Twitter suspended dozens of accounts critical of the Egyptian president without cause during rare anti-government demonstrations last month, according to new research.
Wael Eskandar, an Egyptian researcher specializing in digital rights, found that Twitter had suspended accounts that tweeted words in Arabic like “whore” and “ass-kisser.”
He contacted nearly 60 accounts tweeting in Arabic — primarily those belonging to Egyptians but including Egyptian Americans and others in the diaspora — who said their accounts were temporarily suspended around the time of the protests last month. Based on screenshots they shared with him, Eskandar determined about 30 had been suspended without cause.
Twitter said the accounts had been suspended in error but did not elaborate.
Rare demonstrations against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi broke out in late September throughout the country. Egyptians used Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms to comment on the protests, though because these platforms are heavily monitored in Egypt, there were no signs of protesters actually using public social media platforms to organize the demonstrations.
“Egypt is a completely repressive landscape. You cannot do anything in the street. Any journalist who writes objectively has no job — there are only outlets favorable to the government,” said Eskandar by phone. “The only place you can express your opinion is social media, where people are disagreeing or complaining.”
“When social media platforms side with governments that want to shut people down, they’re contributing to oppression,” he said.
Eskandar’s sample set, though small, represents the first accounting of a phenomenon many Egyptian Twitter users have pointed to — that Twitter suspended dozens of accounts for unclear reasons around the time of the demonstrations.
The protests prompted a heavy crackdown by Egyptian authorities in which thousands of people were detained or arrested, according to human rights groups. Many of them were not well-known political activists or protest organizers but ordinary Egyptians.
The protests were inspired by a set of viral videos posted by Mohamed Ali, a former construction executive in Egypt now based in Spain who railed against corruption in the Egyptian military and called for a million people to demonstrate.
“We have seen a lot of activist accounts restricted and blocked by Twitter MENA in a highly problematic way around the time of these protests,” said Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “Twitter issued a statement acknowledging there were problems with how they handled the situation, but there’s not much clarity in terms of what will change, or whether anyone has been held accountable.”
In response to questions for this article, Twitter’s media relations department pointed to a set of tweets by its Middle East and North Africa office. In the tweets, Twitter said the mass suspension of accounts took place in error and apologized for what happened, saying it was taking steps to remedy the issue. But it did not make clear exactly why the mistake happened, who was responsible or whether the company is taking action to ensure it does not occur again.
Eskandar said he started looking into the suspensions after a well-known Egyptian artist called Ganzeer, who drew a viral cartoon depicting el-Sisi as a masked thief, tweeted about having his account suspended. Dozens of other users followed suit — up to 150 accounts, based on Eskandar’s estimate.
Eskandar had also been tracking reports that Twitter accounts were being suspended because of the use of relatively mild profanity in Arabic — the sort of words that would be unlikely to get an account blocked if used in English. He decided to test one example — the term “ass-kisser” or عرص in Arabic.
When he replied to the @TwitterMENA account with a message that said, “Stop your ass-kissing,” he found his own account temporarily suspended.
Other forms of Arabic language profanity, including a word for “prostitute,” had also gotten accounts suspended, according to Twitter users Eskandar spoke with.
Eskandar said Twitter never replied to him with a response to any of his findings, though he sought to reach Twitter officials through multiple channels.