Middle East Twitter Users Debate Elon Musk’s Purchase of the Platform
Elon Musk’s Twitter account is displayed on an iPhone, April 26, 2022 in Paris, France. (Chesnot/Getty Images)

Middle East Twitter Users Debate Elon Musk’s Purchase of the Platform

Musk says he plans to make the social media platform a bastion of free speech, something that is not a given in some countries in the region

Trending on Twitter today is: #elonmuskbuystwitter.

“Biggest free speech win of most of our lives,” Travis Clay, an American-based Twitter influencer, lawyer and TV reporter, tweeted.

Other users wonder if Musk’s proposed cash purchase of Twitter will realistically open the platform to less-regulated speech. Many of the tweets critical of the sale came from the Middle East, where freedom of speech is not written into the constitutions of many countries in the region, as it is in the US, Japan, and India, which together account for a majority of Twitter users.

The Twitter board on Monday unanimously approved an agreement to sell its social media platform to Musk for $44 billion, or $54.20 per share, the company announced in a statement. The deal still requires the approval of shareholders. Prior to his bid to buy Twitter, Musk disclosed that he holds a 9% stake in the company. The sale is expected to go through sometime this year. Musk is also the CEO of Tesla Motors, though Tesla has no role in his purchase of Twitter.

Musk has said he wants to take Twitter private and make it a platform for free speech; he also has said that Twitter’s content moderators intervene too much on the platform.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in the statement. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”

Egypt has a history of using social media as a conduit for control, Hussein Baoumi, an Egypt and Libya researcher for Amnesty International, told The Media Line.

With the rise of social media monitoring in Egypt, government ministries and public prosecutors now have their own mechanisms for tracking activity on the platform. Baoumi explains that numerous cases have been documented of arrests made based on social media content. Social media is used to control women, he said, and to control religion, culture, and politics.

Other countries, such as Iran and Turkmenistan, already have Twitter on their ban list.

Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, CEO and 95% owner of the Kingdom Holding Company, who owns a more than 5% share in Twitter, in a tweet rejected Musk’s offer to purchase the platform.

“Being one of the largest & long-term shareholders of Twitter, @Kingdom_KHC & I reject this offer,” he tweeted on April 14, more than a week before the Twitter board approved the sale.

Musk tweeted a reply to Talal asking about the kingdom’s views on journalistic freedom of speech.

Ouissal Harize, a verified Twitter user, told The Media Line that she does not have a preference about who owns Twitter. Harize says she believes that her personal experience with Twitter will not change based on its ownership, and she has no problem with Musk buying it.

Still, Harize questions the future of free speech on the platform. “As long as it remains safe and unbiased, I do not care about who owns it,” she said.

As expected, banter and memes also are circulating on the soon-to-be privately owned platform.

Verified user Khaled Beydoun tweeted: “Tweets may now take months to deliver after Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter.” Beydoun, a law professor at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville School of Law and senior affiliated faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, was referring to the long wait many people who want to purchase a Tesla vehicle are experiencing.

Verified Twitter user Eyad Al Hmoud, a Saudi social media influencer with 4.6 million followers, ran a poll on his page. The poll was open for two hours and had a total of 44,673 votes. Followers were asked if they thought Twitter would be a better place since Musk’s purchase: 37.7% voted yes, 35.7% voted no, and 26.6% said they didn’t know.

Gilad Zwick, a verified Twitter user and a journalist for Israel’s Channel 14, noted that Musk was “one of the harshest critics of the censorship culture that has taken over Twitter” and expressed support for the purchase, saying that “If he succeeds, Musk will be a champion of freedom of expression.”

But Marwa Fatafta, a verified user in Ramallah who calls herself a “Palestinian feminist” on her Twitter bio, responded to news of Twitter’s purchase in a tweet that said she believes “free speech” on social media has historically been defined by white men. Fatafta believes that this is not a win “for marginalized and oppressed voices.”

Sufian Al-Samarrai, a verified user who heads the online Baghdad Post, suggested that a political bias informed what was permitted on Twitter and that some felt threatened by changes Musk could bring to the platform, tweeting, “During Trump’s term, there were no left-wing celebrities and politicians who did not curse or insult him, and Twitter did not block their accounts. … Under each tweet, they [Twitter] wrote freedom of expression. Today they refuse these freedoms for fear of the reactions of billions of peoples of the world who were not allowed to express themselves.”

Reviews appeared to be mixed in the Middle East region, with some Twitter influencers congratulating Musk on his success, some speaking against it, and others questioning what the transfer of power really means for them, or if anything will change in their daily use of the platform.

Crystal Dunlap is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.

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