Dissidents cannot escape. Although they may be outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, they weren’t necessarily safe. This was what many people thought after news broke out about how Saudi Arabia took advantage of Twitter by allegedly using Twitter to harm individuals against their own country.
Twitter and Saudi Arabia
Social media has played a vital role in transforming the Saudi society with YouTube and Snapchat being the key social media players. In a recent statistic, it showed that among its total of 33.9 million population, almost 68% or 23 million of them are active users of social media, of which 56% uses Twitter.
These just show that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, indeed, has the world’s most substantial social media presence. Twitter is so prominent in Saudi Arabia that Saudis are even known to be among the heaviest users of Twitter in the world, with about 19 million active accounts.
Why does this platform hold so much appeal in the country?
Given the statistics on Saudi Arabia’s Twitter usage, this seems to be a valid question. Here are some of the common below that responses found to answer the question.
It allows them to communicate more quickly to the world.
One of the reasons why Twitter is extremely popular among its Saudi users is due to how easily they could use it to communicate and engage with the outside world. It is like sending a text message to everyone.
It is easy to connect with everyone across society.
With other social media platforms, users were mainly engaging with their friends or people within their circle. With Twitter, on the other hand, anyone can connect with every individual regardless of their status, from the members of the royal family to the average person. Before, it wasn’t that easy to communicate with the different people across the country, but it was made possible by Twitter later down the track.
It provides users with space for freedom.
It is a known fact that Saudi Arabia has strict rules and laws. Articles on Saudi dissidents are banned, and the press is censored, so it’s no surprise that the Saudis find the freedom to speak their minds without worrying about censorship on Twitter. It is an excellent platform for them since they can control the personal information they can share, which means that they can remain completely anonymous. Social media platforms allow them to say what they could not in real life. It is not absolute freedom, though, but it is still better than what they have had traditionally.
Saudi Arabia Taking Advantage of Twitter
Despite the first usage and active engagement of Saudis on Twitter, Saudi Arabia, and Twitter’s relationship hasn’t always been positive. It was especially tainted when the country tried to infiltrate the platform.
In 2015, a member of the global media team of Twitter in the United States flew back in Saudi Arabia after being accused of accessing thousands of Twitter accounts without authorization. They were allegedly passing the users’ identifying information, which includes their IP addresses and phone numbers to a Saudi government authority. The spy’s laptop was seized, and he was escorted out of the building. The following morning, he fled back to his country.
The extent of their abilities and roles in the company has not been reported. Still, it was found that he and a Saudi colleague accessed user information regularly that could be used by the Saudi authorities to determine any anonymous dissidents outside the country.
Saudi Arabians Partially Own Twitter via Oil Money
For a couple of years, this spy tech had been working in the company when his actions were discovered. He was described by his colleagues as a pleasant and helpful person, so it was hard to accept the reality of his and his Saudi colleague’s actions.
The latter was also a diligent operator whose responsibility was to grow the usage of the platform in the Middle East. His days at work were spent socializing and speaking with prominent personalities in the Middle East, from the entertainment industry to the government. His role was to encourage them and other known influencers to post on the platform more often.
How did it all start?
From just a verification request, it turned into a criminal act. The system can verify users accessed to obtain data. The system stores vital information, including telephone numbers, last log-in time, and email addresses, sufficient to track down the user. We will see that the data gathered were from Saudi dissidents, mostly from critics.
The possibility of remaining anonymous on Twitter has become a valuable tool for many Saudi dissidents to freely express their thoughts and comment on the repressive government. However, with this infiltration, they become vulnerable as the government could track them in real life.
Unfortunately, Twitter might not get prepared for this possibility. The global media team is trained regarding the specificities of the problems and challenges they will face. They did not immediately know what to do for possible events wherein employees with close relationships with foreign governments and access to sensitive information might use it to spy.
According to those who previously worked in social media networks, it was common for the company to receive pressure from state agents to provide private user information. They had to decline them repeatedly to protect its users, of course.
Twitter, just like many other social media platforms, has built security policies to ensure that private user information is protected. However, threats like how Saudi Arabia took advantage of Twitter should be anticipated. Therefore, their team must face any challenges they will face in the future to ensure that users feel safe when using the platform.