In June 2021, Alita, a trans woman living in Saudi Arabia, saw a hashtag trending on Twitter that translated roughly to “a space for hatred of religion.” In a Twitter Spaces audio room days earlier, Alita, who asked Rest of World to use her screen name for her safety, had spoken frankly about atheism and her decision to leave Islam. A recording of the conversation started circulating on Twitter and the backlash was swift, resulting in the trending hashtag. In the days that followed, she received transphobic comments, death threats, and calls that she be arrested by Saudi authorities for what she had said. Apostasy — abandoning your religion — is punishable by death in the country, and atheists have been labeled terrorists by the government.
“If it was up to them, the government would have arrested and prosecuted me by now. But thank goodness that my information is private and I’m not known everywhere by my real identity. That’s why I’m still safe,” Alita told Rest of World in a private Twitter Spaces room. She requested to speak there, rather than on encrypted messaging apps, because she said it’s where she feels safest sharing her experiences.
Twitter Spaces, a live audio discussion feature, launched on the platform in November 2020, and has since become a venue for LGBTQIA users across the Gulf States and their diaspora to gather. Participants regularly host discussions about stigmatized topics such as sex education, gender identity, conversion therapy, suicide, atheism, and chosen families. Many take part anonymously, using “alts,” or second accounts with avatars as their display picture. Other speakers use voice distortion tools. Alita continues to be active in these spaces, despite the harassment she’s experienced, and distorts any photos of her face she posts on Twitter so she can’t be identified.
The announcement in late April that Tesla and PayPal founder Elon Musk is to buy Twitter for $44 billion has created concerns that the anonymity that people like Alita rely on could be under threat. In a series of posts on Twitter about his plans for the company, Musk has said he wants to “authenticate all real humans” as a way to address the problem of bots and abuse on the platform. It isn’t yet clear how the company would achieve that, but even if it doesn’t move to a policy more like Facebook, which requires users to register with their “real” names, collecting more data on users comes with risks. Musk has also said that he expects Twitter to comply with local laws in all of the countries it operates in, opening up the possibility that governments could demand to see user information, exposing people like Alita to criminal prosecution or harassment. That would be potentially devastating for free expression in places — from Saudi Arabia to Myanmar to Colombia — where Twitter has become an important space for activists, political opposition, and marginalized communities. Experts warned that any approach to authenticate users has to protect users who need anonymity.
“Anonymity provides a sort of basic protection for individuals who are engaging in online space in authoritarian or repressive, or even socially difficult, situations,” said David Kaye, a clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, and the former U.N. special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. “Free speech includes anonymous speech. Do you plan to undermine anonymity and change the [rule of ]anonymous accounts that has been a signature feature of Twitter?”
The user behind the Twitter account “Burmese Beast,” a Myanmar national living abroad, only joined the platform in February 2021, after the Myanmar military seized power in a coup. Although Facebook has long been the dominant social media in Myanmar, Burmese Beast joined a flood of new Twitter users from the country. “I wanted to know what was going on and I wanted to join the millions of voices which were taking part in the revolution,” Burmese Beast, who requested their gender and location not be revealed due to safety concerns, told Rest of World.
Shortly after joining Twitter, Burmese Beast began using the platform to raise funds, initially to support striking civil servants who had joined the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement, and later to support the armed revolution against the junta. With just under 3,900 followers, Burmese Beast estimates they have raised about $60,000 for the anti-coup movement, mostly by selling made-to-order portraits and illustrations; in March, they designed a pair of sneakers for the NBA basketball player and outspoken human rights activist Enes Kanter Freedom.
They have to carefully guard their identity. “No one knows, not even my parents know what I do or who I am on Twitter, and I also deleted everything that could be traced back to me,” they said.
The military junta has repeatedly arrested the family members and close contacts of dissidents in order to pressure them to turn themselves in for arrest. “Not being able to remain anonymous would immediately have an impact on my safety,” Burmese Beast said. “Doing all of this fundraising work, even focusing on humanitarian aid, is considered a bad thing by the military, so if they find out who I am, I think that would be devastating.”
The junta has used Facebook to hunt down anti-coup dissidents, and in recent months, arrested dozens of people after their personal details were shared over pro-military channels on Telegram, according to digital rights activists. The user behind the Burma Revolution Twitter account, a student in Myanmar, said that he prefers using Twitter than these applications, but still had doubts about his online security on the platform — in part because he had to provide his phone number to create his account.
“I don’t feel very safe us[ing] Twitter, even now,” he said. “Nothing has happened to me yet, because I have been very careful while using Twitter. If Elon Musk really implemented verifying users’ identities, it would be much more dangerous.”
Khin, a digital safety trainer and activist from Myanmar, who requested to be identified by a shortened version of her name for security reasons, said she was “terrified” by Musk’s statement that he sees free speech as being “which matches the law,” which demonstrates a lack of understanding of the legal environment in countries like Myanmar. “If we look at Myanmar and other countries in our region… People do not agree with the law. The law just exists to oppress the people,” she said.
Ultimately, the impact of Musk’s desire to “authenticate” Twitter’s users will depend on exactly how it is implemented, and on what basis the decisions are made.
While Facebook has taken a “real-name” approach, and its algorithms flag users who appear to be using pseudonyms, other platforms allow users to have a pseudonym but require official documentation to verify their identity. Users would have to trust that Twitter would protect any information they might be asked to provide. “What happens when governments seek that user data? All of those kinds of issues instantly create pressure on anonymity, whether that was [Musk’s] initial intention or not,” Kaye, the former special rapporteur, said.
Kaye said that if Musk wants to deal with Twitter’s bot problem, he should focus on behavior, rather than identity. “If you start to do it from the perspective of behavior, you get at spam, you get at bots, you get at the creation of accounts that are used for purposes of harassment and disinformation, without getting at who’s the underlying person.”
Activists and free speech advocates in several countries suggested that Musk needs a more nuanced understanding of what free speech is, and needs to be transparent about how authentication decisions will be made.
“I think that in general [authentication] is a worrying change, above all, because of those who exercise these controls, [and] because we still do not know the barometers of objectivity of these processes or what are the criteria to verify an account,” Alejandro Lanz, co-director of Colombian human rights nongovernmental organization Temblores, told Rest of World. “So, I think that does give a lot of room for arbitrariness and for many accounts that do clandestine activism to be censored.”
Colombia also has a political protest movement that relies on anonymity for the safety of its members. The Escudos Azules or “Blue Shields” have staged several high-profile, and often controversial protests, including interrupting mass and dying the water fountain red outside of the headquarters of media giant Semana, accusing the company of failing to accurately cover violence against protesters in 2021. In March of this year, Semana claimed in an article to have access to a police report linking the Escudos Azules to the National Liberation Army or ELN, a communist guerrilla group that has been fighting the state since the 1960s — a common tactic in Colombia to stigmatize protesters.
Members of Escudos Azules cover their faces to mask their identities and go by aliases. A member of the group who goes by the name Amok told Rest of World that the face coverings are to protect themselves and their families from persecution, but are also meant to symbolize that their struggle is bigger than the individuals who make up the group. They take the same approach on Twitter, not revealing their identities to their more than 21,000 Twitter followers.
Amok had both ideological and practical objections to the idea of authentication. Authenticating all accounts on Twitter would threaten “the symbology of a collective and non-personalized struggle,” he said. Being unmasked carries the threat of being “located, threatened, profiled, stigmatized, and, as happens in Colombia… murdered and disappeared for thinking differently,” he added.
Amok said that if Twitter’s rules change, Escudos Azules would continue their struggle on other platforms.
“Maybe we’ll do better on TikTok,” he said.
Forcing authentication on individuals, even with guarantees that their identity will be protected, is likely to undermine trust in the platform.
“If I hosted a Twitter Space, out of a hundred, maybe two or three people are joining with their real identity,” said Wajeeh Lion, who is openly gay and from Saudi Arabia, but now lives under political asylum in the United States. Lion hosts near-daily Twitter Spaces for other LGBTQIA Arabs. “They’re either going to go underground or look for other avenues to use social media.”
LGBTQIA users in the Middle East have good reason to fear losing their anonymity. In October 2019, the gay social media personality Suhail al-Jameel was detained under a public decency law in Saudi Arabia for posting a picture of himself on Twitter shirtless and wearing swimming shorts. Al-Jameel was 23-years-old when he was arrested and is still in prison more than two years later, with a scheduled release in October 2022. Other Twitter users in the country have been jailed for posting support for LGBTQIA rights. Alita alleges her parents have used her transition as grounds for the criminal charge of filial disobedience and is now seeking to leave the country for fear of detention by Saudi authorities.
Other anonymous LGBTQIA users who spoke to Rest of World predict that communities in the Gulf would migrate to private Discord channels or Snapchat groups if their anonymity was threatened on Twitter.
“It’s not like people disappear. People switch to other platforms. Are the platforms going to be safer or more unsafe for them? That’s always the question,” Afsaneh Rigot, a researcher at the freedom of expression nonprofit Article 19, who has studied how digital evidence is used to persecute LGBTQIA communities across the Middle East and North Africa, told Rest of World. “You’re just reducing the number of spaces folks who are at risk have to be in community, to exist… It just gets smaller and smaller for the comfort of the few.”
The prospect of relocating to more discreet channels is daunting for those that have spent years building a platform on Twitter. “It’s very scary,” said Lion, who has been hosting Spaces since 2020. Lion describes their Twitter community as a lifeline for queer people at risk. Lion fled Saudi Arabia to escape the threat of violence because of their sexuality, and in recent years has used Twitter to connect with LGBTQIA users in the Gulf who are also seeking asylum overseas – directing them towards resources and contacts who can help them find safety.
“A lot of people in the kingdom have used [Twitter] to escape the kingdom, or to tell the rest of the world about it,” they said. “I have told my story a million times and I know how empowering it is and how therapeutic it is. I really want to put that power in the hands of people that never have that opportunity.”