If investing $1.9 billion in Elon Musk is all it costs to kill Twitter, the Saudis will be very happy
In May 2018, then-28-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested and detained in Saudi Arabia. Her crime was advocating for women's right to drive. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive starting in June 2018, Al-Hathloul was "held in solitary confinement and subjected to beatings, electric shocks, waterboarding and sexual harassment." In December 2018, Al-Hathoul was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison and was ultimately detained for 1,001 days before being released in February 2021.
In October 2018, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a US green-card holder, walked into the Saudi Arabian consult in Istanbul where he was killed in cold blood by a 15-member "death squad" acting on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi government. A year later, tape recordings made by Turkish intelligence were released in which proved that Khashoggi's killers "came prepared to dismember him," with one member of the squad saying, "has the sacrificial animal arrived?" Discussing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in an interview with Bob Woodward for the book Rage, Donald Trump later bragged that, after MBS had Khashoggi dismembered with a bone saw, Trump was able "to get Congress to leave him alone." Said Trump: "I saved his ass." In December 2021, the Guardian reported that multiple members of the death squad that killed Khashoggi had been rewarded by the Saudi regime and were now living in "seven-star villas."
In December 2020, Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two who was then studying at Leeds University in England, was arrested when she returned home to Saudi Arabia for a vacation. In August 2022, she was sentenced to 34 years in prison. Her crime was "having a Twitter account" and using it to follow and retweet dissidents and activists. As The Guardian reported, "She seemed to support the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi feminist activist who was previously imprisoned, is alleged to have been tortured for supporting driving rights for women, and is now living under a travel ban." In January 2023, Al-Shehab's sentenced was reduced to 27 years. In March 2023, she and seven other detained Saudi women began a hunger strike against their unjust detentions. On Tuesday this week—18 April 2023—"she ended her hunger strike in order to be able to take medication for her deteriorating mental and physical health."
In November 2021, Saad Ibrahim Almadi, a 72-year-old dual US-Saudi national, was arrested "upon landing in Riyadh for what was supposed to be a two-week stay in his native country for a work and personal trip." In October 2022, Almadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison and 16 years of house arrest. His crime was tweeting while in Florida, with prosecutors focusing on "14 tweets that the American published over a seven-year period... including posts that referenced Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018." Almadi's sentence was later increased to 19 years, but in March 2023 he was released and is now reported to be living with his family in Riyadh under a travel ban.
In August 2022, Ahmad Abouammo, a former Twitter employee was found guilty in California of "using his position at Twitter to find personal details identifying critics of the Saudi monarchy who had been posting under anonymous Twitter handles" and then "passing their personal information to a close aide of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman."
As The Guardian notes:
Paying for inside information from Twitter is only one of the ways the Saudi regime has sought to spy on dissidents. Friends and associates of the murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi were also hacked using Pegasus spyware supplied by an Israeli security company, NSO
Given Saudi Arabia's history of spying on, arresting, imprisoning, torturing and killing its critics—and its history of targeting innocent Twitter users for simply exercising their freedom of speech while living in the US and Europe—you might think the world's richest man, a self-professed "free-speech absolutist" would have said no to Saudi investment when the time came for him to finalize his purchase of Twitter.
A Brutal Regime, Twitter's 2nd-Largest Investor
In October 2022, when Elon Musk became the owner and CEO of Twitter, his $44 billion purchase was financed with help from several unsavory characters, including $1.9 billion that made the brutal Saudi regime Twitter's second-largest investor.
As The Washington Post reported in December 2022, what Saudi Arabia gets for its massive investment includes "special access to confidential company information," noting that giving such access to foreign investors raises red flags about "whether that includes access to personal data about Twitter’s users since several of the entities are entwined with governments that have a history of cracking down on dissidents on Twitter and other online platforms."
The information Musk could potentially share includes data on Twitter users inside Saudi Arabia itself, which ranks 8th in the world with more than 14 million users.
I've no idea how much secret Twitter data the "free-speech absolutist" Elon Musk has already given the "kill-people-for-tweeting" Saudis.
But if Elon treats his biggest investors as generously as he treats grifter bloggers like Matt Taibbi or Bari Weiss, he's probably given the Saudis pretty much anything they want. In fact, it's not hard to imagine Elon sharing private user data with his Twitter investors as casually as Donald Trump might show off Classified documents to fake heiresses who've tricked their way into Mar-a-Lago.
Butchering Twitter for Chump Change
For most investors, Musk's admission that, under his gormless leadership, Twitter is already worth less that half what he paid for it would be cause for concern. Especially as his Saudi investors originally thought the $44-billion price tag was too low—and did not come close to the “intrinsic value” of Twitter.
But for Saudi Arabia, the $1.9 billion they've given Musk is chump change. If the investment makes money, great.
If that's the cost of killing Twitter, even better.
Meanwhile, like Musk, the Saudis are openly siding with China... and Russia against the US, as demonstrated by the recent surprise oil-production cuts which served as both a boost to Xi and Putin—and a direct attack on the US economy.
As the still-on-Substack LOLGOP wrote this week, Elon is "all about empowering authoritarians and weakening democracy." For Musk, Twitter is the "ultimate weapon in his spiritual quest to destroy 'the woke mind virus,' which has become the functional bigot’s way of describing everything he doesn’t like as having cooties. And he’ll do whatever he can with the app to achieve that goal."
As Techcrunch wrote last month, Musk is "dismantling everything that made Twitter valuable—making it his mission to drive out expertise, scare away celebrities, bully reporters and—on the flip side—reward the bad actors... who thrive in the opposite environment: An information vacuum."
Musk's new Twitter Blue verification system quickly turned into a joke. Half of Twitter Blue subscribers have less than 1,000 followers. And on 4/20, he's promising to turn Twitter verification into a disaster.
While the BBC and NPR have been flagged as "Government-funded," even the Daily Mail is now asking why Musk is giving "the world's harshest dictatorships"—including Saudi Arabia—"a free pass."
With Musk, Dictators Win, People Lose
Before Musk, Twitter was known for giving users access to fast-breaking news from (verified) journalists, news brands and citizen reporters alike. Globally, Twitter has also been a powerful tool for social activism, giving ordinary people new ways to connect, amplify messages and create movements.
At its best, as CNBC wrote last year, Twitter has "served as a platform that gives voice to the voiceless, helping protesters organize and express themselves in repressed regimes around the world."
But Musk swiftly demonstrated his disdain for real news—and sent a signal to authoritarians everywhere—by suspending journalists who criticized him.
It's long been apparent that, for Tesla's sake, Musk is willing to overlook China's well-documented human rights abuses. And he has completely abandoned any pretense that he's committed to free speech in India, where he has slashed Twitter's presence and censored Modi's critics with abandon.
Now, though, Musk's free speech "absolutism" means he's cracking down on free speech absolutely everywhere. The latest reports indicate that when China and India want something censored, Twitter is no longer doing that just in the local market. It's doing it globally.
Maybe it should be no surprise Musk's Saudi investors have goals that align neatly with his: to strengthen ties with China.
If we ever defeat the "resurgent" forces of American and international fascism, perhaps we'll one day learn in a future installment of the Twitter Files whether or not Musk has any real understanding of the damage he's doing to Twitter users and, by extension, the world.
And just like Trump, Musk is proving himself to be something every dictator loves: a useful idiot.
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