IT APPEARS TO have escaped Elon Musk, the feckless owner of Twitter, that it’s not just the U.S. that has elections this month—so does Taiwan, where I live and work. The potential impact of one billionaire’s disruption of quite possibly the world’s preeminent source of independent political information scarcely appeared to get on the world’s media radar, beyond discussions of its effects in the U.S.
Heck, Twitter Blue, which Musk is bent on pushing, hasn’t even been rolled out for most of the world. What about those who live outside of the U.S., Canada, Australia, or New Zealand? Does this ever-changing new Twitter policy mean that everyone outside of these countries will just lose their blue checks? Furthermore, what does a blue check even mean, really, when anyone with $8 USD can buy one?
In response to criticisms that the new verification policy would allow for a wave of fake accounts, for a brief moment Twitter rolled out “official” labels for major media outlets, politicians, and the like, only to scrap the plan a few hours later. Now it’s that you have to click on the blue check of an account to know if it was paid for through Twitter Blue or because a figure is of some public significance. Seeing as it is no longer possible to know at a glance if an account is real or not, this has already led to a wave of fake accounts.
Oblivious to the concerns of anyone outside the United States, Musk has apparently fired 90 percent of Twitter’s India staff, workers in Singapore, the communications team responsible for dealing with journalists, and its entire human rights team—though Twitter later reached out to try and rehire key workers, a move that raised more concerns than it alleviated. The mercurial CEO’s rapid flip-flopping, combined with his apparent friendliness to the leaders of authoritarian regimes around the world, raises the possibility his international policy may continue in the same erratic vein.
I’m a reporter working in Taiwan on issues pertaining to the volatile geopolitics of one of the world’s major potential flashpoints—the “most dangerous place on Earth” according to an article in The Economist; countering disinformation is part of the job. We live in a time in which states wield advanced cyberwarfare weapons, and regularly engage in disinformation operations online, and that’s part of the reason why I have committed my life to providing accurate information and combating fake information. It’s the way to lower the odds of global conflict. Now that moderation has been scaled back—and even though Twitter is banned in China—I’m not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of having to fight off disinformation about troop movements from fake paid accounts, and the like.
Funnily enough, the original way I got my blue check on Twitter was by getting banned. I had posted a photo of a frame from the Japanese manga, Inio Asano’s Goodnight Punpun, on a day that I was feeling rather irritated at the world, about humanity as a whole. Somehow, this got construed as a violent threat by Twitter.
I won’t deny that I was rattled—for freelancers like me, our work is directly linked to our public presence online. But within a few hours, after colleagues called for the reversal of the ban, Twitter’s Asia staff reached out and said they would undo the mistake, and they offered to verify me to prevent it from happening again.
I had experienced similar pressures before then; I became a journalist in the aftermath of the 2014 Sunflower Movement. just as a wave of fellow activists ran for elected office, resulting in a sweeping change in government two years later. Some of my friends took office in the very same legislature and government buildings they’d forcibly occupied just a few years later, I, too, found myself reporting on events held in buildings where I’d been an occupier, not long before.
When I was in Hong Kong reporting on the 2019 protests, Facebook, triggered by my too-frequent posts, blocked me from posting for a week. I had been crowdsourcing information on Facebook to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of Hong Kong, and using it to reach out to sources. The ban endangered me to some degree, so naturally, I took to Twitter to complain about it.
I was surprised when, within just a few minutes, a well-known journalist I had never met previously slid into my DMs to ask for more detail. I was rather starstruck that someone of his stature was tracking the minutiae of the protests with that level of attentiveness—that’s real skill. We dropped the matter once we realized that the ban had likely been automated, perhaps almost accidental.
Elon Musk has framed making verification available to anyone who pays for it as democratizing the platform for the common man, as a matter of “lords” vs. “peasants.” But in reality, the scheme grants increased reach to anyone who can pay for it, exactly in line with the status quo of traditional and legacy media.
This dynamic recalls, for example, Facebook’s throttling the reach of pages that don’t pay for advertisements, a requirement that has permanently reduced the capacity of social movement activists and NGOs to reach out to an audience over the last decade.
Without the power of social media, powerful grassroots movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Sunflower Movement and the Arab Spring, all of which came about in the 2010s, would not have been possible. Any form of hobbling the outreach of users unless they pay should be viewed in this context.
Perhaps even more damagingly, axing Twitter’s human rights team is likely to prove dangerous to activists around the world. Many in Asia have already expressed anxieties about Musk’s actions as CEO of Twitter: they fear it may be easier for state-run bot networks to mass report and ban critical networks; sensitive information about activists may end up in the hands of an authoritarian government.
Before Musk’s takeover, Twitter often tried to depict itself as progressive—on the side of movements, as a tool for positive change. When the 2019 protests in Hong Kong were unfolding, Twitter reached out proactively to freelance journalists to verify them as a step to prevent the spread of misinformation and disinformation. During sensitive elections that could affect regional stability, Twitter has sometimes embedded staff in campaigns as a proactive measure (this took place in Taiwan).
The company also released special emojis to commemorate anniversaries for Black Lives Matter and the Milk Tea Alliance. This was often done in consultation with activists–indeed, I was among those consulted on the design of Twitter’s Milk Tea Alliance emoji. Twitter also reached out to activists to try out new features, such as its Clubhouse clone, Spaces.
Obviously, this was all branding. Twitter’s management was trying to avoid being seen as another arm of the Technoleviathan, both in order to stay afloat, and to continue gaining users. Better to be seen as the secret sauce of revolutions and peoples’ uprisings than as the preferred platform of the iron boot.
Before Musk, Twitter had apparently decided that siding explicitly with democratic movements that might eventually take power was preferable to cozying up to authoritarians, many of whom have banned the platform. That might be a better strategy for entering markets where they were blocked. Even so, I had the sense that Twitter’s communications and human rights teams were good people, doing what they could within the confines of the bird app behemoth.
Musk, in sharp contrast, has tried to ingratiate himself with authoritarians the world over, including Donald Trump in the U.S., Vladimir Putin in Russia, and China under the rule of Xi Jinping. Clearly, he has a different approach in mind than the people who ran Twitter before. He’ll casually tweet a meme of a Nazi these days.
There was a wave of outrage after Musk endorsed the Republicans on his Twitter account the other day, after having promised to stay neutral. And where Taiwan is concerned, Musk has also made his views clear: that Taiwan should accept being part of China under the framework of “One Country, Two Systems,” regardless of the tragic example of Hong Kong, where the free speech he claims to support is entirely at an end.
Taiwan’s embrace of Twitter in past years grew, in part, out of concerns about the safety of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has a real hunger for the Chinese market. Amazingly, he actually asked Xi if he would give his unborn child a Chinese name in 2015, explicitly denying his wife’s parents an honor traditionally bestowed on grandparents in Chinese society. And then, the apparent algorithmic censorship of pro-Taiwan commentary on Facebook led to Taiwan’s Facebook users jumping onto Twitter en masse.
Apart from the threat of disinformation regarding geopolitical flashpoints like Taiwan and Ukraine, anyone who wound up on Twitter because of potential censorship concerns now needs to worry about their information being handed over to governments that would put them in jail or worse. This is true from Singapore to Myanmar, to Hong Kong, and elsewhere, I’m sure.
Though I often disparage Twitter as a hell site—seeing as I spend most of my time on there fighting with tankies, right-wingers, and other awful people—I don’t deny having had powerful experiences there. I’ve connected with many, many other activists around the world, for example, sometimes with dramatic results.
In one case, an international Milk Tea Alliance network tried to crowdsource the geolocation of an activist threatening suicide while trying to talk that person out of jumping off a building, then immediately scrubbed all evidence of the event once they were safe.
But it’s the same bad cycle over and over with platforms, it seems: building rich vibrant communities, and then having them taken away or rendered useless by our capitalist overlords. Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, whatever.
It should go without saying that sensitive communication should be taking place on apps with end-to-end encryption, and never on Facebook, Twitter, or other large social media platforms.
Anyone who says that this is not an issue with Mastodon, since you can just switch to an encrypted platform, is either lying or stupid. Mastodon does not have end-to-end encryption; the owners of any Mastodon instance have access to its users’ DMs, and it’s altogether too easy to add people to conversations by mistake. You’d be surprised at the communications among high-profile activists and journalists take place over unencrypted DM. I’ve seen this myself even among, uh, household names in more than one country. Inevitably, people get sloppy.
Without question, there is still a need for a mass platform with widespread reach in order to conduct public discourse, in preference to those in which people wind up locked in their own echo chambers. Disinformation spreads most rapidly through precisely those echo chambers, which are cut off from larger discourse. We’ve seen it happen again and again on messaging apps based around chat rooms, like LINE in many parts of Asia, or on WhatsApp elsewhere.
Where else but Twitter am I going to combat some tankie’s spurious claim that engineers at Taiwanese semiconductor giant TSMC are secretly pro-China (thereby removing an obstacle for Chinese invasion, because of China’s significant reliance on the company)? Finding disinformation out in the wild allows me to counteract it, and try and prevent it from spreading further.
Engaging with the world writ large through a mass platform continues to be vital. It may involve some level of toxicity. But maybe that’s inevitable—even necessary?
Brian Hioe is the publisher of No Man is an Island, a fellow member of The Brick House Cooperative.
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