake accounts and to intimidate others under the guise of free speech.”
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how it might deal with Middle Eastern governments’ use of the platform and what it might do to protect critics expressing their views on social media.
Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Musk clinched a deal to buy Twitter Inc for $44 billion cash on Monday, a transaction that will give him control of the social media platform and turn the group from a publicly-listed company into a private one.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in a statement on Monday.
THOUSANDS OF ACCOUNTS REMOVED
Some political activists expect Musk’s leadership will mean less moderation and the reinstatement of banned individuals, including former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Musk has also advocated user-friendly tweaks to the service, such as an edit button and defeating “spam bots” that send overwhelming amounts of unwanted tweets.
In 2020, Twitter took down thousands of accounts linked to Egypt, Honduras, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Serbia for either taking directions from the governments or promoting pro-government content.
The year before, Twitter said it had removed nearly 6,000 accounts for being part of a state-backed information operation originating in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab monarchies do not tolerate dissent or public criticism and ban political parties and protests. They and other Arab states use criminal laws, in combination with cybercrime laws, to limit expression online.
Officials in Saudi Arabia and Egypt did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the takedowns in 2019 and 2020 or accusations that they manipulate social media and use platforms to monitor critics.
Abdullah Alaoudh, director of research for the Gulf region at DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now), is familiar with the consequences of using Twitter in Saudi Arabia.
He is the son of prominent Saudi Islamist preacher Salman Alodah, who is one of dozens of clerics, activists and intellectuals arrested in the kingdom since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power in 2017.
Alodah, who had a large social media following, was arrested in September 2017 at his home a few hours after he posted on Twitter urging Qatar and Saudi Arabia to end a diplomatic row, having previously criticised Riyadh over human rights.
“Twitter should be harder to infiltrate,” said Alaoudh, referring to a case in which the U.S. Justice Department in 2019 charged two former Twitter employees and a third man from Saudi Arabia of spying for the kingdom by digging up private user data.
Maryam Al-Khawaja, a Bahraini activist who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States and whose father is serving a life sentence for his role in Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement, said Twitter was an effective tool during the 2011 uprising.
But she said it quickly became a site where people were targeted.
“Twitter was already rife with harassment issues, and this will only escalate.”
BANNED IN IRAN
Egyptian authorities have prosecuted activists for social media posts, including human rights defender Hossam Bahgat, who was fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds after accusing the election commission on Twitter of fraud in 2021.
Amnesty International said Twitter has a responsibility to protect the right to live free from discrimination and violence.
Twitter and Facebook have been banned in Iran since 2009 anti-government protests, but millions of Iranians have found ways to bypass state restrictions.
Many Iranian leaders, from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to lawmakers, have emerged on Twitter despite the ban, with most having multiple accounts in different languages.
Freelance Iranian journalist Mohammmad Mosaed was detained in 2019 after tweeting about an internet shutdown during anti-government protests over a rise in fuel prices.
“Knock knock! Hello Free World! I used 42 different (proxy sites) to write this! Millions of Iranians don’t have internet. Can you hear us?” he tweeted.
He was detained for two weeks. A few months later he was arrested again by the Revolutionary Guards for criticising Iran, the Committee to Protect Journalists, an NGO that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists, said.
Iran’s judiciary did not immediately respond to questions about his case.
Meir Javedanfar, Iranian politics lecturer at Reichman University in Israel, said Twitter should introduce technology that enables Iranians to access the platform without being caught by Iranian authorities.
“Otherwise, no one in Iran really cares who owns Twitter. It makes little difference to them.”
(Additional reporting by Andrew Mills, Parisa Hafezi, John Davison, Ali Kucukgocmen, Aziz al-Yaakoubi, Maya Gebeily, Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams, and Hyun Joo in San Francisco; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Jane Merriman)