BROOKE GLADSTONE Overseas, the situation is rather more dire. Of the staff Musk has already fired. A large number were engineers, human rights specialists and content moderators from Twitter's international desks. Over 90% of the staff in India. Nearly the entire Africa hub. And most of its staff in Mexico. So what does that mean for the more than 260 million Twitter users outside the U.S.? In the Global South, Twitter has often provided a crucial free speech zone. In Egypt during the Arab Spring.
ACTIVIST I will limit a Twitter revolution. And I'm betting on this new trend of revolutions. Hashtag revolutions that are sweeping across the region. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE During the 2017 end SARS movement in Nigeria. Activists protested police brutality.
ACTIVIST Twitter kind of helped Nigerians amplify their voices, something that Nigerian government was not happy about. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just a couple of satisfied users among very many human rights activists. All these movements, of course, were powered by people putting their lives on the line. But there's no denying that Twitter amplified their efforts then and now. What happens if they lose a tool to be heard? Reporter Avi Asher-Schapiro started reporting his article called How Musk's Twitter Takeover Could Endanger Vulnerable Users. Long before Musk's purchase of Twitter had gone through. Why so early?
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO In countries like India and Turkey, pakistan. Twitter is often in a really tough spot, wedged in between its users and the government and has to make very tough calls. And I knew that if there was a change of the guard at Twitter, if there was a change of priorities, the ground would start shifting in these places.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What was the role that it played in countries like Nigeria and Egypt and India and other parts of the global south? Prior to Musk's acquisition.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO In parts of the world where, you know, let's say the media is owned by all friends of the government, or it's very difficult to organize a protest on the streets without getting arrested. Things like Twitter are really key. I mean, places where you can post anonymously and be critical of the government, places where you can start trends and hashtags around matters of public concern that you might not be able to get the newspapers to pick up on. And the flipside of that is authoritarian governments get this. Right, I mean, there was a crazy story the last couple of years. The Saudi government tried to infiltrate Twitter, recruiting spies within the company to get them to unmask the identities of people who were using Twitter in Saudi Arabia to be critical of the royal family. And that just gives you a sense of the threat here. You know, like you're not going to be able to transform society just from tweets, but it forms part of key infrastructure in places where things, you know, that we might have in the United States, like a relatively free press and the ability to write an op ed or go organize a street protest if if that space is heavily constricted. Twitter becomes much more important. And that's why Twitter is constantly locked in these really high stakes battles in these places.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've noted that Musk hasn't been shy about tweeting everything that's happened since he entered the building, and yet he's yet to weigh in on major free speech and human rights issues.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Every day, Twitter gets hit with dozens, if not hundreds of requests from governments all around the world asking him to do stuff. We want the IP address of a user. We want you to block this tweet. We want you to do this. We want you to do that. That's what it's like running a global social media platform, and they are in the position of having to make a lot of tough calls. That's why at Twitter, they had a human rights team until, you know, Musk took over and fired them, who were tasked with thinking through strategies along these lines and figuring out how the company positioned itself in this very tough situations. To the extent Musk has spoken about this at all, he's said that he wants to hew closely to local laws. But, you know, that doesn't tell you a lot. It just raises a lot of questions. If you know a little bit about how companies deal with local authorities, you know that historically their compliance rate for requests under local law can be quite low. You know, Turkey, for example, you know, they might comply with like 50 to 60% of the requests they get from the Turkish courts, the Turkish government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When you referring to compliance requests, what are you talking about?
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO I can give you a very specific example. I spoke to a Turkish academic and dissident thinker named Yaman Akdeniz for my story. He often tweet stuff that's critical of the ruling party in Turkey or making connections between businesspeople in the Turkish regime. And people will go to court in Turkey and they will get an order saying that this tweet is defamatory or it breaks some sort of law against public order. And the court will send a note to Twitter saying, hey, we have a ruling here that says that you have to take this down based on our local law. And often in the Turkish case, they would just ignore that order.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that's a good thing.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Well, from Yaman's perspective, it was a great thing. It was, you know, a place where he was able to share important information about matters of public concern in Turkey. He was thankful to Twitter that they had been resistant to this. And he has no idea what it's going to be like in the future. And he's worried these are the kinds of users that it doesn't seem like Musk is considering when he says he's going to hew close to local law. What does that mean for Yaman?
BROOKE GLADSTONE You talked about high stakes battles. I know Twitter's in the middle of a court battle right now to resist censorship orders from the Indian government. And you've said that case is seen as a key global precedent. How come?
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO It's been reported elsewhere that Indian police have been dispatched outside of the homes of Twitter workers in India. In moments when Twitter had been resistant to comply with takedown requests from the Indian government. They were locked into a pretty intense battle where you had Indian authorities saying, hey, these tweets are violating Indian law. And Twitter was thinking, well, these tweets are important matters of public concern or free expression or these are journalists. And they were sort of playing a game of chicken with the Indian authorities to a certain extent. And a couple of months ago, Twitter made the decision to actually take the Indian government to court and say that these blocking orders are violating your own law. So trying to find ways within Indian law to sort of narrow and push back the scope of these requests. And India is one of the largest markets for Twitter. I think there's at least 25 million or more users there. And so for them to go head to head with the government over these blocking orders, it's a risky game. And you could imagine a version of the company without its human rights team or with a different orientation, saying, let's just not fight this out. Let's just take these things down and keep operating in India. Why are we going to all this trouble to defend these users who are tweeting things that are pissing off the Indian government? That's not our battle to fight. People are looking at this case and is Twitter going to continue to push this in the courts? And we couldn't get them to confirm it. You know, we tried to call everyone we knew who is associated with this case, at Twitter in India, and no one would tell us anything. You would think that Elon Musk, who seems so concerned about freedom of speech and likes to talk about freedom of speech a lot in public would take an opportunity here to say where he stands.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about concern over online misinformation and hate speech in upcoming elections? I'm not talking about here. I'm talking about Tunisia in December, Nigeria in February, Turkey in July. These are dangerous times in those countries.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Right. And we've seen that as part of his rush to get costs down, Musk has fired half of the company. Those cuts seem to be taking a disproportionate effect in places outside the United States. So we've seen reports that 90% of the staff in India were fired. The entire Africa hub in Ghana was fired overnight. Twitter doesn't need someone there to run its servers and allow people to use the platform. But if they don't have local staff, if they don't have local content moderators who speak the language, if they don't have people who specialize in managing these relationships with tough governments, if they don't have people whose job it is to be in touch with civil society groups who have their ear to the ground, you know, they're going to be operating blind in a lot of these places, and that can be a big problem. There are coordinated harassment campaigns, disinformation campaigns. If you fire the entire staff in Mexico, which is a place where there's massive trolling problems in Spanish, on Twitter, and they're everyone's gone, who knows how to deal with those and has studied them and looked at them. What do you do? I mean, you're just starting from zero.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's face it. Social media in general has had a long standing problem in the area of human rights. So is it realistic to put that on Musk and his team to solve.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO This is not a problem that starts or ends with Elon Musk. But I think that these companies have been forced to some extent to integrate some human rights thinking into their decision making over time. They have brought on pretty serious people to think about these trade offs. And there are huge trade offs here, right. I mean, do you operate in a country where, you know, you'll be asked to turn over sensitive information about your users? Do you open an office there and open up your staff to being held hostage by a government that is trying to pressure you into doing something? I mean, these are the kinds of decisions you have to make. Obviously, there are other equities in the room when they think about these things. These are publicly traded companies need to make money, but they were making these considerations. And I think that by just eliminating the team and never talking about the human rights issues, you know, that's definitely a pretty problematic starting point. Is Musk going to be able to solve the free expression issues in the semi authoritarian places where Twitter operates by sheer force of will or even by hiring 10 million human rights lawyers? Like, no, there is, you know, tremendous opportunities to do good and do harm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We've seen a lot of people worrying whether Twitter will even continue to exist. What happens if it doesn't? What happens to the activists and activism that relies on it?
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Look, it's really hard to know the implications of what's going on right now, but the ability for the world's richest man to buy the rails and wires of such a massive communications apparatus that is used by millions of people around the world and then unilaterally make changes to it, I think is an important reminder of what it means for our communications infrastructure to be, you know, up for sale to the highest bidder, which it is. One of the things, as I was reporting this piece actually and I was talking to especially like civil society groups that deal with Twitter a lot. What a lot of these people were telling me. It was like we sometimes forget that Twitter or Facebook aren't the government. Like when we're dealing with them, we're lobbying them, we're like trying to get a meeting or can you change this policy like, oh, please, can you invest more in this? It felt almost like the advocacy they were doing on tech platforms resembled advocacy they would do for a state. And but the fact of the matter is, like, you know, these are private institutions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But they function often like public utilities.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Yeah. And that's what I think the Musk thing is a great inflection point for people to think about that. I mean, Elon Musk can shut it down tomorrow. He can take everyone's direct messages. He could publish them on the Internet. You know, he could give a list of all the users in Saudi Arabia. He could give them directly to the state. You know, he can do whatever he wants. Right. And hopefully he begins to consider some of these questions more carefully. Doing this job well requires a tremendous amount of empathy because it requires you to put yourself in positions you would never be in. Right. Elon Musk will never be in the position where he is facing a harassment campaign that puts his life in danger and he needs someone to help it like he's got bodyguards. Right. Some sort of intense sense of self arrogance. Brashness. Yeah. It might lend itself to being an industrialist and pushing aside contrarians to get your rocket in the air. But the priority of building a social space requires engineering for the most vulnerable among us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Avi, thank you very much.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Thank you, Brooke. It was fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Avi Asher-Schapiro covers tech for the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Coming up, a search for a Twitter alternative. This is On the Media.