New Internet Monitor report: “Openness and Restraint: Structure, Discourse, and Contention in Saudi Twitter”

by Rebekah Heacock Jones

Openness and Restraint Internet Monitor, a project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, is delighted to announce the publication of “Openness and Restraint: Structure, Discourse, and Contention in Saudi Twitter,” the eighth in a series of special reports that focus on key events and new developments in Internet freedom.

Social, political, and religious content online is highly filtered by the Saudi government, and the offline media are tightly controlled. Twitter, however, is comparatively open: Saudi censors are unable to block individual accounts or tweets without blocking the entire site, and the site remains accessible for Saudi users. As a result, the platform has flourished. Saudi Arabia has a higher percentage of Twitter users than any other country in the world, and nearly a third of all tweets in the region come from Saudi Arabia. “Openness and Restraint,” authored by Helmi Noman, Robert Faris, and John Kelly, maps and analyzes the structure and content of the Saudi Twittersphere and identifies the communities that coalesce around different political, religious, social, and cultural topics and viewpoints:

This study of the Saudi Twittersphere offers a detailed view of public sentiment and provides insights into the overall structure, discourse, and communities of the network. We look into how users take advantage of the fact that Twitter is an unfiltered media platform to advance their political and social causes. We also examine three case studies centered on issues that received extensive attention on Twitter at the national level during the course of this study.

Key observations include:

  • Religion, football, and politics are the topics that draw the most attention on Twitter in Saudi Arabia.
  • Religion and conservative political views serve as topics of intense debate, much of which is centered on the “true” representation of Islam, reflecting internal intellectual and political fractures.
  • The narrative used by the dissident community in their political dispute with the Saudi monarchy is based on religious grounds.
  • The rise of Twitter in Saudi Arabia as a popular platform for open communication that is currently beyond the reach of technical filtering mechanisms has broadened the scope of public discourse while widening participation of citizens in debate and information sharing.
  • Political dissidents, critics of the monarchy, and supporters of political causes and militancy in Syria and Iraq provide opinions and perspectives not found in traditional media.
  • Users taking controversial political stands choose to do so using pseudonyms.
  • Despite the vibrant conversations and communities that have emerged on Saudi Twitter, there is evidence that legal restrictions, cultural norms, and political pressure influence and constrain the discourse. One example is the shift in discourse around the Egyptian military’s removal of former president Mohamed Morsi from office in 2013. Many Twitter users initially voiced support for Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, but Twitter discussion became noticeably more subdued after the Saudi government labeled the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

The full paper is available for download at SSRN: Openness and Restraint: Structure, Discourse, and Contention in Saudi Twitter

About Internet Monitor

Internet Monitor is a research project based at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Internet Monitor's aim is to evaluate, describe, and summarize the means, mechanisms, and extent of Internet content controls and Internet activity around the world. The project helps researchers, advocates, policymakers, and user communities understand trends in Internet health and activity through research, analysis, and data visualization. Internet Monitor is funded by the US Department of State and the MacArthur Foundation. For more, see

About the Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Founded in 1997, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University is dedicated to exploring, understanding, and shaping the development of the digitally-networked environment. A diverse, interdisciplinary community of scholars, practitioners, technologists, policy experts, and advocates, we seek to tackle the most important challenges of the digital age while keeping a focus on tangible real-world impact in the public interest. Our faculty, fellows, staff and affiliates conduct research, build tools and platforms, educate others, form bridges and facilitate dialogue across and among diverse communities. More information at