Manal al-Sharif, co-founder and leader of the #Women2Drive movement and founder and CEO of Women2Hack Academy, is author of the memoir “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.”
As a Saudi Arabian woman who has lived most of her life under one of the last surviving absolute monarchies in the world, the closest I have come to experiencing democracy has been in challenging the status quo through my tweets.
For activists and citizen journalists in the Arab world, social media has become a powerful way to express dissent, to disrupt and to organize. Digital activism, however, comes at a high price: The very tools we use for our cause can be — and have been — used to undermine us.
While social media platforms were designed as a way to connect people online, activists used them as technological tools of liberation, devising creative hacks to defy state censorship, connect with like-minded people, mobilize the masses, influence public opinion, push for social change and ignite revolutions. With these opportunities came risks: The more we posted and engaged, the more vulnerable we became, as our aggregated data was weaponized against us. Over time, such data can be used to build an accurate picture not only of users’ preferences, likes and behaviors, but also of their beliefs, political views and intimate personal details; things that even their family and friends may not know about them.
For a fee, social media platforms offer access to users’ information via internally developed analytical tools. I’m not talking about the sale of information to advertising agencies, whose goal is to promote a client’s products. This is annoying, but only minimally harmful. I’m talking about clients with the clear intention of harming and persecuting users: state authorities, intelligence agencies and fundamentalist religious groups.
As more people have joined social media, disrupting the traditional ways that information and content are generated and shared (even though traditional media in the Middle East is largely controlled by governments and a small number of powerful and influential corporations), so too have ill-intentioned groups focused on generating misinformation and spreading hate speech, sectarianism and even terrorism.
The use of social media is more prevalent than ever in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has the largest number of active Twitter users and the largest number of generated tweets across the Middle East and North Africa, according to the 2017 Arab Social Media Report. And according to a report conducted by two Saudi researchers at Rutgers University, more than 40 percent of the 6.3 million Saudis on Twitter in 2016 were women. Many of the accounts were anonymous; users pressed for social change and greater gender equality.
As an influencer in the Saudi Arabian Twittersphere, I don’t have the luxury of hiding behind my anonymity. In late 2017, when we heard rumors that Gulf Cooperation Council governments had decided to use our old tweets to build cases against us, many activists started taking measures to delete them.
Twitter, however, had different ideas. As of February, Twitter has started offering a service that enables people to access archives of its users’ tweets going all the way back to 2006. Anyone can request access to these archives for as cheaply as $99 per month. Access to these archives provides an unprecedented opportunity for surveillance, or “dataveillance,” and intimidation by authoritarian regimes. (Bear in mind that just weeks before the Saudi ban on women drivers was lifted, some of the very women and men who campaigned for it were detained by the government.)
Even the West has had to contend with the aftermath of attacks on the democratic process that employ social media. According to NBC News, Twitter deleted some 200,000 troll tweets in 2018 that had been tracked to a Kremlin-based propaganda machine, which saturated Twitter with false and inflammatory news leading up to the 2016 United States presidential election. Of course, the news came too late.
Trolling and using fake accounts on Twitter are not new tactics. They have even been used against me on a personal level. Attacks on me have ranged from pro-government and fundamentalist groups spreading fake news and rumors about me (I was once reported killed in a car accident, which made international headlines) to the vicious smearing of the #Women2Drive campaign, a right-to-drive movement for women in Saudi Arabia that I co-founded in 2011. Despite the offending accounts being reported countless times, Twitter took no action.
It has been happening on a larger scale, too. In September 2017, during a time of high tension between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the parent company of Snapchat bowed to pressure from government officials and removed the Al Jazeera network, which is funded by Qatar, from its platform in Saudi Arabia.
As the activist and computer engineer Wael Ghonim said: “The Arab Spring revealed social media’s greatest potential, but it also exposed its greatest shortcomings. The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.” While social media was useful in sparking movements demanding political and societal reforms in 2011, we failed to maintain that momentum, in part because the platforms we have been using are ultimately driven by profit.
The time is ripe for disruption of a different sort. People seeking technological liberation are moving toward alternative social media platforms like Crabgrass, Mastodon and Diaspora, which allow social connectivity with an additional layer of privacy and security. We need platforms that are open, decentralized and don’t archive and sell users’ information to the highest bidder. This way, people can participate based on the merits of their content, not on how much they pay for views.
Unless social media giants take real steps toward the fair and safe use of their platforms, we activists will move on to the next best thing — one that allows us to share our dreams without placing us on the auction block.
A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 17, 2018 in The International New York Times.