Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi women’s rights activist, is the author of “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.”
In May 2011, the secret police took me from my home in Saudi Arabia in the middle of the night, while my 5-year-old son was sleeping. I might have disappeared without a trace — if it wasn’t for one brave witness, Omar Aljohani, who took the risk of live-tweeting the details of the incident.
Twitter, the platform that once saved my life, is now putting it in danger. The events in the weeks following Jamal Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul showed that the lives of other journalists and activists are also at risk. Seven years after Twitter saved me, I recently made the choice to delete my Twitter account live on stage in front of an audience of 1,000 people. I had more than 295,000 followers, and I am disconnecting from them for good.
I lived under Saudi Arabia’s totalitarian absolute monarchy, where the state controlled the air we breathe. Social media platforms created unprecedented opportunity for us to vent. And while the state tried its utmost to censor every new technology, including the Internet, it couldn’t do the same with social media platforms. Such platforms were out of their control, at least for a few years. One of my friends tweeted to me back in 2011 when Twitter became the symbol for freedom in Saudi Arabia: “I feel embarrassed that it took me watching mom joining twitter and follow your campaign before I [joined] too.” People joined these platforms to engage in causes they believed in. The Arab Social Media report has shown year after year how Saudi Arabia is the No. 1 Arab nation in the number of active Twitter users and daily tweets.
Once totalitarian governments realized the power of these tools, they opted to use them. Repressive governments use these platforms as weapons of mass surveillance, manipulate the dialogue and push their own version of the story. Researchers have shown how the government of Saudi Arabia effectively shaped and molded the Twitter discourse by buying trolls and bots, while directly or indirectly threatening, harassing or arresting and jailing those who were influencers and didn’t speak favorably of the government policies.
Twitter has became full of harassment, death threats, intimidation and false news for us who have chosen to speak out in the Arab world. Twitter has not enacted any real change in making Twitter safer for us, which has pushed so many I know to quit the platform. Still, I continued to voice my views there. I believed that those governments should be the ones to be afraid, not us. I believed that I finally had a voice, and that I should use it.
But things changed dramatically last year, when the Saudi government launched a crackdown on Twitter influencers in the kingdom. Saud al-Qahtani, the head of the Saudi Union for Cyber Security and Programming and a former adviser to the Saudi crown prince, is believed to be behind the Saudi cyber army, or as we human rights activists like to call them, “the Electronic Flies.” He launched a “Black List” hashtag last year after the Saudi embargo on Qatar, urging Twitter users to point out any account that sympathized with Qatar.
A number of prominent Twitter voices were pressured to take down their accounts or stop tweeting. We found out later that some had been arrested and thrown in jail under the guise of counter-terrorism. One of these Twitter personalities was Essam Al-Zamel, an entrepreneur and economist who criticized Aramco’s initial public offering and has now been charged with terrorism.
Some of those who have escaped the arrests were either contacted by phone or summoned and forced to sign pledges promising not to tweet. That same month, I received two phone calls on my Australian number from a member of the National Security, who was demanding the same from me. I refused to remain silent and continued tweeting about Saudi issues. During the same period, activists began to learn that the National Security was building cases against more Twitter users. Many of them started deleting the archives of their tweets. But the danger does not stop for us there because, even after tweets are deleted, Twitter’s website does not mention whether those same tweets are deleted from the archives, or whether the deleted tweets are still accessible to developers.
And while some anonymous Twitter accounts initially went on challenging the authorities, they suddenly went quiet in March this year. According to the New York Times, the Saudi intelligence services had infiltrated them through an insider in Twitter named Ali Alzabarah (A spokesman for Twitter declined to comment to the Times). Turki Aljasser, a columnist who was believed to be the owner of one such account, was arrested on March 15. I have been contacted in person by anonymous individuals who confirmed the disappearance of the man behind @Sama7ti, another account that refused to back down despite pressure from authorities. (I also know the man’s full identity.)
When I followed Twitter trends in Saudi Arabia and worldwide in the weeks after Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, things became clear. In the first week, while the rest of the world was using the #JamalKhashoggi hashtag, the trending hashtags in Saudi Arabia were #Kidnapping_Ant_and_Cockroach and #Aljamal_Jamal_Alrouh, which translates to “Beauty consists in the beauty of the soul.” There were so many tweets with these hashtags that they effectively drowned out any hashtag with the word Jamal, which translates to “beauty” in English. For two weeks, while the rest of the world was entering a frenzy about Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible murder, it felt as though the Saudis were living in a bubble. When Saudi officials finally cracked under pressure and acknowledged the murder in late October, the third-most trending hashtag worldwide was the Arabic phrase, “I am Arab and Mohammed bin Salman represents me.” That day, it became evident to me that we had lost these social media platforms to the dictators.
Twitter, which was once a tool to change the discourse, give voice to the voiceless and push for social justice, is now becoming a trap — one that is used by our regimes to haunt and silence us. It is being used to propagate misinformation and spread regime propaganda on a greater scale than ever before. And although Twitter finally suspended 70 million fake and malicious accounts in May snf June of this year, this action is still not enough.
I am pleading tech makers to build decentralized social media platforms that don’t store and sell our information, platforms that are built on the concept of fair use, and to reward authentic and organic content, instead of rewarding bots and fake accounts. They should not allow the powerful and wealthy to manipulate and dominate the conversation. Because freedom of speech safeguards all other freedoms, and it’s our responsibility to protect it.