OPINION: If Elon Musk buys Twitter, should users leave?

by Philippa Stewart | @Flip_Stewart | Clooney Foundation for Justice
Thursday, 28 April 2022 09:00 GMT

Elon Musk's twitter account is seen on a smartphone in front of the Twitter logo in this photo illustration taken, April 15, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

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Elon Musk's Twitter takeover raises concerns for human rights. Should activists be boycotting the social media channel, or standing firm?

By Philippa H. Stewart, Head of Digital at the Clooney Foundation for Justice.

Before the Elon Musk deal is even final, people are announcing their departure from Twitter. Accounts sticking around are tracking drops in followers and posting rumours, hot takes, and – of course – memes.

Musk’s pending purchase of the social media platform has led to concerns the self-described “free speech absolutist” will do away with what few controls the website has for reporting hate speech and reinstate previously banned accounts.

Human rights groups are warning that the decreased regulation Musk seems to be championing in the name of free speech is only going to give space for even more hate speech against Twitter’s most vulnerable users.

And so, who can blame people for leaving?

The statement that “every human” will be authenticated, despite research showing that trolls will troll on regardless, has raised concerns.

Being a Woman With Opinions Online is often enough to receive threats of every kind. The idea of no longer having the protection of anonymity or the possibility of accounts being banned is frightening.

Research also shows that when free speech isn't moderated properly on social media platforms it is, unsurprisingly, people of colour, LGBTQ+ folks, and other marginalized groups who suffer most, and are the most likely to leave.

The people who most need their voices to be heard are the ones most at risk of losing it. And the rich and the powerful wield their power to ensure their freedom of expression is louder than everyone else’s.

PROTECT ONLINE SPEECH

As a former journalist and head of digital at The Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ), press freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to my work and my beliefs.

Our work includes petitioning for the freedom of people like Moroccan journalist Omar Radi who was given a four-month suspended sentence for a single tweet criticising a judge.

Such cases remind us of the need to protect online speech from being criminalized to shut down dissent.

And yet free speech cannot mean freedom to incite violence or champion hate speech. There has to be a role for social media companies in designing solutions to these offences, and preventing dangerous misinformation campaigns that saw accounts like U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene banned from Twitter.

While Musk has given a nod to laws around free speech, in reality the deregulation that seems to be his plan cannot sit side by side with being a voice for the most vulnerable. Being in charge of one of the world’s largest communications platforms comes with moral, as well as legal responsibilities.

DO WE DE-PLATFORM OURSELVES?

I, and other human rights campaigners around the world might soon be facing a choice: do we de-platform ourselves? If we stay, how do we keep people safe?

I believe it is essential for those who can safely stay on Twitter to do so, but human rights groups must get serious about organizational and personal digital safety.

Often the people that we ask to be the most visible are those most vulnerable to attack. We have a responsibility to ensure their safety and wellbeing through security training and consistent support.

So why stay? Is it honestly worth it?

For all its faults, Twitter has done a world of good. We see successful fundraisers; we see people we’d normally never hear from suddenly able to counter state-run media and official narratives.

And we also have a responsibility those who might not be able to safely operate on Twitter in future.

We often say sunlight is the best disinfectant. When those likely to abuse human rights know they can’t do it under the cover of darkness, it offers some protection to those they target.

Twitter and other social media platforms have been transformative in offering this protection of daylight.

To avoid losing that, human rights groups need to do everything in their power to make sure the people who need it most continue to stand in the sun.

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