The Future Looks Bleak for Elon-Owned Twitterzuela

We’re already seeing some changes after Musk’s takeover. What are the dangers of this new Twitter for Venezuelan users, and how can we adapt?

When billionaire businessman Elon Musk took over Twitter, many (us included) warned of the dangers behind his philosophy for the platform. 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 for Venezuelans. In many cases, it’s our channel for Venezuela news—especially for the diaspora. 

However, since the takeover became official, the conversation has focused on whether or not Twitter will survive the layoffs after Musk slashed more than half of the company’s employees and admitted a massive drop in revenue, along with claims that the social media platform’s entire curation team had been dismissed prompts fears content could become more toxic.

Twitter’s slow or sudden collapse may particularly hit countries with high levels of censorship, disinformation, and political instability.

Why is Twitter important?

Due to Twitter’s immediacy, reach, credibility and format, it’s gained popularity around the world for its capacity to generate news and provide fast information on almost any topic. Twitter is currently the favorite platform among state leaders, institutions, brands, companies, journalists, artists, media, and human rights organizations.

As a consequence of censorship of traditional media in countries with authoritarian contexts such as Venezuela, social media, especially Twitter, became an essential source of information for citizens, and crucial to shaping public opinion and fostering debate.

Unfortunately, due to its relevance in generating opinion and its wide scope, it’s also a fertile space for the distribution of fake news, disinformation and unverified content that aims to alter the perception of real events, through the manipulation of digital conversations. The platform became a double-edged sword for people in societies without access to media and free and impartial information.

The Venezuelan regime is very much aware of how important these 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 group 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. We have commented extensively on the matter. 

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. 

What does the possible ‘end of Twitter’ mean?

Saying that Twitter will cease to exist and that this will force us to migrate to other platforms is too hasty. What could change is the version of the platform that exists today, but even so, it’s a developing situation that will surely move through several other stages. Misinformation, disinformation, manipulation and propaganda are the most important risks over at Musk’s Twitter, given that he’s keen on decreasing moderation protocols

“The end of Twitter” as we know it today could have a significant impact on the current format of global communications, not only on a social and political level, but even for the entertainment universe. Any restriction on the use of a site that has served as a platform for freedom of expression would imply an impairment in the advancement of democracy in free countries, therefore having serious consequences in countries where the right to information isn’t respected.

In the case of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, this would mean the possible shutdown of one of the main information windows and fundamental spaces for the organization of citizen protest, due to the serious and increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and association in these countries.

Civil society in Venezuela has become increasingly active and engaged in political conversations on social media. According to ProBox, while Maduro’s government is the entity with the highest presence on Twitter, civil society is the second, with around 1.9 million tweets about service failures, the economic crisis, the pandemic, and human and workers’ rights since the beginning of 2022:

“The positioning of narratives that report on the crisis and document the state of human rights in Venezuela through trends in social media is essential,” explains Mariví Marín, director of ProBox. 

Who will it impact?

Although the new ownership of the platform could imply a great change for organizations, media, and academia that analyze digital spaces, which is a field already scarce in resources and facing increasing obstacles, this is also an opportunity to revise methods. But citizens in general, in addition to adapting to the context of censorship, would have to “relearn” how to use other digital spaces to replace Twitter. Misinformation, disinformation, manipulation and propaganda are the most important risks over at Musk’s Twitter, given that he’s keen on decreasing moderation protocols. 

What will Twitterzuela look like?

ProBox always highlights the relevance of Twitter in countries with closed political contexts, where civic space is extremely limited and with a solid state communication hegemony. Venezuela is the perfect example of this. 

A possible fall of Twitter would translate into less space for citizens inside and outside the country to communicate what they live on a daily basis, and prevent the reality of the country from being completely overshadowed by propaganda and the official narrative.

Proof of the relevance of the platform is the great effort by the regime to create laws that regulate, censor and increasingly limit the use of these spaces, like the Law Against Hate and Threat by the National Assembly elected in 2020, the new law to regulate and control social media.

Every day, Maduro’s regime positions trending topics with millions of messages generated from accounts of people who are paid to spread the “hashtag of the day”; with the intention of spreading disinformation or simulating massive support in the digital conversation. Financing these operations not only violates Twitter’s policies, but also the digital rights of citizens.

In addition to this, this new Twitter would become an obstacle for independent media and journalists who have found a space to communicate what is happening in Venezuela, despite the blockades ordered by the State.

It’s important to highlight that chavismo has used social media to justify the detention of human rights activists; shape the conversation around Alex Saab in one of Venezuela’s biggest corruption cases; troll its way around accusations of crimes against humanity and used bots to shape the conversation against public universities like UCV. Meanwhile, citizens have used Twitter to protest against Maduro’s human rights violations and state negligence. 

How have the polarized factions of Twitterzuela reacted? Who supports the Musk takeover and who rejects it?

Generally, right-wing users applaud Musk’s takeover, and digital rights activists worry that this will take us back a couple of years in the advance of ethical moderation protocols. 

In Venezuela, Jorge Rodríguez, speaker of Maduro’s National Assembly, said in a parliamentary session that Twitter “became a dictatorship” when it was bought by Musk and recalled “the danger” that social media platforms represent, since they’ve been the channels of “coups d’état” in Latin America.

These types of statements by the Venezuelan ruling party about “social media being bad” beyond referring to the purchase of Twitter, prepare the ground for more laws to regulate social media in the country.

Where are we going and what to do?

It’s hard to recommend other platforms to users, especially since each one has a different role and there are many factors that influence their use, ranging from the publication format to the intention for which we go to a specific platform. 

Although new platforms may be created, it’s important to remember that there are already many popular ones, such as Facebook or Instagram, where information verification processes are more complex and there isn’t as much access for organizations focused on analyzing manipulated content that is distributed within them.

With the controversies arising from Elon Musk buying Twitter, we’ve found users talking about “switching” to sites like Tumblr, Discord and Cohost. However, in Latin America, many of these are not as popular, nor is the process of “re-education” so simple. So it’s more likely that, depending on the changes Twitter undergoes, we’ll see users reinforce the use of Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

Whether you choose to stay on Twitter, migrate to another platform, or maintain accounts on multiple platforms, it’s imperative you take steps to increase your digital safety. Here’s a guide made by Access Now to navigate through Musk’s Twitter.