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Russ Baker: The Saudis, a Twitter Investment, and the End of the Arab Spring?

February 7, 2012

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

By **Russ Baker**

By arrangement with WhoWhatWhy.com.

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.

If Twitter were to become a powerful tool in the hands of ordinary Saudis, one can pretty quickly figure out the consequences.

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?

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.

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.

________________________________________________________________________

By arrangement with WhoWhatWhy.com.

Russ Baker is an award-winning investigative reporter and the founder and editor-in-chief of WhoWhatWhy.

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