Twitter was amused earlier today by reports of a Saudi Arabian sheikh dooming Twitter users to a loss of "this world and his afterlife." What to an American observer seems like inexplicable hyperbole may actually be an escalation of attempts to crackdown on a key tool for dissent.
Use of the service in Saudi Arabia has grown dramatically over the past year. In July, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo announced that the country was home to the fastest-growing base of Twitter users, up 3000 percent during the month of June. Between the first and second halves of the year, that number increased even more according to a third party service, increasing another 40 percent.
That growth coincided with ongoing protests in the country. Beginning in early 2011 in concert with the Arab Spring protests, sporadic protests continued in Saudi Arabia into 2012. People marched through cities, launched demonstrations at universities, held sit-ins. A number of protestors were killed.
It didn't take long to draw a parallel between the activity on Twitter and in the streets. Last October, The New York Times published an article, "Twitter Gives Saudi Arabia a Revolution of Its Own."
Open criticism of this country’s royal family, once unheard-of, has become commonplace in recent months. Prominent judges and lawyers issue fierce public broadsides about large-scale government corruption and social neglect. Women deride the clerics who limit their freedoms. Even the king has come under attack.
All this dissent is taking place on the same forum: Twitter.
The paper interviewed a number of users in the country who celebrated the tool. "Twitter has revealed a great frustration and a popular refusal of the current situation," one cleric told the paper. Despite "a few ham-handed efforts" to curtail Twitter, it wrote, it was still "a remarkable vista" into life in the country.
Those efforts are becoming less ham-handed. In March, Saudi Arabian authorities announced that they planned to end the practice of allowing users to sign up for Twitter anonymously. Al Jazeera reported on the effort.
"There are people who misuse the social networking and try to send false information and false evaluation of the situation in the kingdom and the way the policemen in the kingdom are dealing with these situations," said Major General Mansour Turki, the security spokesman, at a news conference on Mar 8.
At a separate interview with Reuters this month, Turki argued that a small number of supporters of al Qaeda and activists from Saudi Arabia's Shia minority used social media to stir wider sympathy for their goals and social unrest.
This is a tricky strategy. Writing in The International Herald Tribune, Daniel Nisman, an expert in online security, explored how a crackdown might drive users to other services.
For one of the most Internet-privy societies on the planet, any move to link Twitter accounts with personal ID numbers would result in a mass exodus to other online forums that are not monitored. Saudi Arabia ranks number one in the world for Twitter users per-capita, with an estimated 51 percent of all Saudi Internet users maintaining an account with the social media network. Analysts suggest that any such move would result in a 60 percent reduction of Twitter usage in the country — a true window onto how many Saudis are voicing dissent against their government.
A better strategy, perhaps, in a deeply religious country: imply that the tools are sacrilegious. The recent comments by Sheikh Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh — which focused on social media at large, not just Twitter — weren't the first time a religious leader has spoken out. In April, a government-appointed imam called Twitter a "threat to national unity," as Nisman reports.
For Americans, largely used to dismissing claims that unimportant behaviors might result in eternal damnation, the idea that Twitter would result in such a punishment seems ridiculous. For users in Saudi Arabia, however, it might carry more weight. Not necessarily in a religious sense — but because it serves as a reminder that the government continues to grow more wary of their online activity.
Photo: A protest in Saudi Arabia, 2011. (AP)