Musk's Twitter free speech vow faces Mideast test

STORY: He calls himself a 'free speech absolutist', but Elon Musk's ambitions could be put to the test in the Middle East.

In a region where media is often controlled by the state, millions rely on social media to follow news and express their opinions.

Both Twitter and Facebook showed influenced real-life events during the Arab Spring, but many democratic gains were reversed, partly because governments could follow the activities of opponents on social media sites and make arrests if they were criticised.

Marc Owen Jones is an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar.

“Elon Musk's ownership of Twitter will simply aggravate the problems we see in the region. It will increase the likelihood that Twitter will be exploited as a tool of surveillance and repression, simply because his idea of Twitter is so libertarian, his anything goes ideology will play into the hands of authoritarian states to just manipulate Twitter to create fake accounts and to intimidate others under the guise of free speech.”

Some political activists expect Musk's leadership will mean less moderation and the reinstatement of banned individuals, including former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Policy Fellow at the Tahrir Institute Timothy Kaldas also believes Musk's leadership could put anonymous users at risk.

“There are a number of activists, for very obvious reasons - to avoid repression - who use twitter anonymously, who have anonymous accounts to avoid being detected by their regimes and being harassed, arrested or worse, and so being forced to put your name on our account could be worrying for individuals like that.”

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how it might deal with Middle Eastern governments' use of the platform and what it might do to protect critics expressing their views on social media.

In the past it has taken down thousands of accounts in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere for taking direction from governments.