This week, Elon Musk successfully negotiated a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion, the equivalent of Venezuela’s GDP. Everyone is talking about it, so we wanted to analyze what this means, and most importantly, what it means for Venezuelan Twitter: will it change the way the political conversation takes place on social media? Will it change the dynamics between inorganic and organic behavior promoted by political actors in Venezuela?
We put together this explainer with ProBox and we also selected some relevant research about free speech, content moderation, and censorship from authoritarian regimes.
So, what happened?
Elon Musk bought Twitter. Until now, Twitter has been a public company that was regulated by a board. But now, if the company goes private, the social media platform will have fewer safeguards regarding its content moderation. Musk will have the power to reshape discourse on a social network used by more than 200 million people every day and undermine the work the company has made in the last couple of years to mitigate the spread of misinformation and hate speech. Some people celebrate Musk’s ideas regarding freedom of speech, but specialists and digital rights activists are worried that this is a step back that could undermine democracies, rather than strengthen them.
Could this affect the political conversation on Twitterzuela?
It’s logical to think that any changes made to Twitter rules and content moderation will affect the way we talk and find information on Twitter, especially because it’s more than a social media platform in Venezuela: In many cases, it’s our main channel to get information, especially for the Venezuelan diaspora.
The Venezuelan regime is very much aware of how important Twitterzuela conversations are to shape public opinion and it’s worked hard to stay as the main actor in political conversations on Twitter. This is why Maduro’s dictatorship has built a huge troop of people paid with State resources to pollute the Venezuelan digital conversation (sometimes international too), with the aim to confuse, manipulate and divert the attention from real problems denounced by civil society, independent media, journalists and activists through Twitter, and to attack and target harassment towards specific people or institutions.
Read more about how chavismo shapes political conversations on social media.
Twitterzuela has many problems and the Venezuelan regime has violated the digital rights of journalists, citizens, activists, and politicians by using coordinated inauthentic behavior accounts to impose their narrative on the platform.
Musk said he wants to “fix Twitter”. Are those promises enough to fix Venezuelan Twitter?
On Monday, Musk summarized his goals for the platform in a shortlist: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he tweeted. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spambots, and authenticating all humans.”
🚀💫♥️ Yesss!!! ♥️💫🚀 pic.twitter.com/0T9HzUHuh6
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 25, 2022
But most of these problems don’t have such a simple solution. In Venezuela, bots aren’t really the main issue, but inauthentic coordinated behavior. While bots, automated and fake accounts used with the intention of interfering with public opinion represent a big problem for Twitter, the manipulation of the conversation is also carried out by real people accounts, coordinated to promote a specific message that may contain disinformation, propaganda or harmful content—these are the ones ProBox calls “digital troops”. And here is where it gets more complicated: although there are basic features and Twitter has been developing AI and human resources for years with the aim of identifying behavior that may violate their rules, it doesn’t look like there’s such a solution that could fix all the problems for now.
What are Musk’s ideas about content moderation and free speech?
Musk has talked a lot about the virtues of free speech. In an interview at the TED conference earlier this month, he explained he believed in leaving the content up, no matter how controversial: “Well, I think we would want to err on the, if in doubt, let the speech, let it exist. But if it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist,” he said. “But obviously in a case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you’re not necessarily going to promote that tweet. I’m not saying I have all the answers here.”
Twitter is currently one of the platforms with more advances regarding content moderation after Twitter employees spent years trying to make the platform safer. On December 2nd, Twitter announced the suspension of 277 Venezuelan accounts that promoted the massive dissemination of accounts, hashtags, and trending topics that support the Maduro government’s propaganda and disinformation. The platform also identified that many of these users had authorized the Twitter Patria set of applications, in which they allowed the government access to their accounts to monitor their activity. We wrote a review on these measures.
Soon after Twitter’s effort against chavismo’s inorganic accounts, it was determined that the retweets of Nicolás Maduro’s account decreased by almost 14% compared to the number of retweets he received before this massive suspension.
So, content regulation can be very important when it comes to protecting Venezuelans against government disinformation, and the truth is: Musk has no experience managing the complexities of free speech on a social media platform with hundreds of millions of tweets posted every day, and his promises are easier said than done. Some users have also highlighted that Musk has had erratic and aggressive behavior against those who have criticized him on Twitter
Elon Musk keeps tweeting that he loves free speech. So here’s a thread with just a few of the countless examples showing he couldn’t care about it less (🧵)
— Read Becoming Abolitionists by Derecka Purnell (@JoshuaPotash) April 26, 2022
This has led to users having serious doubts regarding his “free speech” rhetoric and what it actually means: “It is yet to be seen to what extent he may abuse his newfound power to silence them. A Musk-owned Twitter could easily become yet another attempt at creating a social media platform where free speech is defined by the owners and their whims without transparency, accountability, or consideration for users’ rights, disregarding the international human rights standards and norms that have been developed over decades by subject-matter experts.”
His free speech slogan has earned Musk the support of many conservatives who feel that Twitter and other social media companies unfairly discriminate against them, especially banned Twitter users that assume that they will be allowed back on the platform.
Why is this a threat to human rights?
Twitter’s current content moderation policies have been aimed at limiting hate speech, harassment, and other types of content on the platform it deems harmful. Musk’s intentions to minimize content moderation on the platform are dangerous. Access Now wrote a statement that claims that this approach “puts millions of people at risk and increases the likelihood of Twitter being used as a tool for inciting violence, hate, and harassment—what’s been dubbed Toxic Twitter.”
“Elon Musk has a limited understanding of free expression and the complexities that surround its practical enjoyment,” said Javier Pallero, Policy Director at Access Now. “His apparent lack of concern for the importance of content moderation on the platform reflects his limited consideration for how hostile online spaces can be for marginalized groups. It also overlooks the often-fraught relationship between social media and political discourse, and the problems of scale, in which even legal content can become weaponized when circulated en masse.”
Peter Guest, the editor of Restofworld, explains that “the biggest threat to free speech online isn’t Twitter’s rules. Authoritarian regimes are chipping away at the foundations of the internet using censorship tech and network blackouts.” This investigation analyzes how authoritarian regimes found an off switch for dissent in the last seven year in 60 countries with 935 internet shutdowns. In Venezuela, for example, during the political and social crisis, reports from network monitors and individuals on the ground indicate widespread blocking of YouTube, Google services, and several social media platforms. Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram are widely inaccessible, and disruptions on Twitter, particularly for images and video, are becoming more pronounced.
Therefore, if these regimes have already managed to censor digital content, disconnect the population at critical political moments, persecute people by the content they have posted, and are also creating laws that promote more online censorship, it’s possible that the total control of Twitter by Musk and a change in its rules and leadership will increase the risk and the intention to regulate its use by authoritarian governments. But mostly, this could be an important shutdown of a fundamental space for civil society and digital activism, which already have fewer tools and resources to fight against authoritarian regimes, disinformation, and propaganda.
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