CRF Blog

How Despots Use Twitter to Hunt Dissidents

by Bill Hayes

In a feature story, Bloomberg Businessweek reveals How Despots Use Twitter to Hunt Dissidents.

Nowhere was the promise of Twitter more fully realized than in Saudi Arabia, where the service was embraced as a way to get around government censors. “People do not trust the official media,” says Hala Aldosari, a Saudi scientist who started tweeting in 2010 about such taboo topics as the kingdom’s guardianship laws, which prevent women from traveling or marrying without a man’s permission. A 2013 study found that 1 in 3 Saudi internet users was active on Twitter, the highest market share in any country. (In the U.S., it’s 1 in 5.) “The only way for us to discuss these issues is through social networks like Twitter,” Aldosari says. “It allows us to create groups of like-minded people.”

But if Twitter provides a rare outlet for criticism of repressive regimes, it’s also useful to those regimes for tracking down and punishing critics. In September 2012 a Saudi Twitter user named Bader Thawab was arrested for tweeting “down with the House of Saud.” In March 2014 an eight-year prison sentence was upheld for a Saudi man who’d mocked the king and religious officials on Twitter and YouTube. The following May, a Saudi man in a wheelchair named Dolan bin Bakheet was sentenced to 18 months in prison and 100 lashes for using Twitter to complain about his medical care. In all, there have been dozens of Twitter-related prosecutions in Saudi Arabia, according to Human Rights Watch.

Twitter is still popular in the kingdom — the service has added 200,000 active users there since 2014, according to the Arab Social Media Report — but it no longer hosts much dissent. Activists are careful to tweet in coded language, if they tweet at all. “People don’t openly discuss important things on Twitter anymore,” says Ali Adubisi, a Saudi human-rights activist. “Twitter is totally different, totally silent, totally weak.”

Critiques about the dark side of Twitter have been around almost since its founding in 2006. [more]