How Musk’s Twitter takeover is playing out around the world – POLITICO

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Confusion. Frustration. Perplexity.

Since Elon Musk bought Twitter for $44 billion in late October, online rights activists, fact checkers and other groups from Nigeria to India have suffered a serious digital boost trying to understand what is going on with the Blue Bird.

In the United States, the billionaire reached out to activists and advertisers, trying to calm nerves about mass layoffs, a « free speech first » ethos, and fears that Twitter could become a mess of hate and trolling. Yet in countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia, there has been radio silence from Musk.

Amid wholesale job cuts on Twitter, digital rights groups have resorted to sending encrypted messages to the company’s local public policy teams to check if they are still employed, while fact checkers don’t know who to alert to report spikes in hateful and fake content.

« It’s a very toxic place for a lot of people, » said ElsaMarie D’Silva, founder of the Red Dot Foundation, a Mumbai-based organization that fights violence against women. A Twitter spokesperson did not return requests for comment.

To understand how Musk’s ownership has affected people in different countries, POLITICO spoke to groups around the world to find out what the social network means to them and how Musk’s takeover has changed the powerful platform. .

India: the defender of freedom of expression

Akriti Bopanna was pessimistic.

Until recently, she was India’s co-lead of the Digital Sovereignty Project at the non-profit Internet Society. In this role, Bopanna has seen Twitter actively participate in Narendra Modi’s government’s efforts to curb online speech.

Among social networks, Bopanna says, Twitter has been the most aggressive in defending free speech, suing New Delhi in July over government efforts to block dozens of local accounts. Where Meta and Alphabet have been more willing to appease the Indian government, Twitter has responded eagerly.

« Twitter doesn’t just convey government issues. They try to make it better for citizens, » she said. « I feel like that won’t be the game anymore. I feel like Musk isn’t that much interested in it. He’s interested in making money. Why would he go against the government? «

Under the billionaire’s new leadership, all but one of Twitter’s local policy makers have been fired. The last man standing, Samiran Gupta, had been with the company for less than a year. Activists say around 90% of the tech giant’s local staff – mostly engineers and other technicians – have now also left.

Digital rights groups have resorted to sending encrypted messages to the company’s local public policy teams to check if they are still employed | Samuel Corum/AFP via Getty Images

Bopanna said his biggest concern was whether Musk’s Twitter would go along with Modi’s plans to wield greater control over the internet.

Most Indians don’t use Twitter. But the platform’s impact is outsized given how local politicians and other celebrities use it, mostly in English, to deliver messages to an online audience that are then picked up via more popular services like WhatsApp.

The Indian government has deleted social media accounts critical of Modi’s regime. He also wants foreign companies like Twitter to set up a local office so politicians can pressure local executives to bend to their will.

« The relationship [between Twitter and the government] has gotten better over the last year and a half, » she said. « Twitter has started to comply with the new rules. Their relationship with the government is not as bad as it once was. »

Iraq. Hatred online, prejudice offline

In Iraq, there is Twitter before 2019 and Twitter after 2019.

Prior to nationwide protests against corruption and political bigotry, the platform was also streaming over larger networks like Facebook and YouTube. But as millions took to the streets three years ago, Twitter was inundated with tens of thousands of new Iraqi users eager to coordinate their activities offline.

Not everyone was a good guy.

Among the online protesters were local sectarian militias who quickly realized the power of Twitter to radicalize supporters and attack opponents, according to Hayder Hamzoz, founder of the Iraqi Network for Social Media, an organization of local bloggers and citizen journalists. These military groups have targeted militants and other militants, spreading false rumors about them, which has sometimes resulted in the death of people.

« They put the photo of the activist on Twitter with a message offering between $1,000 or $5,000 for anyone who knows where he lives, » said Hamzoz, who has also been targeted by militias active on the network. « They sent me this kind of message. ‘We’re going to find your family, we’re going to have you arrested, we’re going to take care of your brother and your sister.' »

He now fears that these sectarian groups will gain even more courage after Musk announced the reinstatement of dozens of previously banned accounts on Twitter. Jawaher Abdelhamid, the only remaining public policy officer for the entire Middle East and North Africa region, is based in Dubai and Hamzoz has not heard from her during the Musk era, although her organization maintains close ties with Twitter.

The idea of ​​banned accounts returning to the platform « frightens me, » he said. « We did a lot of campaigning to shut down some militia-owned hate speech accounts, so imagine all those accounts back on Twitter. »

Croatia: Canaries in the coal mine

Ana Brakus doesn’t spend much time on Twitter.

The executive director of Faktograf, a fact-checking organization in Croatia, is too busy debunking false claims on Facebook (which pays her organization for this work) to worry about a social network that has few users in his country. What she sees through Twitter, adds Brakus, are false or harmful messages from Serbian users that eventually find their way into the Croatian air after being picked up by the country’s media or other networks. social.

That’s not to say she’s happy with the way Musk handles Twitter.

Her willingness to cut off the company’s trust, safety, and online content moderation teams fills her with dread. “It really is a cautionary tale of how regulators sometimes move too slowly, especially in relation to these platforms,” she said. « When a company’s management wants to implement big changes, they can do it. »

Platforms have struggled to tackle lies in languages ​​other than English, and Brakus fears other networks — including fringe sites like encrypted messaging service Telegram — will see the backlash of Twitter on content moderation as a playbook to follow. Brakus is concerned that Twitter is not honoring its commitments to crack down on misinformation.

Musk is focused on Twitter’s business in the United States, but « a huge percentage of their user base, probably well over 80%, is from non-English speaking countries, » she said. « What they’re saying is that the harm your users are going to go through in a certain place is greater than elsewhere. »

Nigeria: More of the same neglect

When it comes to Nigeria, Twitter – even before Musk’s takeover – didn’t pay much attention.

In the West African country of more than 200 million people, local activists say the social network has failed to respond to their repeated demands to crack down on fake accounts, remove suspicious content and even to engage with democratic groups. This counts ahead of national elections in Nigeria next year.

“Our Twitter experience is nothing like that of the user in the United States,” said Rosemary Ajayi of the Digital Africa Research Lab, which tracks social media misuse across the continent. Case in point: Local Nigerian users successfully purchased verified blue ticks on Twitter for around $5,000 in direct violation of the company’s current rules, according to the Nigerian researcher.

« We have bad actors, including those who engage in coordinated inauthentic behavior and others who evade suspension, who are repeatedly verified even after reporting these accounts, » she added.

Ajayi has done his part to make Twitter a better place in Nigeria and other West African countries. She worked at the company for two years and campaigned internally to take down a fake verified account, which posed as the country’s ruling political party and amassed more than a million followers.

The Nigerian government also banned the platform for seven months until early 2022 after it deleted tweets from the country’s president. Twitter agreed to set up a local office and pay taxes in the country to be reintegrated.

After quitting Twitter, the digital rights activist said she had written to Twitter’s public policy and human rights officials three times since May urging them to tackle online threats against the upcoming election in Nigeria. As of this writing, Ajayi has yet to receive a response.

Argentina: Waiting for his Trump moment

Pablo M. Fernández has little to be ashamed of — yet.

As executive director of Chequeado, an Argentine fact-checking group with ties to similar organizations across Latin America, he has ties to Twitter’s public policy team despite the mass layoffs.

« We still have direct contact with two people, » he said. “It’s complicated because what are you going to do? That’s what we did. »

In Argentina, most people prefer to use WhatsApp, where groups of users in the tens of thousands share news and gossip with just a few swipes of their smartphone. But Twitter still plays a vital role. Politicians rely on Musk’s network to deliver information to news outlets, which then broadcast those messages through newspapers and television. What’s trending on Twitter can always be on the news.

Yet just as Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing incumbent president, has used the social network to sow discontent and division, Fernández sees similar tendencies in some Argentinian politicians – even if no one has yet gone as far as Bolsonaro. or Donald Trump in their use. of Twitter to ignite local voters.

Fernández’s organization is now playing cat and mouse with Twitter to figure out what Musk’s new regime will look like. « We have an election next year, so for us it’s really important to know what’s going to happen with Twitter, » he added.

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