The free-speech debate has once more been ignited by news of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Photo: AFP

Since the 2011 Arab Spring protests transformed the Middle East, Twitter has been a vital social-media platform worldwide. From clerics to journalists, businesses and government ministries, Twitter is an information superhighway for millions of people, from Bangladesh to Zambia. Elon Musk’s controversy-filled takeover of the company puts the future of “world Twitter” in question. 

There has been so much focus on how Musk’s changes will affect the American political debate that the role of the rest of the world has been overshadowed. This is a vital oversight given Twitter’s popularity outside of the US. The platform that so many have come to depend on could wither into a sea of unmoderated content spam, and there is little that anyone can do about it. Could that be a good thing? 

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This perspective might sound uncomfortably close to an argument supporting social-media platforms as public goods. It’s not. There was never any chance that Twitter or any other social-media platform could become a global public good. Even if the US government (or any government, for that matter) were to take a more aggressive oversight role in a social-media company, there are simply too many people and cultural norms to moderate to keep such a platform healthy. 

That being said, Twitter’s near future doesn’t look bright globally. The first thing Musk did as the owner was fire thousands of workers. This seemingly aggressive move was met with scorn from large parts of the US media, but in the context of more extensive layoffs across the technology sector, they don’t seem outlandish. The tech sector is too big, and leading companies are shedding tens of thousands of workers.

What concerns the rest of the world is how the firings have cleaned out entire countries’ content moderation offices. Twitter’s office in Ghana, the only one on the continent, reportedly has one employee. That means there is one Twitter employee responsible for all of Africa. Twitter is extremely popular in Africa, given that it’s a text-based service, which doesn’t require much data like other platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. 

Country offices are vital for localized content moderation that keeps social-media platforms healthy. While Musk might espouse a militantly “anything goes” free-speech line for Twitter’s future, content moderation is vital to how social media operate and continue to grow.

Social-media companies have invested too little in moderation in many locations, with sometimes tragic results. Now, remember that Twitter reportedly has one employee in Africa responsible for all the content coming from that continent. 

The other less understood aspect of content moderation is the ability to weed out excessive government influence. Consider the recent protests in China against the country’s Covid-19 policies. As the protests gained steam across the country, Chinese hackers were able to flood Twitter with content spam designed to obstruct accurate updates from journalists and protesters.

The operation went off without a hitch. As Musk continues to gut content moderation teams across Twitter, such state-sponsored actions will be easier to carry out and much more frequent.

If there were a repeat of Arab Spring–style protests somewhere in the world, would activists and journalists flock to Twitter as they did in 2011? Probably not. Even though Musk exposes a maximalist position on free speech, he has made it a mission to cut down on anonymity protection for users through his campaign to purge spam bots from the platform.

Musk’s other companies, such as Tesla, have also received subsidies in the billions of dollars from governments like the United States. Since Twitter is a private company, there is nothing to stop Musk from handing over any user data he has if his other financial lifelines are at risk. 

To think about the future of Twitter we have to take a massive step back. This story is not actually about Twitter or Elon Musk. The saga unfolding with the platform reminds us of our reliance on private companies that don’t operate with our interests in mind. It could be Twitter today and Facebook tomorrow or TikTok next month.

These companies are designed to collect user information that can be translated into advertising revenue (or state-sponsored snooping, in TikTok’s case). We have been deluded into thinking these platforms are bettering humanity. They aren’t. 

If another Arab Spring were to break out tomorrow, no heir to Twitter would replace it. On the surface, that’s not great for people organizing for a better future, but maybe it’s a sign that we need to think beyond social media.

Perhaps the social organizing that needs to take place must begin with a hard look at our technology habits and over-reliance on smartphones and social-media platforms.

Maybe Elon Musk’s tragic Twitter saga is the exact warning global society needs. Are we up for the challenge?

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in Abu Dhabi exploring change in emerging markets. Follow him on Twitter @ibnezra.