When governments challenge the people: the authoritarian plan of oppression
Inspired by the Arab Spring, Manal al-Sharif used social media to launch and lead movements. In the second of two articles, the Saudi-born cybersecurity expert and human rights activist examines how her home country is using social media to crush dissent. She explains how digital rights and human rights are inextricably linked, and how the absence of the former is the death knell for the latter.
By the 90s, I had become so radicalized that I covered myself from head to toe, burned my brother’s music tapes, believed that non-Muslims were conspiring to pollute my “pure” beliefs, and attempted to broadcast these radical beliefs through the support of cassettes and leaflets. Without the networking power of the internet, I could get my message across to strangers, but only to the extent that I could meet them in person.
When the internet arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1999, my world changed forever. Although heavily censored, the World Wide Web was my first window to the outside world. I managed to find 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. Once again, I was lucky: I was able to use the Internet to escape indoctrination.
Today I no longer use any social media platform and live in self-imposed exile in Australia. Sadly, the Saudi government and other global dictators have mastered the art of behavior manipulation using the same tools we once used to secure release. More worryingly still, I am witnessing the transformation of the world into a global Saudi Arabia, with a state of surveillance, intimidation, disinformation and manipulation facilitated by technological advancements and AI. These unwanted developments proliferate and fester over a shameful lack of proper digital rights and privacy rules.
“What do you know about bees? “
Following the sobering revelation of “Facebook files” that gave us insight into the inner workings of the company, regulators in the United States are taking serious action to circumvent further damage caused by
Facebook and its affiliates (Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus) shouldn’t be the only ones to be regulated and held accountable for the abuse facilitated by loopholes and growth algorithms. Any social media platform with lots of users should be a part of the overhaul, including YouTube, LinkedIn, Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitter.
In Saudi Arabia, one of the last absolute monarchies in the world, Twitter is the most widely used social media platform. Saudi Arabia has a young population and its young people use Twitter as their “virtual parliament” and as a vital source of information. Yet research shows that even for conversations involving millions of tweets, a few hundred or a few thousand influential accounts fuel the discussion.
In October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated for his demands for freedom of expression. Jamal’s main platform was Twitter. He was just one of many Saudi activists who used social media to continue the political conversation sparked by the Arab Spring in late 2010. Before his assassination, Jamal had faced an orchestrated virtual war every time 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.
In 2018, Saudi Arabia had the highest annual growth rate of social media users in the world. Social media users in the kingdom increased by 32% compared to a global average of 13% from January 2017 to January 2018.
Thanks to young Saudi activists such as Omar Abdulaziz, Jamal learned that this “online war” was a construction of state-sponsored trolls and robots, known in Saudi Arabia as “flies”. The flies are controlled by one man, Saud al-Qahtani, advisor to the crown prince, nicknamed by Saudi activists ” Mr Hashtag ” or ” The lord of the flies ”, and one of the main suspects of the assassination of Jamal. He calls his flies “the electronic army”.
When this shocking revelation confronted Jamal, he attempted to help Omar wage a counterwar using the same methods for good. The participants in this counter-war would be known as the “electronic bees”. On Saudi National Day 2018, Jamal tweeted in Arabic: “What do you know about bees?That’s when he crossed the line from talk to action. He was killed 11 days later.
In the weeks following Jamal’s assassination, I witnessed how Twitter trends in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world were effectively controlled by Mr. Hashtag. On October 2, 2018, the day Jamal went missing, Mr. Hashtag and his trolls buried the story by making two unrelated hashtags all the rage in Saudi Arabia. (Note that both are translated from the Arabic hashtag; the Arabic word for beauty is jamal.)
On October 20, 2018, the day Jamal was pronounced dead, the crown prince was the prime suspect, but Twitter trends in Saudi Arabia were unanimous in their praise for him and the Saudi government. They were clearly sponsored by the state. Indeed, declarations of allegiance to the Saudi state were part of the global trends that day, with users pledging in Arabic to say “I am Arab and Mohammed Bin Salman represents me.”
Translation of trends in order:
2 # I_am_Saudi_I_Protège_Saudi
Inspired by the Arab Spring, I have already used social networks to launch and lead movements. In October, however, Twitter became a war zone that was no longer tolerable. Anyone who tried to question the Saudi authorities’ version of the story has been relentlessly threatened, trolled and intimidated. 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 withdrew from all social media platforms after Jamal’s assassination. I wasn’t scared or intimidated, but I knew we had lost the Twitter battle against Mr. Hashtag and his ilk. Now it would be a lost cause to use Twitter to speak out, as our voices would be silenced by lies, harassment and fabricated patriotism.
Given this deeply divided starting point, how can we reinvent the digital world for the better?
The example of Twitter
Since October 2018, Twitter posted analysis on state-linked accounts used for political manipulation in countries like Iran, Cuba, Russia, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The accounts are used for what Twitter calls a “state-backed Twitter information operation.” By October 2019, Twitter has identified 5,929 accounts linked to the Saudi government and made this dataset public. They 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. In doing so, Twitter hopes to highlight the need for transparency “to improve public understanding of inauthentic influencer campaigns,” as they put it in the report.
Twitter reports do not expose details of the loopholes these state-backed accounts exploit or their manipulation techniques. But it is a step towards a more transparent relationship with these platforms, and it should be encouraged and praised. More tech giants can follow Twitter’s lead by releasing similar reports and giving independent researchers access to this data to understand the mess we find ourselves in today.
Too big to control
Over a hundred years ago, Louis Brandeis, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, warned of the dangers of companies outgrowing. He argued that if we fail to develop adequate constraints, companies could achieve a level of quasi-sovereignty, but without the checks and balances for elected political authorities.
This evidence strongly calls for change. He is joined by the thousands of Arab Spring activists who have been betrayed, their revolution stolen from the light; by journalists such as Maria Ressa in the Philippines, who has written for years about how democracies are collapsing around the world, and Khashoggi, who has suffered harassment and intimidation for her courageous work; and by those like me, who live in self-imposed exile following unprecedented harassment and intimidation online. The evidence is overwhelming, and it’s time to step up.
Policymakers, ethical technologists, digital rights groups and internet users around the world must come together and shape ethical practices for technology in pursuit of a human digital world. In this interconnected world, digital rights and human rights are inextricably linked. The absence of the first sounds the death knell for the second.
We have many options for moving forward. On the one hand, we must strive to publish a Global Ethical Tech Index that encourages technologists to put people back at the center of their designs. On the other hand, we must advocate for the adoption of a universal regulation on digital rights and the protection of privacy (called “ethical lobbying”) like the general regulation of the European Union on the protection of privacy. Datas (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Law (CCPA), which will help authorities demand checks and balances and independent researchers to sound the alarm bells on abuse. Along with this, we need to educate the general public about persuasion technology, behavioral communication, and how large-scale personal data mining can be used to shape our worldview. These examples are just three of many.
While freedom of expression is the foundation of all other freedoms, only a secure and transparent digital world can ensure that this fundamental right remains protected. These efforts will not be easy, but the alternative is unthinkable and will be felt by all.