Openness and Restraint: Structure, Discourse, and Contention in Saudi Twitter


Noman, H., Faris, R. & Kelly, J. (2014). Openness and Restraint: Structure, Discourse, and Contention in Saudi Twitter. Research Publication No. 2015-16 December 8, 2015. Cambridge: Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Retrieved December 14, 2015 from

Work data:

Type of work: Working Paper


e-Democracy | Politics and Political Science | Social Media & Social Software


twitter, technopolitics


In this study, we map and analyze the structure and content of the Saudi Twittersphere and identify 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.

Twitter opens up public space for Saudi citizens to engage in political and social discourse in a country that heavily restricts political speech, civic engagement, and media freedom. This space is technically accessible for public participation, but is shaped by legal measures regulating objectionable content and fear of confrontation with state policies and social norms. These nontechnical factors that constrain users seem to be behind two online behaviors that we observe on Saudi Twitter: users opt to self-censor their online activities to avoid problematic speech, and many of those who take controversial political stands choose to do so using pseudonyms. Within these constraints, the discourse and communities on Twitter reveal intellectual diversity and social divisions. We are able to see who is most interested in what issues and which topics are debated.