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Twitter's chaos could make political violence worse outside of the U.S.

The outside of Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco last month. The upheaval at the influential social media company threatens to make political violence worse around the world, according to human rights activists.
Constanza Hevia
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AFP via Getty Images
The outside of Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco last month. The upheaval at the influential social media company threatens to make political violence worse around the world, according to human rights activists.

Impersonators paying for blue "verified" checkmarks. A decimated team of workers enforcing rules against hate speech and other violating posts. A mass reporting campaign by right-wing activists targeting political opponents.

Under the chaotic changes unleashed by Elon Musk, Twitter users in the U.S. are confronting problems that have long plagued the social network in other parts of the world – and which are at risk of getting even worse under its new billionaire owner, according to human rights and freedom of expression advocates.

"It is not clear to me at all that Musk knows the kinds of liability he's creating with these sort of antics," said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, which advocates for the rights of Dalits, the community at the bottom of India's caste hierarchy. "I think Musk lacks the cultural competency, he's not getting proper legal advice around this issue, and so he's endangering millions of people's lives just for his whims," she said.

While Musk hasn't publicly spoken about the implications of his vision for Twitter outside the U.S., activists and advocates point to a wealth of examples of how social media has enabled and exacerbated political, ethnic and religious conflicts, from genocide in Myanmar to mob killings in India to 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 generally say that we have been watching the same reality TV show," she added, and "India is two or three seasons ahead" of the west.

Layoffs decimate internationally-focused teams

Musk's recent announcement that he will grant many suspended Twitter accounts "amnesty," following an unscientific poll of Twitter users, is escalating alarm about how the platform could be abused. The company has already begun to reinstate some 62,000 accounts with more than 10,000 followers, according to the tech newsletter Platformer.

"Twitter and every other platform have always struggled to effectively enforce content moderation guidelines and other policies outside of the U.S. and especially in non-Western countries," said Shannon McGregor, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They don't have enough people who understand the language and 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 U.S. hit especially hard, and eliminated thousands of contractors, many of whom do the difficult daily work of monitoring millions of tweets. Hundreds more employees have resigned 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 team fighting propaganda has been "radically reduced," the Washington Post reported.

Twitter, which has laid off its communications staff, didn't respond to NPR's questions for this story. In a blog post published Thursday, the company said its policies had not changed and it remained "committed to providing a safe, inclusive, entertaining, and informative experience for everyone."

"Our Trust & Safety team continues its diligent work to keep the platform safe from hateful conduct, abusive behavior, and any violation of Twitter's rules," the post, signed by "The Twitter Team," said. "The team remains strong and well-resourced, and automated detection plays an increasingly important role in eliminating abuse."

But automation is not 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 it was alerted by the New Zealand government, according to The Guardian.

Automated systems also require human input to reflect the cultural and linguistic challenges of a company that operates around the world.

"Before Musk acquired Twitter, it was understood within the company that markets in South Asia, including India, were countries in which mass atrocity was agreed to be occurring...One tweet could set off a pogrom," Soundararajan said.

As part of Twitter's trust and safety council – an outside group of advisers – Soundararajan's group worked with the company, giving feedback on potential risks of various features and developing lists of racist, casteist and sexist slurs used to help police the platform.

Since Musk took control, the trust and safety council group hasn't met with or heard from the new owner – despite his claim he wanted to set up an outside "content moderation council."

"We've gotten an email early in November that basically acknowledged the staffing changes and let us know that they were going to reach back out in December," Soundararajan said.

Meanwhile, the Twitter staffers Soundararajan typically communicates with have disappeared. "Our emails bounce back," she said.

Twitter owner Elon Musk at an event earlier this year before he purchased the social media platform. In the space of a month, Musk has dramatically cut 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
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AFP via Getty Images
Twitter owner Elon Musk at an event earlier this year before he purchased the social media platform. In the space of a month, Musk has dramatically cut the company's staff, including teams dedicated to protecting human rights and stopping the spread of propaganda and hate speech.

Potential for blue checkmark abuse

Against that backdrop, Musk's plans to relaunch a subscription offering that would give accounts checkmark badges – previously used to indicate Twitter had verified the identity of high-profile accounts – are a source of additional concern.

The initial rollout of the feature allowed anyone to buy an $8 monthly subscription and receive a blue checkmark with no identity verification. Immediately, accounts popped up impersonating celebrities, companies and politicians, forcing Twitter to halt signups.

Musk has said the feature will return, with different colored checkmarks for different kinds of accounts, and that going forward, all verified accounts will be "manually authenticated." It's not clear how Twitter will authenticate accounts or if it has sufficient staff to do so.

Former employees and experts warn the risk of abuse is high, especially by those seeking to use the feature to influence public conversation, given that subscribers are being promised greater amplification on Twitter.

"The possibility for different kinds of media manipulation and disinformation campaigns to 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 checkmarks up for sale, Twitter has struggled with bad actors illicitly 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, lead researcher at the Digital Africa Research Lab. One account impersonating Nigeria's ruling party managed to retain a verified check from 2015 to 2019, accumulating a million followers along the way, she said.

"It's expensive, but people are doing it, in a country where there is a high level of poverty. So then how [many] more would buy it at the rate of $8 a month?" she asked.

The risk will only grow amid a slew of upcoming elections, from Nigeria, Turkey and Thailand in 2023 to India, Mexico, Taiwan, European Parliament and, of course, the U.S. presidential race in 2024.

Free speech outside of the U.S.

Even as they worry about how Musk's changes could make Twitter more dangerous, freedom of expression advocates are also left wondering what his avowed commitment to free speech will mean outside America.

Twitter is suing the Indian government over orders 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 seem to have only been about the people he thinks should be on this platform, who are U.S.-centric people with a certain kind of politics," said Choudhary, the Indian digital rights lawyer.

Even though only a small proportion of India's 1.4 billion people use Twitter, it's influential among politicians, the media and activists.

She said it's unclear what Musk's relationship with the Indian government will be like – especially considering he has other business interests in the country with his role as CEO of electric car maker Tesla.

"I rely on the fact that Twitter does not cave in to the pressure of my government and continues to allow me to speak, no matter what I'm speaking against them," Choudhary said. "I don't think that he has shown any indication that he's going to be able to do that, or [that] he's going to continue, whether it's the lawsuit or any resistance against the government."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.