Elon Musk: Good for MENA Twitter?
Probably not. But here's how he might shake things up.
Elon Musk’s bid to purchase Twitter generated a social media firestorm last week. A lot of the controversy revolved around how might implement his views on free speech should he take ownership of the platform. I have no idea whether he’ll ever actually take over Twitter or what he would really do with it if he did. Would he remove all content moderation and let it degenerate into a free for all, or tilt the playing field towards right wing views? These debates have mostly played out within the context of the United States and its own peculiar politics. But with digital authoritarianism running rampant across the MENA region, I’m more interested in some of the possible unintended consequences of his avowed intentions.
The MENA online ecosystem is not a good place for freedoms or civil debate right now, to say the least. The Digital Authoritarianism collection I edited last year makes for grim reading. Many MENA states have set in place legal frameworks criminalizing online dissent (and a lot more than just dissent). The pervasive use of Israeli-designed digital surveillance tools has turbocharged the ability of autocratic regimes to spy on their citizens (or on anyone else). Online discourse is plagued by armies of bots and trolls. And the suppression of Palestinian activist content shows how social media platforms have proven an uneven playing field when it comes to content moderation. Apocalyptic takes on what Musk might do really do need to grapple with how terrible things already are.
There’s been a lot of really great recent academic research on these question. I highly recommend Jillian York’s Silicon Values for a biting, global overview of how social media companies have enabled these problems. James Shires’ recent book The Politics of Cybersecurity in the Middle East drills down into the regional dimension (we talked about his book on the podcast earlier this year). Marc Owen Jones, tireless online unmasker of bot activity, has an outstanding book coming out this summer on disinformation in the Middle East which you won’t want to miss. There’s so much more.
Given how awful things already are, how could Musk make things worse? Could he make them better? I talked to the great Marwa Fatafta of Access Now (and a contributor to our Digital Authoritarianism project) about the potential implications for MENA (listen to the whole conversation here). That conversation got me thinking about a couple of points: one about free speech and content moderation, the other about trying to eliminate bots and inauthentic activity.
Free speech: Musk explained his approach to free speech in a recent tweet: “By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law.” That may sound good to some people in an American context, I suppose. But in the MENA, it would play directly into the hands of authoritarian regimes which have spent years constructing elaborate legal and normative frameworks to criminalize online dissent. Those laws don’t just ban violent hate speech, but range from political dissent, criticism of royal family members or the military, human rights monitoring, even dancing on TikTok. Following these cybercrime laws as a guide to content moderation would entail censoring a wide range of legitimate political speech - the opposite, presumably, of what an avowed free speech advocate would want to see.
Counterpoint: Current standards of content moderation across many platforms have been highly uneven, with real political implications. The US-centric debate understands this primarily in terms of the alleged silencing of right wing voices, but in the MENA context it seen most visibly in the removal of Palestinian content from Facebook and Instagram and other social media platforms. If new Twitter policies drawn from the right wing understanding of the American online arena were applied consistently in the MENA context, it could potentially ease the suppression of Palestinian voices. I mean, that wouldn’t be the intention and it probably wouldn’t, but it’s worth thinking about.
Anonymity: Musk floated the idea of requiring users to be authenticated as real human beings in order to combat the use of bots. Nobody would argue against the need to rid Twitter of the bots. If he just has some kind of Captcha in mind, that would be annoying but probably fine. But if he really means requiring users to authenticate their identity with some form of legal ID, that would mean a world of trouble for users in highly repressive MENA states. Many activists and dissidents face extreme consequences should their identities be discovered. So do many LGBTQ, atheist, or other users from marginalized or even criminalized communities (listen to my conversation with John Nagle and Tamirace Fakhoury about their new book on LBGTQ activism in Lebanon for how dangerous this could be).
Counterpoint: The bot armies really are annoying, and if Musk could figure out a way to remove them then the MENA region would benefit greatly. Disinformation, harrassment and abuse (especially of women), polluting hashtags to make conversation impossible, obnoxious trolling, intimidation… all of these have contributed to making MENA Twitter at worst almost unusable, and at best a highly distorted reflection of reality. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran are among the worst offenders among states, but the problem is endemic - again, check out Marc Owen Jones on this when his book arrives. If a real solution to these bot behaviors could be found and evenly applied, it could make a positive difference. It probably can’t be, and wouldn’t be, but still.
Sure, if Musk actually does end up taking over and running Twitter (big ifs, still), he probably wouldn’t actually have those positive effects, at least not intentionally. But it’s still tempting to read some real significance into his intriguing little public spat with Waleed bin Talal, where he asked “What are the Kingdom’s views on journalistic freedom of speech?”