Cartoon by Emad Hajjaj
Why Spy on Twitter? For Saudi Arabia, It’s the Town Square
The New York Times: In Saudi Arabia, where a relatively closed culture leaves citizens few public forums to discuss news and politics, Twitter has become a kind of town square, the place where citizens meet to swap information and debate the latest issues.
Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy has not banned the site, but it has taken extensive measures to shape the information that appears there and to silence or drown out dissidents who use it to post critical views.
The Justice Department’s indictment on Wednesday of two former Twitter employees accused of spying for Saudi Arabia cast rare light on one corner of the vast measures the kingdom has taken to shape what its citizens see when they go online.
Why is Twitter so big in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia provides no public spaces where citizens can gather to discuss news and politics. And the kingdom’s news media are state-owned or controlled, limiting the range of perspectives they carry.
But many Saudi citizens have multiple cellphones and fast internet, which have led them to use Twitter to engage both with the world and with their fellow citizens.
That has given the kingdom one of the world’s largest Twitterspheres.
According to one recent report, Saudi Arabia had 9.9 million active Twitter users, the fourth highest in the world, behind the United States, Britain and Japan. But in terms of the percentage of the population using the platform, Saudi Arabia was first, with 37 percent of residents doing so, compared with 18 percent in the United States.
It can seem like everyone in Saudi Arabia is on Twitter: prominent Muslim clerics, well-known journalists, TV stars and even the 83-year-old monarch, King Salman, who has 7.8 million followers.
Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi writer who was killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul last year, had 1.6 million followers at the time of his death, allowing him to broadcast his views even after he’d been banned from Saudi news outlets. His direct line to fellow Saudis, which the kingdom was powerless to stop, may well have contributed to his death.
The platform’s importance has made it a key battleground for the government, which uses it to tout the kingdom’s policies, and a range of dissidents at home and abroad who use it to spread criticism of government policies and campaign for the release of political detainees.
Unlike other authoritarian governments in, say, Iran or China, Saudi Arabia has not blocked access to Twitter, perhaps considering it a useful, and relatively harmless, pressure valve for society. Instead, critics and researchers say, it has invested in a range of techniques to influence what Saudis see when they use the platform.
These include hard tactics like arresting or putting on trial prominent Twitter personalities who criticize the government and softer efforts like promoting positive tweets and working to sideline negative ones.
“They can’t really block out these websites from the server side, so they have to contest the space,” said Alexei Abrahams, a research fellow at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. “If they pour enough resources in, then maybe social media becomes more useful to the regime than to the opposition. I’m not sure we’ve crossed that threshold yet, but we can’t be that far from it.”
To shape the online environment, the Saudi government has marshaled armies of accounts to promote pro-government content and attack critical voices, Mr. Abrahams said. These can be automated accounts, known as bots, or accounts run by people working for the Saudi government who use Twitter in a coordinated fashion, according to an investigation published by The New York Times last year.
Acting together, they can promote accounts or hashtags that, say, praise the kingdom’s leadership while diluting the presence of critical conversations. That can end up shaping what average Saudis find when they go online.
“You can make it appear that the weight of public opinion lies with the regime,” Mr. Abrahams said.
How do Saudi dissidents use Twitter?
Saudi dissidents, many of them abroad, use Twitter to broadcast their views to their countrymen inside the kingdom. They include human rights activists who track detentions, and dissidents like Omar Abdulaziz, who lives in Canada and who posts frequent videos of himself commenting on current events and criticizing Saudi policies.
The Saudi government has tried to shut down these accounts. Mr. Abdulaziz says that his brothers in Saudi Arabia have been detained to pressure him to be quiet and that the Royal Court sent envoys to Canada to try to persuade him to come home and work for the government. He has refused.
The kingdom has also gone after the administrators of anonymous accounts, and it appears that this is why it may have sought to recruit spies inside Twitter.
Ali Alzabarah, one of the men indicted this week, was an engineer who had access to users’ personal information. Another, Ahmad Abouammo, could see users’ email addresses and phone numbers, sensitive information that could help the government unmask the people behind anonymous accounts.
Both men left Twitter in 2015, and no further efforts by the kingdom to infiltrate social media companies have been uncovered.
The killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who criticized the kingdom’s leadership, drew international attention to Saudi efforts to silence dissidents.
It appears that the kingdom is still working in cyberspace to promote its views.
“There are still tons of bots out there,” said Mr. Abrahams, the researcher.