November 28, 2022
ISLAMABAD – “Yep just got fooled by the new Twitter verification system where the new owners, focused on “accuracy,” have let people pretend to be reliable folks.”
These were the words of New York Times’ Senior Political Reporter and CNN analyst, Maggie Haberman, after she retweeted news earlier this month from a verified account, pretending to be ESPN’s NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski.
Those who are familiar with Ms Haberman’s work call her “the name” in political reporting. Yet she was none the wiser amid the turmoil that has unfolded since Elon Musk took over Twitter.
It all started when Musk entered the Twitter headquarters with a washbasin — he wanted to say “let that sink in” in a funny way.
In a series of decisions since, he has fired roughly half the company, asked the remaining ones to “buckle up” and revealed plans to “lower the guard” on content moderation, prompting mass resignations.
The ‘blue tick’ saga
These decisions seemed gravely inconsequential, however, when he unveiled his plan for paid verification. The idea was that anyone could have the “blue tick” of authenticity by their name if they could pay $8 per month.
The action augured results anticipated by almost everybody – other than Musk, it seems.
Accounts impersonating world leaders the likes of George Bush and Tony Blair and giant conglomerates such as Eli Lilly, Nestle and Lockheed Martin cropped up, tweeting bizarre things, all with blue ticks by their name.
On the face of it, they seemed to be genuine tweets from authentic accounts, so it was fairly easy to believe that former US president Bush was “missing killing Iraqis”.
Although the feature was halted amid a swarm of parody accounts, this further exacerbated the crisis of misinformation on a platform where false news stories were 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true stories, according to a 2018 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“When a seemingly legit account posts content that is intended to mislead people, the repercussions will be very severe,” said Hija Kamran, a digital rights activist, while explaining the consequences of misinformation and disinformation by verified accounts.
With results proving the move to be less thought out than Musk anticipated, he reversed it, only to announce a new date a few days later — Nov 29. Later on Nov 22, he tweeted that the relaunch had been halted till there was a “high confidence of stopping impersonation”.
“This situation is indicative of what happens when the accountability incentives of an important part of the public sphere change for the worse,” said Prateek Waghre, policy director at Internet Freedom Foundation, India.
This will have “downstream consequences” for communities around the world that have relied on Twitter for their voices to be heard, he added.
The ‘moderate’ moderation
The rapidly unfurling changes at Twitter pose challenges that extend beyond the realms of the platform. Experts are concerned about Twitter’s ability to sustain its core functionality in light of mass layoffs and resignations.
According to the New York Times, many of the employees who quit were members of the trust and public safety teams, critical engineering teams and contractors working on content moderation and data science.
Experts say the pruned Twitter will pose challenges in policing the content for hate speech and safety concerns, especially in the global South — the region wilfully ignored by social media giants when it comes to moderation.
Mishi Choudhary, Founder of India-based Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) says Musk has exacerbated existing problems with his “arrogance and mercurial nature”.
“While he relies on the meagre staff, mostly foreign workers, we have seen no concern for what impact this mayhem will have on vulnerable communities around the world,” said the founder of SLFC.in, which comprises a team of volunteers, including lawyers, analysts and technologists, defending digital freedoms.
For Choudhary, social media platforms, including Twitter, want access to markets but they are least concerned about the issues faced by users outside of the US or Europe.
Although the problems surrounding content moderation precede Musk, like his predecessors, he is also unlikely to do much to fix them.
In April, when he initially agreed to buy the company, Musk said he wanted to promote “free speech” on the platform. He also said he thought Twitter should be more “reluctant to delete things” and “very cautious with permanent bans.”
After taking over the company, he told the world in October that there will be a “content moderation council” at Twitter “with widely diverse viewpoints”.
And while he didn’t explain what those viewpoints would be, Musk assured users that no major decision on content moderation or account reinstatements would happen before that council convenes.
Less than a month after the announcement, he reinstated the account of former US president Donald Trump after 51.8pc users said “yes” in a poll to bring back Trump.
After the poll’s success, Musk ran another poll on Nov 23, asking users if a “general amnesty” should be offered to suspended accounts, “provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam.”
When an overwhelming 72.4pc users voted “yes”, he simply tweeted “Vox Populi, Vox Dei [the voice of the people is the voice of God]”, adding that the “amnesty” would begin next week.
For experts keeping a close look at the happenings inside Twitter, this was a sign of how the platform will look like under Musk’s leadership.
“Looks like he’s going through with it. Horrifying that many ppl’s most violent and aggressive stalkers and those who spew anti LGBTQ hate, misogyny, and disinfo are being welcomed back with open arms,” said Washington Post’s technology columnist TaylorLorenz.
The apprehension is not without reason. Before Trump, Mr Musk reinstated the accounts of author Jordan Peterson, and conservative satire publication The Babylon Bee, both of which were suspended for problematic tweets.
“[The] reinstatement of [Donald] Trump, the chief misinformation officer is evidence of the fact that Mr Musk is yet to grasp the importance of Twitter for information dissemination,” Choudhry said.
For now, Mr Musk has a new policy to counter misinformation. He calls it “freedom of speech but not freedom of reach”.
“Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter,” he tweeted, like his every other decision.
Once again, he didn’t give any parameters on what will constitute hate or negativity.
The question of state-sought takedowns
The arbitrary and ambiguous moderation standards also raise concerns over how Twitter, under Musk, will deal with requests to take down content from powerful nations.
Last year, Reuters reported that Twitter saw a surge in government demands worldwide in 2020 to delete content posted by journalists and news outlets. India submitted most of the removal requests, followed by Turkiye, Pakistan and Russia.
How Musk will handle these requests is yet to be seen but Waghre said, given the apparent “arbitrary” decision-making at Twitter currently, it should probably not surprise anyone if the company ceded to these demands.
He added that it is not uncommon for companies to cede to governments’ demands for more access to large markets.
“Similarly, it is also not uncommon for business owners with multiple business interests to use one to gain leverage for another,” he said about Musk, who has other businesses including a vehicle and a spacecraft manufacturing company.
Information gathering in a ‘post-Musk’ era
With tumultuous changes in Twitter and its widespread ramifications, the process of information gathering will become complicated, more specifically for journalists who, for a long time, have come to rely on the platform to gather news, build a network and find stories.
“It was a new Rolodex, a new way of contacting people — fantastic for case studies and … experts,” Nic Newman, of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism told AFP while explaining the journalists’ reliance on Twitter.
As journalists attempt to verify and put events — that would already go viral before coming to their attention — they will find their jobs cut out for them in light of the new developments.
The ‘blue tick’ which was previously a stamp of authenticity will now have to be met with skepticism.
“As an additional fact-checking step, they [journalists] will have to verify if the account was authentic by checking other markers because previously they could just look at the verified badge and report the news,” said Kamran.
With the verification badge no longer the sign of authenticity, journalists, researchers and other users will have to look under the layers to distinguish parody and impostor accounts from real ones.
The most glaring distinguishing feature lies in the account’s handle. With no possibility of two handles being the same, parody accounts usually add an extra alphabet or tweak the spelling. For example, the parody account of Mr Bush used the handle @GeorgeWBushs.
Users can also check whether the account was verified on the previous criteria or paid for it by clicking on the badge.
A quick look at previous tweets, the date of joining Twitter, the type of media posted and the posts liked will give a fair idea about the account’s authority.
BBC’s disinformation and social media correspondent Marianna Spring suggested users visit official websites to follow links to genuine social media profiles.
Musk’s plans and US regulators
For now, Musk is cruising forward with his ideas, irrespective of how murky they are. But, with every passing day, his actions are attracting scrutiny — albeit without any consequences till now.
The US Federal Trade Commission, on Nov 10, said it was “tracking recent developments at Twitter with deep concern”.
The concerns about privacy and data safety might also lead to congressional scrutiny. US Senator Edward Markey, who was miffed after a Washington Post reporter created a fake account in his name and paid $8 to get verified, warned Musk that if he didn’t “fix” his companies, “Congress will.”
Last week, seven Democratic senators also wrote a letter to the FTC, warning that Twitter was “acting in disregard of users”. The letter urged for an investigation into any breach of a consent decree that the FTC inked with Twitter, Reuters reported.
However, Kamran has little hope for any Congressional inquest as social media executives, such as Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have deflected these hearings in the past.
Even if the US or the EU regulators manage to rein in the company, it will unlikely make a difference in the experience of users outside these regions.
“Mr Musk, like several of these [social media] platforms, is concentrated in the US. They pay some attention to the EU when the Commission reins them in through regulation,” said Choudhary.