Elon Musk Takes Over TwitterIs a Rise in Hate Speech and Abuse Inevitable?
Adrian Goldberg speaks to Imran Ahmed of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate and Heidi Cuda from the Radicalized Pod about developments at the social medial platform for the Byline Times Podcast
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AG: What’s your reaction to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter?
IA: I’m terribly confused as to what it means to have the Elon Musk era of ownership of Twitter, because he’s saying different things to every different audience he comes across. He tells advertisers ‘don’t worry guys, it’s going to continue to be a common, digital town square where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner’. He promised them that a site with no rules would be, in his opinion, “a hellscape free for all” where anything can be said with no consequences. He’s also told the EU that he is completely willing to abide by their rules. But then he’s also telling everyone who’s a free speech libertarian ‘the bird is free’.
So the question is: which Elon is going to be in charge of Twitter?
Why has Elon Musk taken over Twitter?
IA: He’s been forced into it after the court ordered him to follow through on his initial promise. He’s tried for months now, spending millions of dollars, to get out of doing the deal. I think he’s realised that this is a really invidious job that no one really wants, because running the ‘town square’ actually takes a lot of work.
HC: I look at it a little bit differently. I look at this as a land grab in an information war. Twitter is where many of us in the investigative journalism world came together and made our alliances. But Musk is now the emperor of what was our very imperfect public square – he is the same person who’s been trying to negotiate foreign policy on behalf of a foreign nation state which is an aggressor in a war. And because somebody such as Donald Trump, who’s a professional propagandist says, ‘now it’s in safe hands’, well, what he’s really saying is that it’s the opposite. We are, of course, in danger.
Won’t the advertisers have a say?
IA: As with all business, it really comes down to the money and the numbers. Elon Musk is an engineer – he’s a mathematician by training – so he knows that he’s got to make a billion dollars of profit a year just to pay back the lenders to service his debt. The problem is Twitter has virtually never made that much profit – it has about $5 billion of revenue, 90% of which comes from advertisers. How is he going to make a billion dollars profit a year? So he’s trying to do that by desperately firing staff… but if you fire all the staff, then it does become “a hellscape free for all”, where anything can be said with no consequences. The truth is the mathematics on this are terrible for Elon Musk – and he must know that, which is why I think this is going to be a very short-lived ownership of Twitter.
How do safeguards against hate speech currently work?
IA: In our research, we report hate speech to platforms and then go back and audit what action they take. For example, on Twitter there’s abuse alleging that LGBTQ+ people are groomers – a really pernicious lie that’s being pushed by the far-right in the US. Even if you report it to Twitter, using its own tools, it does nothing 99% of the time. It does nothing 97% of the time if you report content with extreme anti-Muslim hatred. It does nothing 88% of the time for accounts that send misogynist abuse to high-profile women. The truth is that this platform is already a cesspit that’s badly run by one billionaire – and it’s now been taken over by another billionaire who says he’s going to run it even more poorly.
HC: There’s nothing free about hate speech. I try to avoid the word ‘trolling’ because it’s just not strong enough for what we actually go through. These are large-scale subversion operations that are causing psychological trauma. I don’t see this becoming a safe space under Musk.
What about Twitter’s rules?
IA: The rules have never mattered, it’s the enforcement that’s been so poor – and the enforcement is clearly going to get worse. That’s why Elon Musk has fired very senior officers at the company. Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal policy, has just been sacked. The truth is, this platform is going to become even worse.
HC: I’ve been the target of a character assassination campaign because of the work that I do. It’s a particularly toxic space for women. There’s a lot of misogyny but, if I pull myself out, then that’s one less voice trying to bring truth. My podcast just had Professor Jason Stanley on who wrote the book How Fascism Works, and he talked about fascist groupings and how it looks throughout the world right now. I’m looking at Twitter as one of those groupings. They’re putting together factions and elements that don’t necessarily believe in liberal democracy. This was always an imperfect platform, and I’m not comforted by somebody who spends an inordinate amount of time trolling and manipulating the conversation being in charge.
What needs to change?
HC: There are really no teeth in any of the guardrails that we have right now. Those who are paid operatives, who are paid to target candidates or investigative reporters really haven’t faced any repercussions. Certain countries like Japan are now putting teeth in their legislation so, if you are causing online harms, you may go to prison. But we are still the Wild Wild West in the US and it is still a terrible free-for-all. I recall the ex-Twitter employee who was found guilty of spying on Saudi dissidents. That’s just one example of someone who got caught.
IA: This is why we need more democratic accountability, whether that’s through legislation or regulation. In the US, these platforms enjoy absolute immunity for all the hatred that they host, all the disinformation, all the problems that they cause in society. In the UK, we don’t have any legislation in place yet – the Online Safety Bill is still not law. We need to have tools available so that we can have a democratic voice in the decision-making on what happens to these platforms, which are absolutely crucial to the way in which we conduct discourse within our democracies.
Has Twitter been embroiled in the same kind of controversies as Facebook around data being used to manipulate political campaigns through ‘information wars’?
IA: We don’t use Twitter in the same way that we use Facebook. With Facebook, we hand over all our personal data – from who our relationships are with to which topics we like. Twitter is really good at drawing eyeballs and it’s got lots and lots of content that people scroll through continuously – engaging in debates, arguments and, all the time that you’re doing that, you’re consuming adverts. The problem is that advertisers don’t want their advert for their latest soap product to appear next to a tweet saying Marcus Rashford and the ‘N’ word.
HC: We should have never looked at the information war as separate from any of the kinetic wars, because it’s all part of the same war. I look at Hillary Clinton as the first politician who was virtually assassinated in an information war.
I work in community politics and I am watching paid operatives do character assassination on candidates, and I have made much of my life’s work investigating the networks that do this type of work and what we, I think, mislabelled as ‘trolling’. That’s too lightweight a word to talk about the trauma merchants and the emotional terrorism, and the stochastic terrorism. Unfortunately, because we continually allow our freedoms to be exploited, we have people who are targeted with a hate campaign.
There was an FBI warning in 2014, where it observed a new pattern of Russian Government-funded businesses increasing their footprint in Silicon Valley by joint ventures with US companies and academic institutions. There has been a long game being played here… It seems to be getting worse. We need help and we need it to be from the leaders of the democratic nations that are still fighting to retain their democracies.
Many people find Twitter a valuable, proactive platform, including Byline Times…
IA: Social media clearly has a really powerful value to people. I moved in June 2020, during the pandemic, from Britain to Washington D.C. and left behind everyone I love and maintained my sanity through social media. The issue is that just because something is good doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try and deal with what is bad. I want social media to do what it should be able to do – to enable conversations that we cannot have in the real world, because we’re physically dislocated, to make the world seem closer and more intimate to us. No one would look at Twitter though and say ‘that’s the mechanism for doing it’ because it clearly isn’t fit for purpose.
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