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Analysis-Musk’s Twitter free speech promise may be tested in Middle East -Breaking


© Reuters. Hera Shabir is a social media expert and blogger. She checked her social media accounts from her phone in Manama Bahrain on April 28th, 2022. REUTERS/Hamadi Mohammed


Parisa Hafezi and Andrew Mills

DUBAI, (Reuters) – Elon Musk is a Twitter buyer who calls himself a “free speech absolutist”. However, that might be tested in Middle East where critics believe authoritarian governments are using the platform to disinformation spread and track their opponents.

    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 (NASDAQ:) 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. He stated that Twitter’s ownership will make it more likely that Twitter is used as a surveillance tool and to repress people.

    “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 has not yet responded to an inquiry about its plans regarding Middle Eastern governments’ use of Twitter and how it may protect those who criticize it on social media.

Musk has not yet responded to my request for comment.

Musk has negotiated a purchase deal Twitter Inc (NYSE:) Monday’s transaction will see him take control of social media platforms and make the company a privately-owned 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.


    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 also suggested user-friendly improvements to the service such as an editor button or defeating spam bots that send out unwelcome 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. To limit online expression, they and other Arab countries use cybercrime laws in conjunction with criminal laws.

Egyptian and Saudi Arabian officials did not respond immediately to inquiries about the 2019 and 2020 takedowns or allegations that they use social media platforms to monitor criticisms.

Abdullah Alaoudh is the director of research for the Gulf region of DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now). He knows the implications of Twitter use 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 from Bahrain is an activist currently living in exile in the United States. Her father was sentenced to life for his part in Bahrain’s pro-democracy movements. Maryam Al-Khawaja said Twitter played a significant role during the 2011 revolution.

    But she said it quickly became a site where people were targeted.

“Twitter already had harassment issues and it will continue to escalate.”


Egyptian authorities arrested activists in connection with social media posts. Hossam Bahgat was a human rights defender and was given a 10,000 Egyptian pound fine after accusing Egypt’s election commission 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 have made it on Twitter, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khmenei and lawmakers. Most of them also have multiple accounts in various 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! This was written using 42 proxy sites. Many millions of Iranians do not have the internet. “Can you hear us?” He tweet.

Two weeks later, he was taken into custody. He was again detained by Revolutionary Guards a few months later for criticizing Iran. The Committee to Protect Journalists is an NGO which promotes freedom of expression and protects journalists’ rights.

Iran’s judiciary has not yet responded to queries about this 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 doesn’t matter to them.”