Last week, the Justice Department announced that it was charging two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia by accessing the company’s information on dissidents on the platform. I was one of the targets.
It’s all been part of a coordinated campaign of harassment. Saudi Arabia, using spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO Group, hacked my phone to read my messages with Jamal, with whom I was working to identify and combat Saudi trolls on Twitter, which we called the “electronic bees.” We were working together to organize an army of volunteers to counter them.
The Saudi government deployed every tactic to get me to drop the project. They arrested my relatives and friends to pressure me. They imprisoned my brothers and asked them to convince me to stop working on our volunteer campaign. Jamal was shocked they had learned about it and asked me to never discuss it publicly.
To understand why they cared so much about protecting their Twitter trolls you have to understand the popularity and importance of Twitter for Saudis.
Since we didn’t have a lot of options for entertainment in Saudi Arabia, we coped with our environment by living a different reality on our smartphones. Twitter soon became crucial to exercise the first element of individual liberty: freedom of expression. The platform’s popularity exploded among Saudis virtually overnight. We lived democratically on Twitter. People posted freely.
Twitter even allowed people to engage with dissidents in exile, something that wouldn’t have been possible before. It also allowed the government to track public opinion. At first the government was responsive. Royal decrees were announced on Twitter. Rumors circulated but also got debunked. Officials faced pressure to be more transparent.
That all changed with the rise of MBS. Saudi Twitter gradually morphed into a propaganda platform, with the government deploying trolls and pressuring influencers to amplify its messages. More than 30 influencers told me that the Saudi government blackmailed them with material obtained by hacking their phones. They were given two options: Tweet propaganda or have your private content, including pictures, released on Twitter.
McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, prepared a report on how public opinion is shaped on Twitter (according to a source the report was reviewed by MBS but the company denies it was prepared for him). They identified me among the top three most influential users on Twitter. I’m now in exile; another got arrested, and the third user vanished. His tweets were all deleted.
In September 2017, more than 100 Twitter influencers were arrested. The charges were never made public. In December of that year, Jamal tweeted: “Saudi government trolls have a devastating effect on the national public opinion."
In unison, Saudi trolls ridicule free folks and resistance, Jamal added. He worried the propaganda was dividing the country. He is right.
Fake accounts and hired writers spread hatred among Saudis with tribal and racist attacks.
But Twitter is still worth fighting for — it remains the only free platform for many Saudis. After Jamal’s death, my team spent months trying to counter the troll narratives with trending hashtags.
It’s sad to see that Twitter may be one of the factors behind Jamal’s brutal murder. It’s a heartbreaking development because we had so much hope on the platform.
In 2013, Jamal posted: “Someday Twitter will win a Nobel prize.” But now we see it’s slipping into darkness. Will Twitter take measures to protect our public square? Right now I’m worried, but I will continue to fight for free expression, at least online.