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.”