Musk’s Twitter train wreck has global impact

The winning side will not be decided in Silicon Valley or Beijing, the two poles around which debate over free expression on the internet have largely orbited. It will be the actions of governments in capitals like Abuja, Jakarta, Ankara, Brasilia and New Delhi
Representative image
Representative image

By LYDIA POLGREEN

With the benefit of ample hindsight, it has come to feel inevitable that Twitter would turn into a cesspool of abuse and misinformation and that the powerful — governments, politicians, corporations, celebrities — would find ways to control and manipulate it to their own benefit.

But as I’ve watched the platform descend into chaos over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how being on Twitter felt back in May 2009, when I arrived in India as a correspondent for The New York Times. I had signed up for an account about six months earlier, but it wasn’t until I landed in Delhi that I truly understood the platform’s potential.

Twitter was an intoxicating window into my fascinating new assignment. Long suppressed groups found their voices and social media-driven revolutions began to unfold. Movements against corruption gained steam and brought real change. Outrage over a horrific gang rape in Delhi built a movement to fight an epidemic of sexual violence.

“What we didn’t realise — because we took it for granted for so long — is that most people spoke with a great deal of freedom, and completely unconscious freedom,” said Nilanjana Roy, a writer who was part of my initial group of Twitter friends in India. “You could criticise the government, debate certain religious practices. It seems unreal now.”

Soon enough, other kinds of under-represented voices also started to appear on — and then dominate — the platform. As women, Muslims and people from lower castes spoke out, the inevitable backlash came. Supporters of the conservative opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and their right-wing religious allies felt that they had long been ignored by the mainstream press. Now they had the chance to grab the mic.

And grab it they did. By 2014, when the B.J.P. first won national elections, driven in no small part by its innovative use of social media to tap into middle-class discontent with the status quo, Indian Twitter was well on its way to becoming one of the world’s most vitriolic online spaces, filled with ad hominem attacks and incitements to violence. And having used social media so adroitly to win power, the new government realised that controlling platforms like Twitter would be crucial to suppressing dissent.

Into this stew steps Elon Musk.

In buying Twitter, Musk has garbed himself as a free-speech warrior. He had been deeply critical of the company’s content moderation decisions, the most controversial of which was blocking Donald Trump from the platform after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Viewed from the United States, these skirmishes over the unaccountable power of tech platforms seem like a central battleground of free speech. But the real threat in much of the world is not the policies of social media companies, but of governments.

Nowhere is that clearer than in India, where before Musk’s acquisition Twitter had been fighting a legal battle to protect its users from government censorship. The real question now is if Musk’s commitment to “free speech” extends beyond conservatives in America and to the billions of people in the Global South who rely on the internet for open communication.

Last month, Freedom House released its annual report on freedom on the internet. Allie Funk, one of the researchers who wrote the report, told me that while much of the focus has been on countries like China, which overtly restricts access to huge swaths of the internet, the real war over the future of internet freedom is being waged in what she called “swing states,” big, fragile democracies like India.

The winning side will not be decided in Silicon Valley or Beijing, the two poles around which debate over free expression on the internet have largely orbited. It will be the actions of governments in capitals like Abuja, Jakarta, Ankara, Brasília and New Delhi. Across the world, countries are putting in place frameworks that on their face seem designed to combat online abuse and misinformation but are largely used to stifle dissent or enable abuse of the enemies of those in power.

“Some laws are introduced with good faith to tackle disinformation and harassment,” Funk said. “But other governments are passing laws just to increase their power over speech online and to force companies to be an extension of state surveillance.” For example: requiring companies to house their servers locally rather than abroad, which can make them more vulnerable to government surveillance.

Over the summer, when Musk was still trying to wriggle out of buying Twitter, his lawyers filed a countersuit against the company that included a grab-bag of justifications for scuttling the deal. One of the claims went largely unnoticed in the United States but caught my eye: His lawyers argued that Twitter had engaged in “risky litigation against the Indian government,” and put one of the largest markets in jeopardy.

Twitter had indeed sued the Indian government in July — and for good reasons. In 2021, India had created a raft of rules that gave the government much more power to order technology platforms to remove content on command, and also hold employees of tech platforms criminally liable for speech that appears on their services. Exactly the kind of laws Funk was referring to.

India’s government had demanded that Twitter block tweets and accounts from a variety of journalists, activists and politicians. The company went to court, arguing that these demands went beyond the law and into censorship. Now Twitter’s potential new owner was casting doubt on whether the company should be defying government demands that muzzle freedom of expression.

Maybe Musk was just trying to escape a purchase that he knew would be disastrous. (And it certainly has been disastrous, at least so far.) But it seems that this is actually what he believes. In April, he tweeted: “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”

Social media has absolutely deepened polarisation and abetted extremism across the globe. But it did so by breaking sclerotic and easily manipulated monopolies on speech. Musk is right that the world needs a digital public square; unfortunately, he seems to have little idea that creating one involves balancing free speech against abuse, misinformation and government overreach. Twitter had just barely managed to get the hang of that difficult, important work in the past couple of years. Musk has left little doubt that rather than continue that work, he’d rather burn it all down.

Polgreen is an Opinion columnist with NYT©2022

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