26 October 2016 – Saudi Arabia ranks as among the least free countries in the world, with its political, religious, and social spheres characterized by strict state control. Amidst an oppressive public sphere, many activists have turned to online social media as a way to organize and express themselves. However, the government has moved to exert similar control over social media space. It blocks messaging apps, bans activists from using social media, and uses automated Twitter accounts to daily spam thousands of pro-government and anti-Shia messages into the Twitter-sphere. The Saudi government’s attempt to police the internet and social media sites is representative of the royal family’s effort to suppress dissent, and spread its ideology, thereby creating an obedient society.
The Saudi government exercises control over society through the Ministry of Interior’s secret police and the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. These institutions monitor social spaces like streets, malls, and parks, and enforce the kingdom’s ideology, which includes strict gender segregation, discrimination against religious minorities, and obedience to the ruling family and religious establishment by criminalizing dissent. The royal family’s control and influence over the media ensures the perpetuation of the state’s ideology.
To escape authorities’ control over social space, many activists use social media like blogs, Twitter, and messaging applications. This allows them to organize protests and social gatherings, share ideas, and discuss issues that are otherwise subject to censorship. For examples, Raif Badawi is a well-known activist who created the blog “Saudi Free Liberals Forum” that he used to critique the ruling family and religious establishment. Two women’s rights activists, Maysa al-Amoudi and Loujain al-Hathloul, used Twitter to advocate for allowing women to drive. Shia activists and demonstrators have used social media to circulateimages of protests and resistance to state suppression of minorities.
However, Saudi authorities have recently moved to exert control over social media. The Saudi government has attempted to close access to some social media, such as by blocking the call function in Whatsapp. Courts have banned formerly-imprisoned activists from engaging with social media. The state has also used social media to disseminate pro-government and anti-Shia messages.
Recently, researcher Marc Owen Jones discovered thousands of automated Twitter accounts controlled by unknown entities in Saudi Arabia that generate thousands of tweets per hour glorifying the Saudi government or Saudi foreign policy. The tweets also proliferate sectarian, specifically anti-Shia, propaganda in the region. For example, numerous tweets with Saudi hashtags attack Bahrain’s Shia community, and mention the Bahraini government’s 20 June 2016 denaturalization of Sheikh Isa Qasim, the spiritual leader of Bahraini Shia. The vast number of tweets using this language and these hashtags pollute the information in these hashtags and flush out legitimate tweets, creating a vast discourse of hate and propaganda.
In Saudi Arabia, where public criticism against the government is punished with imprisonment, social media represents a way to escape the confines of strict state control. It is an arena where activists can publish works critical of the government and share images and slogans of dissent and resistance. Yet, it has similarly become a site of pro-government propaganda where a flood of messages promoting Saudi Arabia’s state ideology drowns out legitimate grievances against the government. It has also become a tool with which the Saudi government tracks down and prosecutes dissidents. Saudi Arabia’s efforts to control social media sites represents continued attempts to police the language of its residents and suppress free expression.
Tyler Pry is the Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr Advocacy Fellow at ADHRB