Why Elon Musk's Twitter buyout will be bad for democracy in the Middle East

Analysis - Twitter Musk MENA Activism
6 min read
11 May, 2022

In April 2022 Twitter accepted a 44 billion dollar bid from Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, to buy the social media microblogging site Twitter.

Musk’s hyper-libertarian support of freedom of speech prompted fears that Twitter would degenerate further into a toxic, anything-goes playground.

But how social media is used depends on social and political context. Musk’s particular ire of the ‘far left’ is a warning shot to those groups tackling hate speech, disinformation, and persecution.

If anything, the libertarian view espoused by Musk will be worrying for minorities, such as Muslims in Europe and the US, who frequently bear the brunt of the kind of vitriol that many racists roll under the pretext of free speech. 

But it will also be dangerous to the majority world, such as the Middle East, where free speech is a privilege of the power elite and those who agree with them. 

"Social media platforms have been an opportunity for regimes to extend their surveillance and harassment against dissidents"

Musk to the rescue

Twitter in the Middle East needs reform, there’s little doubt about that. 

It has been beset with scandals since the Arab uprisings in 2011. From Egypt to Bahrain, it has been used to hunt down activists and journalists critical of regimes.

Millions of fake accounts and bots spread pro-regime propaganda, harass critics, and make finding legitimate and credible information difficult. 

Some Gulf countries, with their high technological penetration rates, are a particular problem.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are among the biggest abusers of Twitter for propaganda, with one of the highest takedown rates of state-backed influence operations.

Even now, the FBI is pursuing a case against Saudi nationals who infiltrated Twitter’s HQ in San Francisco to send private information, potentially about dissidents, to members of the Royal Family. 

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Given this, many of Musk's proclamations to clean up shop have been very promising. His pledge to get rid of malevolent bots (not all bots are bad), and authenticate all humans are things the platform needs (with plenty of caveats).

He’s also stated he will make Twitter less dependent on advertising, potentially reducing the penchant Twitter shows for the number of users over the quality of users. 

Musk’s ability to ruffle feathers has also convinced some that he is the man for the job. He had a public Twitter spat with one of Twitter’s single shareholders, Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal Al Saud.

His well-publicised hard-nosed negotiations over a potential Tesla deal with Yasir al-Rumayya, managing director of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, also give the impression Musk is the man to take the old authoritarian order to task.

Egypt Tahrir 2011
Social media played a key role in the Arab uprisings of 2011. [Getty]
Too soon to celebrate

However, Musk’s proclamations so far have been riddled with contradictions, which demonstrate a lack of understanding about Twitter in the Middle East, or indeed, outside of North America. 

One of the most profound red flags was Musk's tweet that Twitter will respect the law when it comes to free speech. “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law....If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people,” he wrote on Twitter.

In most Middle East states, there are broad laws that prevent criticism of the regime, as well arbitrary enforcements of laws that actually protect civil liberties. Certainly, these laws have not been created by the ‘will of the people’, even in many of those states that call themselves democracies. 

With little safeguards against protecting free speech or civil liberties, social media platforms have been an opportunity for regimes to extend their surveillance and harassment against dissidents. This has led to what Joey Ayoub has described as Twitter being a ‘direct partner in oppression’. 

"From Egypt to Bahrain, Twitter has been used to hunt down activists and journalists critical of regimes"

This highlights a bigger problem that goes beyond the scope of Musk's proclamations. It’s not just trolls or bots causing the damage in the Middle East, it’s real people, often verified government officials. 

Let’s not forget Saud Al Qahtani, a former Royal Court Minister in Saudi Arabia. He literally used Twitter to launch a witch hunt for those who simply showed sympathy with Qatar during the 2017-21 Gulf crisis. 

His account was eventually suspended for platform manipulation, but only a whole year after his reported role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Indeed, it took a high-profile political murder, and likely political pressure on Twitter, that resulted in this outcome. Remember, this is also a Twitter that Musk criticised for being too censorial. 

Indeed, Musk’s free speech absolutism would have protected Al Qahtani's threats and censorship, at least in theory. After all, he was just using his free speech.

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Towards libertarian dictatorships

Free speech is but a small facet of what might be termed ‘freedom’ and democracy. If digital media is meant to be the new public space, then its growing privatisation is worrying.  From Jeff Bezos, to Zuckerberg, and now Musk, a small group of billionaires continues to monopolise the information space.

As a result, those living in authoritarian regimes must rely on their benevolence and individual ideology to protect those rights, rather than constitutional guarantees.

Behind these individuals, complex funding agreements provide the capital for purchases. In the case of Musk’s Twitter takeover, a number of Middle East-based individuals and investment outfits are providing equity.

This doesn’t guarantee interference, but potentially creates personalistic relationships between the funder and the corporation. Personality relations often equate to influence.   

In many ways Musk is no different from former CEO Jack Dorsey, who was more than happy to meet Mohammed bin Salman, twice - and once even after Twitter was infiltrated by Saudi spies. (It is telling that Al Waleed bin Talal will remain one of Twitter’s largest shareholders). 

"If Musk believes in the will of the people, then it is the people who should have a say in how Twitter is run, not authoritarian governments or private actors"

Indeed, the battle against disinformation and hate speech on social media, that has led to genocide and other communal violence, has been the result of interventions by public officials into the opaque private realm - not the other way around. Even then, such reforms were scarcely felt in the Middle East. 

Twitter, and indeed, most social media companies, share one crucial thing in common, a desire to know more about their subjects. Twitter sells user data for profit, so the more they know, the more they can sell.

Meanwhile, authoritarian regimes want to know more about their subjects in order to ensure they are not engaging in opposition or dissent. This has created a dangerous form of surveillance synergy.

If Musk believes in the will of the people, then it is the people who should have a say in how Twitter is run, not authoritarian governments or private actors.

Without that, Twitter will simply be another US big tech corporation, beholden to its funders, its founders, and blinkered to the interests of the United States, not the majority world. 

Marc Owen Jones is an assistant professor in Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamid bin Khalifa University in Doha, and an honorary research fellow at Exeter University.

Follow him on Twitter: @marcowenjones