Certainly, none has a closer appreciation of the platform’s potential — for both good and evil. This is the cohort that provided the world with its first demonstration of the power of Twitter by using it, along with Facebook and YouTube, to organize a revolution: The 2011-12 Arab Spring, in which social-media activism helped bring down long-serving dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
This same cohort has also borne the brunt of the counterrevolution, in which the old establishment has reasserted its power by weaponizing the same platforms against critics. Across the region, regimes routinely unleash troll armies to harass, abuse and discredit activists — women, especially — and deploy intelligence agencies to surveil their social-media activities.
In recent years, the community has worked hard to persuade platforms like Twitter and Facebook to institute policies and mechanisms to protect users from harassment and keep their personal data safe from snooping by hostile governments. They have had some success: Platforms now devote resources, albeit inadequate, to crack down on bullying. Twitter introduced a special program, dubbed Project Guardian, to shield accounts most vulnerable to trolling.
So it isn’t hard to imagine the dismay caused by some of Musk’s pronouncements over the past couple of weeks. His suggestion that “all real humans” on Twitter be authenticated would endanger users who rely on anonymity for protection from prosecution, or worse, by malicious regimes. And his advocacy, in the name of free speech, against Twitter’s content-moderation policies is alarming to those who are frequently targets of hate speech.
Musk has since acknowledged that anonymity is important “for many.” But he has clouded rather than clarified matters by tweeting: “By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law.” As activists know all too well, authoritarian regimes have long since introduced laws that criminalize what liberal states regard as free speech.
In the most charitable view, Musk is merely ignorant of international realities. And he is far from alone in this. “Regardless of ownership, the problem with Twitter — and most Big Tech firms headquartered in Silicon Valley — is a U.S.-centric approach towards what rights matter,” says Gissou Nia, director of the Atlantic Council’s strategic litigation project. “While Twitter has made strides on outreach to activist communities around the world, it remains a fact that English-speaking audiences are prioritized on matters of content moderation and feature creation.”
To his admirers, Musk is guilty of nothing more than naivete in his self-identification as a “free speech absolutist.” But activists point out that his record on this score is hardly, well, absolute. Musk can be prickly about criticism directed at him and is not above bullying. And when one of his other companies, Tesla, was criticized on Chinese social media platforms, the automaker asked Beijing to use its censorship powers to block some of the posts.
Unsurprisingly, many activists are pessimistic about Twitter’s prospects under Musk’s ownership. “There will be no accountability, no transparency and no support for those of us social justice advocates who relied on Twitter to have any kind of impact,” says Bahraini rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja. “This is not just unfortunate, it’s also dangerous — and it sets a terrible precedent for the future of Big Tech, which is already so bleak.”
Many activists say they are loath to leave Twitter after having spent so much time and energy making it a vital implement for their work. “I’ve had my cursor over the ‘deactivate your account’ option several times, but have hesitated,” one democracy advocate told me. “There’s an icon of a broken heart next to that option, which is how I would feel if the day comes when I have to leave Twitter.” But like many others, he says he will close his accounts if Musk follows through on ideas that would “make it too dangerous for people like us.”
If there is a glimmer of hope that he won’t, it may lie in the fact that these ideas would be bad for business. David Kaye, a former United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression, points out that activists tend to command a huge following in countries where the platform still has great potential for growth, relative to the saturated markets of the West. “If Twitter undermines its utility for its most influential users, it will do itself harm,” says Kaye, who is now a law professor at University of California, Irvine.
In other words, just as Instagram looks out for the interests of high-profile influencers, Twitter should work extra hard to keep the community of activists onside.
Allowing Twitter to become a free-for-all would drive away advertisers as well as activists. Some brands, worried about the platform becoming a more toxic place, are reportedly asking their agencies for guidance on whether to pull their ads. Twitter has reached out to agencies to allay these fears. Musk has said he would like the platform not to be overly dependent on advertising. But it’s hard to imagine how he would replace the revenue, which accounted for around 90% of the more than $5 billion Twitter took in last year.
That Musk will do the right thing for profit rather than principle is a thin straw to clutch for those who are anxious about Twitter’s future. It’s is a white-knuckle moment for activists everywhere.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Online Privacy Becomes Critical If Roe v. Wade Is Overturned: Parmy Olson
How @BoredElonMusk Attracted 1.7 Million Followers on Twitter: Trung Phan
Musk Is the Wrong Leader for Twitter’s Vital Mission: Timothy L. O’Brien
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. A former editor in chief of the Hindustan Times, he was managing editor of Quartz and Time magazine’s international editor.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion