Them’s Fightin’ Words

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When Twitter first launched, it was celebrated in India as a new kind of town square where free speech, productive dialogues and the exchange of ideas were possible.

“What we didn’t realize – because we took it for granted for so long – is that most people spoke with a great deal of freedom, and completely unconscious freedom,” Indian author Nilanjana Roy told New York Times columnist Lydia Polgreen. “You could criticize the government, debate certain religious practices. It seems unreal now.”

But, as minority and under-represented communities used the social media platform to get their voices heard, the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi took advantage of a backlash. Twitter filled up with attacks and calls for violence against Muslims, women, and lower-caste Indians. Today, Twitter is fighting the Indian government in court over censorship claims.

The new owner of Twitter, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, hasn’t discussed how he might combat government suppression of free speech in developing countries like India. Seventy-five percent of Twitter’s nearly 240 million users are outside of the US. Many observers are fearful that Musk’s free-for-all attitude will encourage toxic activity on Twitter to increase, crowding out the vulnerable and empowering online populist mobs, NPR noted.

“The US has seen a sharp increase in hate speech, and that’s in English,” Global Project Against Hate and Extremism President Wendy Via told Grid, a new media outlet. “Imagine what the other countries are experiencing. And banned users are now evading the system by setting up new accounts often successfully because there are no global staff to report violations and take action.”

From Ethiopia to Nigeria to Myanmar, Twitter and other social media have exacerbated political, ethnic, and religious conflicts, NPR reported. Now, with mass layoffs in the company, Twitter’s human rights team is gone as are the investigators tracking state-backed domestic manipulation efforts and propaganda in high-risk countries including Honduras, Ethiopia and India.

And on Monday, Musk disbanded the Trust and Safety Council, a group of volunteers from around the world who tried to improve safety on the platform, according to NBC News.

Meanwhile, Musk, who also runs electric car company Tesla and rocket company SpaceX, has become empowered to dabble in foreign policy, making pronouncements about Russia and China: He suggested that Russia and Ukraine swap land in order to end their war – Ukraine would allow Russia to keep the Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014 – and proposed that China take over Taiwan, which China claims as part of its sovereign territory, the Washington Post reported.

As Foreign Policy magazine explained, Musk’s comments in these areas carry weight. The Starlink system of small satellites that he has put into orbit with SpaceX has provided Ukraine with crucial telecommunications, for example. When Musk doubled prices for the service in Ukraine, critics worried that he was putting undue pressure on Ukrainian forces who use the technology on the battlefield, trying to force them to the bargaining table with Russia.

At the same time, some of his actions as “Chief Twit” could become problematic because of his business interests, namely with China: By dominating the supply of multiple components critical to the fortunes of Tesla, the Chinese government holds so much leverage over Musk’s wealth that European and American security officials consider his ownership of Twitter to be a potential security threat. For example, they worry he might bend to Chinese wishes regarding content.

One region isn’t shy about putting Musk on notice to be careful: The European Union. Bloc officials threatened Twitter with a ban unless the billionaire abides by its strict rules on content moderation, the Financial Times reported. Musk was told he must adhere to a checklist of rules, including ditching an “arbitrary” approach to reinstating banned users and agreeing to an “extensive, independent audit” of the platform by next year, even as he was reminded to follow the bloc’s strict rules against online hate speech and disinformation.

This promises to be a regulatory battle for the ages.

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