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Tech companies, authoritarian governments and this Twitter nonsense

“Just quit Twitter” is not as easy for many of us, because we rely on the platform for our work and advocacy. But what are our options as Twitter goes down the drain?

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Twitter. What a trash fire it’s become. It’s not bad enough that Elon Musk bought over the platform and started firing people without a care for labour laws or the importance of their roles in the company; the guy is also openly playing to a gleeful gallery of American right-wingers. As this writer observed in their article, Twitter is now akin to a “goddamned Nazi pub”.

Over on Mastodon, where many a distressed Twitter refugee roams, I’ve seen comments along the lines of “if you’re still on Twitter, you’re as good as a collaborator”. Social networks need engagement, so if you’re still engaging on that birdsite, then you’re enabling its dive-bomb into hell.

I see their point. But a part of me resents it too. I’m Singaporean, half a world away from the United States, with no desire to be a participant in the shitshow that is US politics. And I’ve generally had a net positive experience with Twitter — it’s allowed me to reach a greater number of people to talk about human rights, politics and oppression in my country than I would have been able to connect with otherwise. It’s also been a significant part of my work as a freelance journalist, linking me to editors and peers around the world in ways that sparked interesting collaborations and snagged me paying work. It was never a perfect platform, but in an ideal world I would love to keep using Twitter in the same way I have for the best part of a decade now.

And yet. I, and many others like me who live in authoritarian environments, end up caught between our oppressive governments and this US-centric bullshit. It’s really prompted me to think even more than usual about the uneasy position I occupy online.

For some of us, quitting Twitter is not so simple

I come from a country with serious restrictions on dissent and expression. Mobilising in physical space is tricky when even a single person can constitute an illegal assembly under our public order laws, and venue operators can sometimes can get nervous about hosting events perceived as ‘politically sensitive’ or critical of the government. There’s no counting on the local mainstream media, either. Press freedom and media plurality are problems in Singapore. MediaCorp, which operates most of the broadcasting channels and stations, is fully owned by the sovereign wealth fund, Temasek Holdings. SPH Media, which publishes newspapers and many magazines, recently became a not-for-profit company now funded directly by the government. They all hew closely to the government line, so alternative or dissenting perspectives don’t get much space.

This makes the online sphere especially important for Singaporeans, and social media has been especially useful. It’s lowered the barriers to entry for expression — even more than blogs — and allowed specific posts to reach a huge amount of people the writer would not otherwise have had access to. This has had an impact on mindsets, behaviours, and political culture. In 2011, Facebook contributed to the normalisation of openly expressing support for opposition political parties. Today, there is a much wider range of political expression and discussion on platforms like Facebook (for older Singaporeans) and Instagram (for younger ones) than can be found in the traditional media, and even privately run media portals often aggregate social media chatter and take their cues from viral posts.

While I use platforms like Facebook and Instagram to participate in local political discourse and talk to other Singaporeans, Twitter has been an important channel for me to talk to the outside world about my country. I’ve used Twitter to draw attention to issues like Singapore’s anti-“fake news” laws, clampdowns on freedom of expression and assembly, and the death penalty and this year’s alarming number of executions. As an independent journalist, Twitter has also been immensely helpful in putting my work in front of not just potential newsletter subscribers, but also journalists, editors and NGOs from around the world who have reached out to collaborate professionally or commission pieces and projects. CVs and portfolio sites are useful, but I’ve often found my Twitter profile to be even more effective in letting people find me and get in touch. Twitter hasn’t just been a luxury. It’s been a key component of my day-to-day work.

“If you’re so unhappy, just quit Twitter” is therefore a lot easier said than done. And I’m not alone in this; across the world, activists from authoritarian states have used social media platforms like Twitter to draw attention to issues, often with even higher stakes than mine. When it comes to drumming up support for dissidents detained, imprisoned or even tortured by their states, the virality that Facebook and Twitter can offer can turn out to be a literal lifeline.

A bloody minefield

We can also see how important social media is by observing how desperately authoritarian governments around the world want to stick their fingers into those spaces. Some of them invest huge amounts of money in overt public relations campaigns, or covert astroturfing and brigades of internet trolls. Then there are all the attempts to expand power, regulation and control online. In Singapore, we have laws like the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act and the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, which gives the PAP-dominated government a huge amount of discretion to issue executive orders against content online without adequate checks and balances. People have also been sued for defamation or even convicted of scandalising the judiciary because of things they published on Facebook. The government has long forgotten their promise of regulating the Internet with a “light touch”.

This is enough of a headache to deal with, without repeated reminders that the men in power in these big social media companies have not only no solidarity, but also no interest in us and the contexts in which we live. Elon Musk isn't the only one, of course — it’s just that what’s going on at Twitter is the most in-your-face example of how few shits a big techbro gives for the complexities of running a global platform used by people living in vastly different societies.

Since Musk took over, Twitter has lost a ton of manpower in terms of content moderation. The Trust & Safety Council has now disbanded, after key members resigned, saying that “the safety and well-being of Twitter’s users are on the decline.” He’s also reinstated people, like former US president Donald Trump, who have actively spread misinformation to incite unrest. He trumpets “free speech”, but there’s no clear policy — it’s all on a whim. The lack of clarity and consistency is not only unsettling, it could even be dangerous. For example, Chinese and Hong Kong dissidents and activists in exile have valid reasons to be nervous about whether Musk might throw them under the bus in a bid to cosy up to the Chinese authorities.

What to do?

The uncomfortable puzzle of being stuck between an authoritarian government and largely unaccountable social media companies is one that I’ve turned over in my head for a long time. How can we hold the companies’ feet to the fire and criticise them for their failings while also not allowing authoritarian governments to seize the narrative and claim that they have to step in and do these companies’ jobs for them?

There’s no clear answer and obviously no magic bullet, but there are useful recommendations that can and should be taken on board. The Santa Clara Principles, for instance, were put together by civil society groups to serve as a guidelines for tech companies to incorporate into their processes, so that human rights will be an integral part of their approach to content moderation. If the social media platforms can live up to their responsibilities and do better, then there’s less opportunity for states to argue that they urgently need to intervene. There are plenty of people out there who have dedicated huge amounts of time and energy to studying and thinking about how platforms can deal with hate and harassment and misinformation without trampling over freedom of expression. Many of them have been willing and eager to engage with the tech companies on their policy issues, so the expertise is available. Which makes it all the more disappointing when the companies don’t listen.

The Twitter dilemma

But there’s even more to consider with Twitter now. My desire to not get dragged into the US-centric nightmare on Twitter doesn’t count for much when the reality is that Musk is running the platform in highly problematic and dangerous ways. And the more we continue to use the platform, the more we continue to generate the content and engagement that it needs to survive. Even though I’m nowhere near the US, my activity on Twitter is part of the equation whether I like it or not.

If I’m looking at this solely on principle, I should just pack up and leave right away. Honestly, I moved my newsletter off Substack for waaaay less than the shit that’s going on at the bird site right now. That's why it doesn’t feel right to hang around Twitter — even if I’m at a nice table in the corner with people I really like, a Nazi pub is still not a place you want to spend time in.

Practically speaking, though, it’s a little trickier. As I mentioned before, Twitter is an important tool for my work and my advocacy. It helps me amplify issues and get my work seen, and I haven’t found an alternative that provides the same level of visibility yet. (I’m on Mastodon and am enjoying it, but it doesn’t even come close, at least for now.)

I’ve been trying to consciously reduce my usage of Twitter; I left a pinned tweet explaining that I was going to cut down my time on the platform, and provided both my Mastodon handle and a link to my newsletter. But when I sent out a work newsletter earlier today, I found myself going back to Twitter to share it, because I knew that there was already a circle of people there who would be interested in it, and who would help share it to a wider audience. I wasn’t happy about it, but we're a small outfit and we need as much support as we can get. Until we can find another platform that allows us to reach the same wide network, it feels like it’s part of my job to use Twitter to make sure our output gets as much attention as possible.

I’m not sure where to go from here. Right now I’m stuck with this uncomfortable middle ground, where I’m no longer using Twitter for personal stuff but occasionally popping up to retweet or share a work-related thing. I’m hoping that as time goes by and more networks are built elsewhere I can further wean myself off Twitter.

Or maybe it’ll implode by then and save me the trouble. Who even knows anymore. 😮‍💨

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