In the weeks following the Capitol riot, Twitter has become possibly the most hated name on the internet – and the most acclaimed. Depending on whom you ask, the microblogging platform acted heroically or tyrannically in cutting Donald Trump’s character limit to zero. But recent activity shows that the social media heavyweight is far from finished.
Despite suffering a drop in financial markets, Twitter apparently intends to continue the purge. Big box media outlets are still lauding the company’s decision to ban Trump, and it’s perhaps no wonder: Software service Zignal Labs claimed that misinformation on election fraud dropped by 73% in the week after multiple social media outlets disconnected him. Having already suspended Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) for 12 hours, it seems for disputing the election results, and suspending more than 70,000 accounts “sharing QAnon content,” where is Twitter likely to go next?
Twitter’s Future of Control
Project Veritas has recorded top Twitter executives pondering what to do now, and the statements don’t bode well for free speech online.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey hit the headlines when Veritas captured him projecting long-term restrictions of online content during a staff meeting. “We are focused on one account right now, but this is going to be much bigger than just one account, and it’s going to go on for much longer than just this day, this week, and the next few weeks, and go on beyond the inauguration,” Dorsey said.
“You know, the U.S. is extremely divided,” the tech mogul added, suggesting that “our role is to protect the integrity of that conversation and do what we can to make sure that no one is being harmed based off that.”
The statement reveals a fundamental difference between how social media providers see themselves from on high and how they are pressured to behave by activists as a guides and moral protectors versus the way many members of the public see them, as simple bulletin boards or a public square.
A Global Approach
Dorsey was joined in a second Veritas exposé by Twitter Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead Vijaya Gadde, who seemed to be on the defensive when questioned by staff about how more speech controls would be implemented. According to Gadde, Twitter policies surrounding “civic integrity” will be changing in response to: “the severity of what’s happening on the ground, coupled with the information that’s contained in these tweets — misleading information about the election being stolen and massive fraud around the election.” At the very least, she says, these changes will involve permanently suspending accounts that spread “conspiracy theories” and material related to QAnon.
Asked about a global policy, Gadde replied:
“One of the interesting things is a lot of the work that we’ve been doing over the last week is work that we’ve built on in other places around the world, where we’ve seen violence unfold as a result of either misleading information or coded rhetoric.”
She added, “A lot of our learnings here [in the United States] have come from other markets. So, in that sense, you know, we do feel like it is — this is our global approach.”
In other words, social media companies have been quietly – and at times not-so-quietly – testing out methods of speech control overseas before bringing them to the United States.
Conflicts abroad, such as the 2016-17 Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and riots in India during 2020, triggered activists and the media to push the idea that such violence is spurred by social media rumors, and that restricting online messages will fix the issue. With the Capitol protest now being classed in the same category of violent activity, it is no surprise that these overseas lessons will presently be applied in the United States.
Looking Through a Glass Darkly
Liberty Nation’s Pennel Bird recently mused:
“When the ether of absolute control begins to addle the brain, the most obtuse and inadvertently hilarious inversions are possible. Mere days after permanently banning Trump – a move mirrored by Dorsey’s ideological doppelganger at Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg – the company waded into international politics with hypocrisy that bordered on the surreal.”
Bird was eloquently referring to Twitter’s statement around the Jan. 14 election in Uganda, which worried that:
“we’re hearing reports that Internet service providers are being ordered to block social media and messaging apps … We strongly condemn internet shutdowns – they are hugely harmful, violate basic human rights and the principles of the #OpenInternet.”
This incredible example of hypocrisy and a seeming lack of self-awareness were mirrored in the big box media, with CNN publishing a damning analysis of the long-time Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s strategy of shutting down the internet to maintain control.
One voter was “overjoyed to have voted for opposition leader Bobi Wine,” according to CNN, but the problem “according to Wine and other opposition figures, was the election being stolen.”
The article specified that Museveni claimed to have won “despite widespread allegations of fraud and intimidation” and that “a key tactic in curtailing opposition has been to control Ugandans’ access to the internet, blocking social media and messaging software like WhatsApp, and even instituting countrywide internet blackouts, cutting the population off from information at the most vital time. This year was no different.”
The irony here is remarkable. It would appear that, at least from CNN’s point of view, electoral fraud can occur only in faraway locations in Africa – which is also where shutting down online speech has a negative effect on the population. Perhaps the issue is that Museveni shut down all online speech, rather than just that deemed undesirable.
The BBC added that “Museveni, who won an unprecedented sixth term in office, had accused the platforms of being biased.” Meanwhile, the opposition “alleged the poll was marred by fraud. The party’s spokesperson Joel Ssenyonyi accused Mr Museveni of shutting down the internet to prevent them from sharing evidence of fraud.” However, “President Museveni said on Saturday that the poll could be the ‘most cheating-free’ in the history of the country.”
This all sounds oddly familiar, somehow …
Read more from Laura Valkovic.