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CLOSE READING: The Saudis, a Twitter Investment, and the End of Arab Spring?

Is Twitter (a) a leading vehicle for freedom movements, or (b) primed to control and shut down open discourse throughout the world?

This question emerged recently when we learned that the global messaging service was planning to abide by the rules of each country in terms of content it carries. Here’s New York Times:

This week, in a sort of coming-of-age moment, Twitter announced that upon request, it would block certain messages in countries where they were deemed illegal. The move immediately prompted outcry, argument and even calls for a boycott from some users.

Twitter said it would also “give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.””

Now, you may be one of those people who very proudly have not incorporated Twitter into your life, but this development is still of enormous relevance to you and your world. Why? Simply because Twitter, with its declared 175 million registered users (many of whom, it must be said, are inactive) has become one of the most powerful forces in communication today, arguably more relevant to more people than even traditional heavyweights like The New York Times, CNN, and the BBC.

That’s why we at WhoWhatWhy use Twitter as one of our basket of social media tools. It allows individuals and groups to communicate directly with other individuals, in groups, on an instantaneous basis. As such, it was a vital tool for activists in Egypt and elsewhere (including the Occupy Movement in the United States) to quickly mobilize and have an impact.

Thus, Twitter is viewed as a tremendous opportunity by those who seek to regain the upper hand from the small elites that dominate the political and economic systems throughout most if not all of the world. To those elites, however, Twitter spells doom.

Unless they can neutralize it.

***

Enter the Saudi royal family.

The Saudi royal family has been very, very lucky. So far, none of the ferment in the rest of the world has yet manifested itself on their home turf to the extent to which this dictatorial, brutal, Western-backed extended clan has an immediate crisis. A modest but significant uprising in their own country was dutifully ignored by the Western media, including the vaunted “alternative press.” Demonstrated connections to the 9/11 hijackers, arguably the biggest story in the world on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, were again studiously ignored by the Western media, again including the “alternative press.”

So the Saudi One Percent have it pretty good. Except for Twitter. If Twitter were to become a powerful tool in the hands of ordinary Saudis, one can pretty quickly figure out the consequences. The royal family would have to scramble to their villas in the South of France or their Park Avenue aeries.

***

With this background, it was interesting to note the news item that Saudi prince Walid bin Talal had invested $300 million in Twitter. Twitter, which is privately held, willingly chose to sell him this substantial stake.

Twitter’s market valuation is something like $10 billion (choose what huge number you prefer.) Given that, why would this company, which is all about empowering ordinary people to communicate unfiltered and thereby get control of their lives and their governments, sell a big chunk to a representative of one of the quintessential repressive forces—an element that has a stake in preventing exactly the sort of communication that defines Twitter?

The very, very little media interest in this development is yet another sign of the degradation of journalistic inquiry—which in turn surely has to do with exactly these kinds of problematical investments.

When the New York Times covered the Saudi Twitter investment back in December, it wrote:

While Prince Walid is known as an outspoken investor, few expect the Saudi royal to use his minority stake to influence the company’s politics. His wife seemed to back that sentiment on Monday, rebroadcasting messages from other Twitter users that described the deal as a financial — and not political — transaction.

“This seems to be more about good business,” said Michael Gartenberg, a Gartner analyst. “Clearly, he believes that Twitter is not a passing fad but a cornerstone of the consumer social network experience.”

Ayayay. This is a royal family dangling by threads, and they have no reason to want to control the very instrument that could see them overthrown? Well, it didn’t take very long for the other shoe to drop, did it?

In its recent article about the new Twitter restrictions, the Times did briefly visit both the Twitter restriction announcement and the Saudi investment, but chose to bury near the end of the article what matters most, and to water it down to “nothing here, folks”:

Critics on Twitter surmised that the company had been pressed to adopt country-specific censorship after a major investment by a Saudi prince, a theory that Mr. Macgillivray quickly dismissed.

You have to go back to near the top of the article to find out that Mr. Macgillivray is not some knowledgeable and independent expert, but “the general counsel at Twitter.” Exactly the guy who would rough the Times up if it published something Twitter did not like. ( I mean, at least re-identify the guy together with the denial!)

An opportunity to ask why Twitter chose a Saudi royal out of all the prospective investors was squandered. Good reporting—remember that?—would start with finding out if Twitter had no choice but to hold its nose and take this tainted money. (It’s true that Twitter is not the company with the informal motto “Don’t be evil,” but it does like to make itself out to be a good citizen.)

The Times’s weak-kneed approach to this potentially earth-rattling development can be explained. The paper made its own peace with another foreign source of funding—the Mexican billionaire (and possibly world’s richest person) Carlos Slim Helu, who made a good part of his fortune by swooping in on cheap pickings during Mexico’s economic crash in the early 80s. Slim now controls about seven percent of the Times. Just as there’s precious little hard-hitting reporting in the Times on Slim, we assume that Prince Walid’s investment in Twitter has not come without a price.

And the fact that Twitter made its announcement on a Friday, traditionally when folks are paying the least attention, is telling. Clearly, Twitter knew it was a problematical stance. But it has been extraordinarily lucky in how the world’s corporate media have played along.

***

Some commentators have dismissed any criticism of Twitter’s move, saying it was simply a sign of the young tech company’s maturation.

Well, sure, Twitter is a business, and needs to do whatever it can to have good business relationships in every country. But since so many countries are dominated by—and laws written to favor—small elites, the very fact of “country by country compliance” by default compromises the essential value of Twitter’s service.

In a world more wary than ever of the uses of money to thwart democracy and threaten freedom, outfits like Twitter need to be subject of the same scrutiny as, say, the Koch Brothers or the Burmese government.

The bottom line—and one that we trumpet regularly at WhoWhatWhy (which is itself a nonprofit)—is that the most essential elements of democracy, including education and information dispersal, should not be left only or even primarily in the hands of institutions out for a profit.

Tennis shoes, frozen yogurt, even air travel, ok. But when our ability to safeguard or increase our freedoms is dependent on people taking money from tyrants who wish to suppress speech, we’ve got a problem. If any elements with a philanthropic bent, nonprofit orientation and the requisite technical skills and resources would like to discuss an alternative to Twitter, we would certainly be interested.

In the meantime, please, Twitter, don’t cancel our account. Thank you.

 

WhoWhatWhy plans to continue doing this kind of groundbreaking original reporting. You can count on it. But can we count on you? We cannot do our work without your support.

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GRAPHIC: http://siliconangle.com/files/2012/01/twitter-censored.jpg


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  • Carl

    I just deactivated my Twitter account. Thanks, Russ!

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  • Mcdonagh4

    great article. i thought only rich people “1%rs” use twitter anyway driven by their need to be in charge 24 hrs. a day the linking of internet usage to food riots around the world is a bit of a capitalist wet dream. everyone does not need a shiny eletronic gizmo to resist tyrants.

  • Keith

    Parallel conversations from Dave Emory on Saudi tech investors…

    http://spitfirelist.com/news/update-on-prince-alwaleed-muslim-brotherhoods-tech-investor/

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IXY6JRV7DTKNGEJC4L6HRTBWEA Mike R

    It was years ago when I wrote a column entitled “The Mid East Conflict.” It recounted a history of the region and had a specific portion devoted to the Saudi family.They are the luckiest guys in the world because it was only in the 50’s when they found that they were standing on nough oil that would last at least decades and they could live in opulence and luxury, both bordering on obscenity. The Saudi family was in power and realized they had a major problem within their own borders: a growing population living in poverty mostly living in a fanatic religious haze. The religion in Saudi Arabia is that of the Wahabbi sect, recognized as both the most extreme and most fanatic.
    The Saudi family sat down with the Wahabbi Imams and worked out a deal benefitting each side. The Wahabbis would be in charge of the country’s religious laws and the school education as well as all domestic law. The dealnwas that the Saudi family would be in power and be the power in the country. For enough money the Wahabbis sold out as they were told “and don’t bother us with all this stuff as we are religious enough.” Thus we watched a Saudi Arabia where women are treated similarly to cattle, where hands are cut off for stealing, where women are stoned for adultery or even just the accusation of adultery. We also watched their wealth grow immensely while the Royal family (one of the largest in the world) cavorted around the globe and visiting casino after casino. At the same time young Saudis were attending madrasses (schools) where all they were taught was the Koran and a hatred for Israel and the United States.

    This is our ally right? My stomach almost hurled everytime I saw that famous photo of President George W Bush walking the White House lawn while holding hands with the Saudi King.

  • Lance Erikson

    This (once again) is a neat post—that’s bogged down in pointless griping about the New York Times and grandstanding about what WhoWhatWhy is all about.

    We all get it: they suck, Bill Keller is an idiot and the son of a Chevron CEO, and his replacement is maybe only marginally better.

    I’d love for this site to spend more time “digging deep” into something other than it’s own self-reflexivity.

    • John Loftus

      You do not get it.  Russ has to be his own champion, because no one else is.  If you want him to dig deeper, try digging deeper into your own pockets and make a donation. 

      • slowriøt

        are you john loftus the author? if so, thank you so much for your work. man… you and russ have given the world such amazing stuff. thanks guys. 

        • John Loftus

          you are welcome.

        • Grumpusrex

          I second that praise. 

        • Adam

          ukr.net fff

    • John Loftus

      You do not get it.  Russ has to be his own champion, because no one else is.  If you want him to dig deeper, try digging deeper into your own pockets and make a donation. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Oso-Xiong-McBear/779968688 Oso Xiong McBear

    we should all be migrating towards open source peer to peer tools like diaspora and yacy.  Twitter has been great for resistance movements because people can communicate via mobile devices… unfortunately, as  most of the mobile devices themselves are controlled by the same billion dollar corporations that bought off the politicians.  If we are to have free speech, then our communications technology must be completely decentralized and peer operated.

    • Anonymous

      Exactly. It’s time to nip this bit of censorship in the bud.

    • Adam

      we should all be migrating towards open source peer to peer tools like diaspora and yacy.
      +100500

      http://www.plagiarismdetect.com

  • nicnsaudi

    twitter is a proven stratigic tool in the overthrow of governments in the middle east. governments worldwide have taken notice,and are reacting to the threat[just take alook at whats going on here in the united states]  by implementing control over any form of these threats.the suadi king is merely responding to recent unrest by dispatching a royal prince to solve one aspect of the problem-go purchase a switch for twitter,one that has a suppress mode,delete function,and on/off for when times get tough.then put a vaneer of “its a good investment” on it for  worldly pr… because it really is. dont worry russ, a company that beds up with the saudi king is not going to give you a pink slip

  • nicnsaudi

    twitter is a proven stratigic tool in the overthrow of governments in the middle east. governments worldwide have taken notice,and are reacting to the threat[just take alook at whats going on here in the united states]  by implementing control over any form of these threats.the suadi king is merely responding to recent unrest by dispatching a royal prince to solve one aspect of the problem-go purchase a switch for twitter,one that has a suppress mode,delete function,and on/off for when times get tough.then put a vaneer of “its a good investment” on it for  worldly pr… because it really is. dont worry russ, a company that beds up with the saudi king is not going to give you a pink slip

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QEJXBG2FNYSXRK73QIOP5NEZWE DanM

    I find it interesting that, even on the vaunted Googel(sic), a search for ‘latest developments world unrest’ brings up articles from as recently as 2,3, 5 months ago.  Apalling.  I am not a tweeter twit, but as I understand, it is still fairly up to the minute; not for long, I wager.

  • Russ Baker

    A few corrections. Technically, Twitter did not sell shares to Prince Walid. Insiders did. Though that’s a fine line–plus, they couldn’t have done so without Twitter’s concurrence. Also, Twitter posted its controversial announcement, couched in the most bland way, on its website, with no fanfare, on Thursday, prompting coverage on Friday–a day to bury news.

  • Edward Rynearson

    Prince Walid also owns half of fox news (or did at one time).  

    • Edward Rynearson

      the Prince is clearly is part of the western financial empire

  • Anonymous

    For more information about the Prince: 

    Part One
    http://goo.gl/AvWI1

    Part Two
    http://goo.gl/tbiWt

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  • Anonymous

    Twitter…..like birds. Stupid name! Silly site! Girly chit chat.

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