* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Musk’s promise of lifting censorship has a certain appeal, provided that it’s actually implemented, and that it comes with some basic guarantees of human rights.
Rasha Abdulla is Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at The American University in Cairo, and author of ‘The Internet in the Arab World: Egypt and Beyond’.
News of Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter has taken the tech world by storm. Although he has said he was concerned about too much censorship on Twitter, many fear that his stance of absolute freedom of expression would give way to a rising tide of hate speech and misinformation on the platform. This is a valid concern, particularly given that Twitter appears to have made some efforts to be relatively fair in implementing some aspects of human rights guarantees on the platform.
Unfortunately though, this hasn’t been the case for all Twitter users or for all regions Twitter is present in. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, we already suffer from over-censorship on the platform, including unexplained account suspensions or closures, and shadow bans, with little transparency or accountability for such actions. Activist voices have for long accused Twitter MENA of silencing dissenting voices through account suspensions, or even worse, shadow bans. Twitter suspended over 60 activists’ accounts in September-October 2019 for no apparent reason. Among the suspended accounts were those of Egyptian award-winning author and activist Ahdaf Soueif; graffiti artist Ganzeer; the April 6 Youth account; and those of activists Hend Nafea, Ahmed Taha, Wael Eskandar, Gigi Ibrahim, and others.
The company later simply said it was a mistake. But it offered no explanation, and gave no guarantees that it would not happen again. Activist Wael Abbas’s Twitter account, a verified account with over 350,000 followers, was suspended in December 2017 - and remains suspended - with no explanation. Similar complaints have come from activists in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, and other Arab countries.
Even worse than suspensions, in my opinion, are so-called shadow bans, which means that the account exists, and the user can tweet, but there is little to no interaction or engagement on the account. My own verified account has been suffering from this for a number of years, coincidentally since I criticised the 2019 activist account suspensions on Twitter. Another feature of such muzzled accounts is that follower numbers remain stagnant, or decrease over the years. Mine has gone down from 76,000 to 73,000 and remains stuck at this number since at least 2019. Twitter denies that it performs any form of shadow banning. Although Musk appeared to criticise its shadow ban practice.
Musk’s promise of lifting censorship therefore, has a certain appeal, provided that it’s actually implemented, and that it comes with some basic guarantees of human rights. Let's remember that the problem with other major platforms, including Facebook, is the claim that algorithms actually promote hate speech, so it’s not a neutral situation of potentially fighting hate speech with more speech. On the other hand, anonymity on Twitter has been a major advantage for activists, and needs to remain. Forcing a real name policy would be a turnoff. Twitter needs to maintain its stance of protecting user data, and ensure that this takes place in all regions that it operates in. Data privacy is also a major concern. To that effect, encrypting direct messages would be a great step.
A change of guard is always an opportunity for potential improvement. The key is to remain vigilant, and to push for transparency and accountability. If Musk fulfils his promise of making Twitter algorithms public, together with uplifting censorship, I think we may be in for a very different ride.
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