The exterior of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters last month. Upheavals in the influential social media society threaten to escalate political violence around the world, say human rights activists. Constanza Hevia/AFP via Getty Images .
. Constanza Hevia/AFP via Getty Images
Constanza Hevia/AFP via Getty Images
Impersonators pay for “verified” blue ticks. A decimated team of workers enforcing rules against hate speech and other offensive messages. A mass reporting campaign by right-wing activists targeting political opponents.
Under the chaotic changes unleashed by Elon Musk, Twitter users in the United States are facing problems that have long plagued the social network in other parts of the world and are likely to get worse under its billionaire new owner, according to human rights and freedom of expression advocates.
“It’s not at all clear to me that Musk knows the kind of accountability he creates with this kind of antics,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, which advocates for the rights of Dalits, the community. at the bottom of India. caste hierarchy. “I think Musk doesn’t have the cultural competence, he’s not getting proper legal advice on this issue, and so he’s endangering the lives of millions of people just for his whims,” she said.
While Musk hasn’t spoken publicly about the implications of his vision for Twitter outside of the United States, activists and advocates point to a host of examples of how social media has enabled and exacerbated political, ethnic conflict. and religion, from the genocide in Myanmar to the massacres. in India to the civil war in Ethiopia.
“The majority world, the global south, is an expert in all of these issues,” said Mishi Choudhary, a lawyer and founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, an Indian digital rights organization. “I usually say we watched the same reality TV show,” she added, and “India is two or three seasons ahead” of the West.
Layoffs decimate internationally oriented teams
Musk’s recent announcement that he will grant ‘amnesty’ to many Twitter accounts suspended following an unscientific poll of Twitter users heightens alarm about how the platform could be abused. The company has already started restoring some 62,000 accounts with more than 10,000 subscribers, according to technology newsletter Platformer.
“Twitter and all other platforms have historically struggled to effectively enforce content moderation guidelines and other policies outside of the United States and especially in non-Western countries,” said communications professor Shannon McGregor. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They don’t have enough people who understand the language, the culture and the politics to be involved in these things.”
And that was before Musk laid off more than half of Twitter’s staff, with teams outside the United States being particularly hard hit and eliminating thousands of contractors, many of whom do the difficult daily work of overseeing millions of people. tweets. Hundreds of other employees quit rather than commit to the CEO’s call for a new “hardcore” Twitter.
Twitter’s human rights team is gone. So is a group of investigators tracking state-backed domestic manipulation efforts in high-risk countries including Honduras, Ethiopia and India, according to a former employee. Its counter-propaganda team has been “drastically reduced”, reported the Washington Post.
Twitter, which has laid off its communications staff, did not respond to questions from NPR for this story. In a blog post published Thursday, the company said its policies have not changed and it remains “committed to providing a safe, inclusive, entertaining and informative experience for everyone.”
“Our Trust & Safety team continues its diligent work to protect the platform against hateful behavior, abusive behavior and any violations of the Twitter rules,” said the message, signed by “The Twitter Team”. “The team remains strong and well-resourced, and automated detection is playing an increasingly important role in eliminating abuse.”
But the automation isn’t perfect: This week, Twitter’s software failed to detect newly posted videos of the 2019 attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The company only removed the clips after being alerted by the New Zealand government, according to The Guardian.
Automated systems also require human intervention to reflect the cultural and linguistic challenges of a business that operates globally.
“Before Musk acquired Twitter, there was an understanding within the company that South Asian markets, including India, were countries in which it was agreed that mass atrocities were occurring. One tweet could trigger a pogrom,” Soundararajan said.
As part of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, an outside group of advisers from Soundararajan’s group worked with the company, giving feedback on the potential risks of various features and developing lists of racist, casteist and sexists used to help control the platform.
Since Musk took over, the Trust and Safety Council group has not met or heard from the new owner despite his claim that he wants to create an outside “content moderation council”.
“We got an email in early November that basically acknowledged the personnel changes and let us know that they were going to contact us in December,” Soundararajan said.
Meanwhile, the Twitter staffers that Soundararajan usually communicates with have disappeared. “Our emails are bouncing,” she said.
Twitter owner Elon Musk at an event earlier this year before buying the social media platform. In the space of a month, Musk has significantly reduced the company’s staff, including teams dedicated to protecting human rights and stopping the spread of propaganda and hate speech. . Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images .
Toggle legend Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images
Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images Potential for blue tick abuse
In this context, Musk’s plans to relaunch a subscription offer that would give accounts tick badges previously used to indicate that Twitter had verified the identities of high-level accounts are of further concern.
The feature’s initial rollout allowed anyone to purchase an $8 monthly subscription and receive a blue tick with no identity verification. Immediately, accounts impersonated celebrities, businesses and politicians, forcing Twitter to suspend signups.
Musk said the feature will return, with different colored checkmarks for different account types, and going forward, all verified accounts will be “manually authenticated.” It’s unclear how Twitter will authenticate accounts or whether it has enough staff to do so.
Former employees and experts warn that the risk of abuse is high, especially by those seeking to use the feature to influence public conversation, as followers are promised greater amplification on Twitter.
“The possibility that different types of media manipulation and disinformation campaigns will proliferate is enormous,” said Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
Long before Musk actually put the ticks up for sale, Twitter struggled with bad actors illegally selling verified accounts in places like the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa.
In Nigeria, for example, verified accounts have traded hands for at least $5,000 in the past, according to Rosemary Ajayi, senior researcher at the Digital Africa Research Lab. An account posing as the ruling party in Nigeria managed to keep a verified check from 2015 to 2019, racking up a million followers along the way, she said.
“It’s expensive, but people do it, in a country where there is a high level of poverty. So how [many] more would buy it at the rate of $8 per month? she asked.
The risk will only grow amid a series of upcoming elections, from Nigeria, Turkey and Thailand in 2023 to India, Mexico, Taiwan, the European Parliament and, of course, the US presidential race in 2024.
Freedom of Speech Outside the United States
While they worry about how Musk’s changes could make Twitter more dangerous, free speech advocates are also wondering what his stated commitment to free speech will mean outside the states. -United.
Twitter is suing the Indian government for ordering to censor critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and has resisted some of Modi’s efforts to clamp down on social media.
“His free speech concerns only seem to be about the people he thinks should be on this platform, who are US-centric people with some type of politics,” Choudhary said, India’s digital rights attorney.
Although only a small proportion of India’s 1.4 billion people use Twitter, it is influential among politicians, media and activists.
She said Musk’s relationship with the Indian government was unclear, especially since he had other business interests in the country with his role as CEO of electric car maker Tesla.
“I rely on Twitter not bowing to pressure from my government and continuing to allow me to speak out no matter what I say against them,” Choudhary said. “I don’t think he showed any indication that he would be able to do it, or [that] it will continue, whether it is the trial or any resistance against the government.”
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