Turning social media on society

Inspired by the Arab Spring, Manal al-Sharif used social media to start and lead movements. In the second of two articles, the Saudi-born cybersecurity expert and human rights activist examines how her home country uses social media to crush dissent. She explains how digital rights and human rights are inextricably intertwined, and how the absence of the former is the death knell of the latter.

29 November 2021 | Manal al-Sharif, MW Media (Image: Alex Perez)

When the internet arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1999, my world was changed forever. Though heavily censored, the World Wide Web was my first window to the outside world. I managed to hack my way to enlightenment and launched a career in cybersecurity. Ten years later, I joined the Arab Spring movement, using social media platforms to advocate for women’s rights in the world’s most patriarchal society. Again, I was lucky: I was able to use the Internet to escape indoctrination.

Today, I no longer use any social media platforms and live in self-imposed exile in Australia. Unfortunately, the Saudi government and other global dictators have mastered the craft of behaviour manipulation using the same tools we once used to gain liberation. Even more worryingly, I am witnessing the transformation of the world into a global Saudi Arabia, with a state of surveillance, intimidation, misinformation, and manipulation facilitated by technological advancements and AI. These undesirable developments proliferate and fester thanks to a shameful lack of proper digital rights and privacy regulations.

“What do you know about the bees?”

Following the sobering revelation of the “Facebook Files” that gave us a look in the company’s inner workings, regulators in the US are taking serious steps to circumvent more harm.

Facebook and its affiliates (Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus) should not be the only ones to be regulated and held accountable for the abuses facilitated by loopholes and growth algorithms. Any social media platform with many users should be part of the overhaul, including YouTube, LinkedIn, Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter.

In Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s last absolute monarchies, Twitter is the most-used social media platform. Saudi Arabia has a young population, and its youth use Twitter as their ‘‘virtual parliament’’ and as a critical source of information. Yet research shows that even for conversations involving millions of tweets, a few hundred or a few thousand influential accounts drive the discussion.

In October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated for his demands for freedom of speech. Jamal’s main platform was Twitter. He was just one of many Saudi activists who used social media to continue the political conversation ignited by the Arab Spring at the end of 2010. Before his assassination, Jamal had faced an orchestrated virtual war whenever he tweeted: intimidation, harassment, defamation, and the deliberate burying of his tweets. He even received news of his death on Twitter on the day of his assassination.

By 2018, Saudi Arabia had the highest annual growth rate of social media users anywhere in the world. Social media users in the kingdom grew by 32% versus a worldwide average of 13% from January 2017 to January 2018.

Thanks to young Saudi activists such as Omar Abdulaziz, Jamal learnt that this ‘‘online war’’ was a construct of state-sponsored trolls and bots, known in Saudi as ‘‘flies’’. The flies are controlled by a single man, Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s adviser, dubbed by Saudi activists as ‘‘Mr Hashtag’’ or ‘‘The Lord of the Flies’’, and one of the primary suspects in Jamal’s assassination. He refers to his flies as ”the electronic army”.

When this shocking revelation confronted Jamal, he attempted to help Omar wage a counter-war using the same methods for good. The participants in this counter-war would be known as the ‘‘electronic bees’’. On the Saudi National Day in 2018, Jamal tweeted in Arabic: “What do you know about the bees?” This was when he crossed the line from talk to action. He was killed 11 days later.

In the weeks that followed Jamal’s assassination, I witnessed first-hand how Twitter trends in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world were indeed controlled by Mr Hashtag. On October 2, 2018, the day of Jamal’s disappearance, Mr Hashtag and his trolls buried the story by getting two unrelated hashtags to trend in Saudi Arabia. (Note that both are translated from the Arabic hashtag; the Arabic word for beauty is jamal.)

#Kidnapping_an_Ant_and_a_Cockroach #Kidnapping_Soul_Beauty. Trending Twitter topics in Saudi Arabia on October 2, 2018, the day of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.

On October 20, 2018, the day Jamal was pronounced dead, the crown prince was the primary suspect, yet Twitter trends in Saudi were unanimous in their praise of him and the Saudi government. They were clearly state-sponsored. Indeed, statements declaring allegiance to the Saudi state were among the global trends that day, with users pledging in Arabic that “I am Arab and Mohammed Bin Salman represents me.”

Top global Twitter trend on Oct 20, 2018 was “I am Arab and Mohammed Bin Salman represents me.”
A screenshot of the local Twitter trends in Saudi Arabia on Oct 20, 2018

Translation of trends in order:

1 #Kingdom_of_Justice

2 #I_am_Saudi_I_Protect_Saudi

3 #How_Many_Lovers_You_Have

4 #We_Renew_Allegiance_to_King_Salman_and_Mohammed

Inspired by the Arab Spring, I once used social media to start and lead movements. That October, however, Twitter became a war zone that was no longer tolerable. Anyone attempting to question the Saudi authorities’ version of the story was relentlessly threatened, trolled and bullied. Eventually, many deleted their accounts or were arrested for their tweets and sent to jail, while some disappeared and remain lost to their families to this day.

I was one of those who retreated off all social media platforms following Jamal’s assassination. I wasn’t scared or intimidated, but I knew we had lost the battle for Twitter to Mr Hashtag and his ilk. Henceforth, it would be a lost cause to use Twitter to speak up, for our voices would be silenced with lies, harassment, and manufactured patriotism.

Given this deeply divided starting point, how do we reinvent the digital world for the better?

Twitter’s Example

Since October 2018, Twitter has been releasing analysis on the state-linked accounts used for political manipulation in countries such as Iran, Cuba, Russia, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The accounts are used for what Twitter calls a “state-backed information operations on Twitter.” By October 2019, Twitter identified 5,929 accounts linked to the Saudi government and released that data set to the publicThey also suspended the account of Saudi al-Qahtani, aka Mr. Hashtag.

Twitter has disclosed 85,640 accounts linked to state-backed information operations to date. By doing so, Twitter hopes to emphasise the need for transparency “to improve public understanding of inauthentic influence campaigns” as they state in the report.

Twitter’s reports don’t expose the details of what loopholes these state-backed accounts are exploiting or their techniques for manipulation. But it’s a step towards a more transparent relationship with these platforms, and it should be encouraged and praised. More tech giants can follow Twitter’s example by publishing similar reports and giving independent researchers access to such data to understand the mess we are in today.

Too Big To Control

More than a hundred years ago, Louis Brandeis, an American Supreme Court Justice, warned about the dangers of corporations becoming too big. He argued that if we fail to develop adequate constraints, businesses could achieve a level of near-sovereignty, but without the checks and balances for elected political authorities.

This evidence calls loudly for change. It is joined by the thousands of Arab Spring activists who were betrayed, their revolution stolen in broad daylight; by journalists such as Maria Ressa in the Philippines, who has written for years on how democracies are crumbling around the world, and Khashoggi, who endured harassment and intimidation for his courageous work; and by those like me, who are living under self-imposed exile following unprecedented harassment and intimidation online. The evidence is deafening, and it’s time to step up.

Policymakers, ethical technologists, digital rights groups, and netizens worldwide must come together and shape ethical practices for tech in pursuit of a humane digital world. In this interconnected world, digital rights and human rights are inextricably intertwined. The absence of the former is the death knell of the latter.

We have numerous options to move forward. For one thing, we must strive for the publication of a Global Ethical Tech Index that encourages technologists to put humans back at the centre of their designs. For another, we must advocate for the adoption of universal regulations on digital rights and privacy protection (so-called ‘ethical lobbying’) following the example of the European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act  (CCPA), which will help authorities to demand checks and balances and independent researchers to sound the alarm on abuse. Alongside this, we must educate the general public on persuasive technology, behaviour communication, and how large-scale mining of personal data can be used to shape our views of the world. These examples are just three of many.

If the freedom of speech is the thing upon which all other freedoms are predicated, only a safe and transparent digital world can ensure that this fundamental right remains protected. These endeavours will not be easy, but the alternative is unthinkable and will be felt by all.

Manal al-Sharif is a women’s rights activist, author, speaker, and a cyber security expert. She was named one of the top 10 world’s digital revolutionaries by Newsweek and one of the top 100 women in tech by Forbes. She writes for the NY Times and the Washington Post. Her Amazon bestseller memoir, Daring to Drive: a Saudi Woman’s Awakening, tells her story of leading the Women’s Right to Drive movement in her home country, Saudi Arabia. This article was published at Michael West Media.