For “Real,” a Saudi Arabian women’s-rights activist, anonymity is all that keeps her safe. Under that alias, she uses Twitter to advocate for victims of domestic violence in the kingdom, sending their stories trending in the country and overseas. Her work is fraught with risk.
“Every day we wake up to hear news, somebody has been arrested, or somebody has been taken,” Real told Insider, using a voice modulator to disguise her voice. “Today I’m here with you, sharing my story. Tomorrow I might be caught.”
Real, like other activists, is on edge after the price of speaking out online in Saudi Arabia was made clear this August. The academic Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was accused of “using the internet to tear Saudi Arabia’s social fabric” and sentenced to 45 years in prison. On August 16, Salma el-Shabab, a Ph.D. student, was sentenced to 34 years in jail for a handful of tweets in support of activists and members of the kingdom’s political opposition in exile.
El-Shabab was reported to the authorities via Kollona Amn, a mobile app available to download from the Apple App store and the Google Play store, which empowers ordinary citizens to snitch on their compatriots.
The Saudi regime has often encouraged citizens to inform on one another, but Kollona Amn, launched by the Saudi interior ministry in 2017, has made it possible to report comments critical of the regime or behavior deemed offensive by the conservative theocracy with a few clicks. Legal-rights activists say that over the past few years, they’ve witnessed a dramatic rise in court cases that reference the app, as the country’s current leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan — widely known by his acronym MBS — expands the use of technology to surveil, intimidate, and control its citizens at home and abroad.