The real problem with Twitter under Elon Musk may involve privacy

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The public battle over Elon Musk’s impending acquisition of Twitter has largely focused on issues of free speech. Cultural warriors, mostly on the right, accuse the platform of becoming a censorship extension of an identity politics-obsessed liberal establishment. In Musk, they see a potential savior, a person who can change culture through the sheer power of meme. “If @elonmusk manages to free Twitter, efforts to control free speech will move to the Apple / Google level and then to the national level.” tweeted Naval Ravikant, a co-founder of AngelList. Some liberals, in turn, are concerned that the grip of the centi-billionaire will transform the platform into a dystopian freedom of speech, in which racism and hatred of all kinds will flow freely. And where does Twitter go, they fear, then the nation goes.

But this exaggerated, even messianic belief of both camps in Musk’s ability to change Twitter ignores the deep problems that the site is already facing. Twitter’s problems did not begin with a recent outbreak of institutional vigilance, and they will not be resolved by the installation of a new ownership regime. Freedom of expression and content moderation can be matters of the site, but it is also, perhaps more profoundly, a matter of security and privacy. There is a lot Musk could do that would make Twitter even less accommodating than it already is for women, people of color, and members of often marginalized groups. The real risk, however, may be that he will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities that make the platform actively dangerous to many of its users around the world.

While it has become an indispensable global news feed and a de facto, albeit rather abandoned, public space, Twitter is hardly the safest or most welcoming place for its users, especially outside the United States. Several authoritarian countries (and probably some democracies as well) maintain troll farms and carry out other information operations designed to influence opinion on the platform – or simply to threaten potential dissidents. Like many worldwide social media companies, Twitter operates in countries where it lacks much local staff, language or cultural expertise, or even the presence of an official company. Twitter announced the opening of its only office in Africa, in Ghana, last year. In the Middle East, where Twitter is popular with millions of people living under authoritarian regimes (and the intelligence officers who monitor them), the company has one office, in Dubai.

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And then there’s the problem with Twitter’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, the service’s most popular Middle Eastern market. Journalists, analysts and dissidents have documented the Saudi government’s use of troll farms and nationalist influencers and, in an episode that should be more infamous than it is, its establishment of a spy operation inside Twitter’s headquarters. Under the second Obama administration, Saudi officials recruited at least two Twitter employees to gather information about users who were critical of the Saudi regime. Some of the information given to Saudi officials is believed to have been used to expose dissidents. One of them was Abdulrahman Al Sadhan, a relief worker who ran a satirical Twitter account until he was arrested and jailed in 2018. There are two ongoing lawsuits from various Saudi exiles against Twitter over its behavior. One of those lawsuits, Ali Al-Ahmed, who lives in Washington, compared technology companies to arms manufacturers – financially motivated business actors above all else. “There is no difference between Boeing and Twitter in that sense,” Ahmed said in a phone call. “I do not know why people think they are a form of moral authority or something. They are not. “

The successful intrusion of Saudi spies into Twitter’s headquarters reflects a range of issues: lax security and information control, poorly developed insider threat protocols, and more fundamentally a reluctance among company officials to take their role as administrators of users’ right to speak seriously. both freely and safely. To that end, Twitter’s direct messages are still not encrypted, nor do they provide any temporary or automatic deletion options, making them a feast for spies, authoritarian governments, and other unscrupulous operators. Musk tweeted recently that Twitter’s DMs need to be encrypted, but he suggests a lot of things, many of which are unlikely to be implemented in the near future. Meanwhile, user data may remain available to those looking for dirt on their opponents, a practice that may tempt a billionaire who has deployed private investigators against his critics.

Although the notoriously militant Musk remains hands-off, the Saudi-Twitter connection is only the most acute geopolitical complication for a company that has bowed to legal pressure from the Indian government, silenced Palestinian activists, embroiled in Vladimir Putin’s regime and, of course, cooperated with U.S. government surveillance requests (while challenging them in court). If Twitter were really serious about free speech, as it had long claimed to be, and as the Musk-led restaurateurs declare it could be again, it would do more to protect its users, beginning by re-evaluating its operations in non-democracies .

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But Musk is hardly the person to lead such a transformation. To begin with, he does not seem to have any idea that Saudi Arabia is an absolute dictatorship that has undermined Arabic-language Twitter for years. Whether he’s thinking about Twitter’s role elsewhere in the world seems unlikely – at least until it has the potential to impact Tesla’s and SpaceX’s fortunes. Instead, his interest in Twitter seems to be largely personal, especially when it comes to his problems with the Securities and Exchange Commission and his tweets, which may have manipulated stock prices. Musk wants Twitter because he likes it – he’s a pathological poster – and because controlling a core information flow that moves markets is a thing of enormous potential value.

What Musk is it not is benevolent. It’s no billionaire. Across his history and dirty business empire, Musk, who maintains a healthy schedule of court hearings and legal complications, has been accused of allowing precarious working conditions, harassing whistleblowers, cultivating a racist corporate culture and many other sins common to very rich, very powerful. people. Unless one has an irrational belief in the personal virtue of muttering moguls, there is no reason to believe that a character known for describing a critic as a “pedo-guy” and tweeting a Hitler meme will add his ownership of a the main public forum. Musk is serious, right up until another 420 joke strikes him.

It is an outrage and a sign of the political powerlessness of our society that we are reduced to discussing what impossibly rich person should control such an important platform as Twitter. In his typical, would-it-be-nice way, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey recently tweeted that no one “should own or operate Twitter,” but in his years at the helm, he never got far in making it a reality. Nor did he address many of the other difficult problems that arose on his watch. Meanwhile, he is an enthusiastic supporter of Musk’s potential acquisitions. “This is the right way” wrote Dorsey. “I believe in it with all my heart.”

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