The caged bird

November 6, 2022

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter will worsen the freedom of speech situation and create real world harm for Twitter’s users in Pakistan

The caged bird


lon Musk’s takeover of Twitter will worsen the freedom of speech situation and create real world harm for Twitter’s users in democracies like Pakistan, where Twitter has become an integral part of political communication.

Trying to ensure freedom of speech on the platform, Twitter formerly encouraged new forms of political communication to take shape. This inadvertently facilitated a spike in hate speech and fake news in political discourse. These harms were somewhat mitigated by content moderation efforts after backlash and pressure from civil society, which resulted in important decisions such as finally agreeing to suspend accounts of political and public figures who repeatedly shared hate speech and fake news.

Musk has announced, to widespread criticism, that one of Twitter’s best features in preventing the spread of fake news, the verified badge for public figures, journalists and politicians, will only be available to those willing to pay $8 for it. It will also be taken away from those unwilling to pay. How Twitter will then protect against impersonators who can simply purchase the verification badge, name themselves as public figures and impersonate their verified profiles, is up in the air.

A ‘lords and peasants’ system is in the works, Musk has confirmed. Those who pay up for the verified badge by purchasing the Twitter premium subscription will also have their Tweets, Replies and other interactions boosted in terms of engagement and prioritisation. This meansthat the more money you spend, the more elevated your speech will get. This is a truly dystopian application of social Darwinism, and far from any notion of freedom of speech.

Given Twitter’s business model that is based on maximising profits through advertisements, it suggests content to users that the algorithm determines will generate the most engagement. As a result, emotionally charged, politically sensational and extremist content tends to dominate discourse, as this is the kind of content that makes users spend the greatest amount of time on the platform. This seems to be what motivates Musk’s interest in less content moderation.

Musk has effectively become the czar of Twitter, which he referenced by changing his bio on the website to ‘Chief Twit’ after dissolving its entire corporate board, at which point Musk became the sole director of the social networking company.

A ‘lords and peasants’ system is in the works, Musk has confirmed. Those who pay for the Twitter premium subscription will have their interactions boosted. The more money you spend, the more your speech will be elevated.

The new ‘Chief Twit’ has described himself as a ‘free speech absolutist.’ He now has the power to enact content moderation of his own designs on the 230 million Twitter users around the world. Though Musk hasn’t made any changes to Twitters content moderation policies yet, observers are confused about what will follow after Musk’s high profile lay-offs of executives, especially content moderation specialists like Vijaya Gadde, the company’s head of legal, policy and trust, who headed up a team that made decisions on permanently banning certain high-profile accounts. Without experienced executives to direct safety teams, efforts to improve the moderation of harmful content have practically stopped in their tracks.

It is important to highlight Musk’s stated intention to take Twitter private. This will shield the product from Wall Street’s quarterly expectations of profit and growth, and allow Musk to renegotiate the company’s relationship with advertisers, presently the strongest voice and only financial influence in favour of better content moderation (since their products attract most of the backlash in the form of boycotts). To satisfy advertisers for now, Musk has issued a statement the platform “will not turn into a free-for-all hellscape”.

In 2017, Twitter had revealed that had it denied all of Pakistan’s 156 requests to remove content from January 2012 to December 2017. It has failed to disclose how many content removal requests it has accepted since then. This figure is either an indictment of Twitter, who may have failed to take the government’s complaints seriously, or an indictment of the government, which never bothered to complain about serious incidents of hate speech and fake news that affected vulnerable groups.

In Pakistan, one of the country’s largest political parties, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, has built up a reputation for commanding online political discourse in the country with the help of its educated, middle-class supporters, who consistently highlight Khan’s successes and vociferously criticise his opponents. Some of his opponents have claimed that his popularity on social media does not reflect popularity with the masses. But after incubating the strategy for more than a decade, Khan is now at the helm of an impressive and dominant propaganda machine. There have been instances of questionable practices like intentionally spreading false news and hate speech erupting into targeted attacks against opponents.

Given the uncertainty, many fear the ugliest aspects of political discourse to grow under the diluted content moderation expected from Musk’s Twitter.

The writer is a member of staff

The caged bird