The Justice Department has just charged two former employees of Twitter with spying for Saudi Arabia. The two appear to have infiltrated the social media giant in an effort to collect personal information on users deemed a threat by the kingdom’s leadership.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
Then remember a moment, not that long ago, when Twitter served as a vital tool to nascent democracy movements and critics of repressive leaders. People around the world – hundreds of millions of us, in fact – came to believe that social media gave us a voice that could be heard by countless others.
The fact that social media has evolved in ways designed to suppress those voices, then, probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. And yet – even now – we can’t help feeling disillusioned. Social media once gave us hope. Perhaps in our idealism we were naive, but surely it wasn’t just a scam.
In 2009, Iranians protesting what appeared to be the fraudulent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used Twitter and Facebook to organize protests and release images of the brutality directed by the state against peaceful demonstrators.
At the request of the U.S. government, Twitter even delayed a site upgrade that would have cut the service for an hour during a critical moment for demonstrators. As the company stated at the time, it recognized “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.”
Two years later, when protests erupted across the Arab Middle East, Twitter again proved to be a vital medium for informing the outside world of the historic shifts taking place in traditionally closed societies.
Even then, though, vetting the authenticity of the information found in tweets purportedly authored in places ranging from Tehran to Tunis was an impossible task. But conventional wisdom at the time declared that the merits of these new online tools outweighed the ways in which they could be misused. Sure, so some of the things we learned from social media turned out to be fake. No big deal, right?
It did not take long for the seasoned tyrants of these countries – the ones that survived, at least – to fight back. When Middle Eastern governments realized that attempting to block access to social media within their borders was a futile pursuit, they began seeking to control the conversations in other ways, concocting imaginary supporters to spread their own lies. The troll armies began their march.
Twitter has become especially toxic in Turkey, India and Saudi Arabia, where strongmen leaders have used it to intimidate and defame their critics. And Iran isn’t far behind. Even though it’s officially banned in the Islamic republic, officials and others are using the platform more and more each day.
The real “endless war” – the fight for and against truth – rages on. Twitter has become its central battlefield.
Collectively, users may ultimately decide that the pros still outweigh the cons, but the reputation of the social media companies has never fallen as far as it has today. They need to take urgent action to regain their lost credibility – otherwise they run the risk of a mass exodus of users.
Remember MySpace? Neither do I.
If real users who provide insights and commentary to organically earned followings – as, for example, Jamal Khashoggi did – can no longer trust Twitter’s ability to protect their private information, then perhaps it’s time to take these conversations elsewhere.
It is unclear whether Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen and one of the two former employees being charged in the case, specifically targeted Khashoggi.
There’s speculation the figure described in the charges as “Twitter User 1,” the “prominent critic” of the Saudi royal family who had more than 1 million followers, is actually another prominent Saudi voice. But the profile is consistent with that of my colleague who was savagely murdered on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Just as chilling, though, is the thought that Mohammed bin Salman might have used his agents to target thousands of dissidents, gathering information that could later be used to similarly extinguish their critical voices. Should all users with a long reach into societies living under repressive leaders expect a similar fate?
Since the murder of Khashoggi, commentators around the world have focused on the lengths to which Mohammed bin Salman is willing to go to stifle dissent – inside the kingdom, beyond its borders and in cyberspace. The evidence of his sociopathy grows by the day. Few outside the ranks of the crown prince’s sympathizers, paid or unpaid, would dispute it.
But that’s not the story here. If a young and relatively inexperienced autocrat would invest in this sort of attack on the privacy of people, many of whom are citizens of countries other than his own, what makes us believe that others aren’t actively engaged in similarly nefarious operations? How can we trust these tech companies to make sure malevolent forces aren’t exploiting our urge to communicate with each other?
If Twitter and other social media empires want to promote and sustain our most vital conversations, this is the question that they need to answer. Honestly.
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