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How the new Twitter might impact users overseas

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The protests in Iran right now, last year's farmer demonstrations in India or the uprisings known as the Arab Spring all relied on the exercise of free speech online, including on Twitter. Until recently, the company had a team dedicated to protecting the free speech and privacy rights of users around the world. But Elon Musk has now laid off Twitter's entire human rights team. So where does that leave users outside of the U.S. who've relied on Twitter to organize social and political movements? Alexandra Givens is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALEXANDRA GIVENS: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So your organization serves on Twitter's Trust and Safety Council, which is an independent advisory group that engaged with Twitter on human rights. What do you think it means that the entire human rights team at Twitter is suddenly gone?

GIVENS: It sends a devastating message about the priorities of Elon Musk and the new leadership going forward. That team was incredibly important for combating hateful speech, incitement to violence, manipulation in conflict zones. And the idea that that does not require staffing anymore, again, is a really dangerous precedent.

SHAPIRO: Well, Elon Musk says it's not so much defunding as it is a shift to AI. Is this work that can be done by automation?

GIVENS: No, and that's a really important misperception to try and address. Of course, AI plays a very important role in content moderation. The sheer volume means that people do need to rely on tools for it. But the idea that you can do that without very close human supervision is just a fallacy. Think of some of the examples that you can think of, right? So ethnic violence in Ethiopia - that was an area where the Twitter human rights team was very focused. When you look at some of the coded language involved in some of those incitement episodes, you know, there are things like ethnic slurs that, if you do a literal translation to English, the word is musketeer, right? How do you train a tool to know what those particular trigger words will be in a particular area? It's very context specific, and that...

SHAPIRO: Although, it's interesting that you give the example of languages that AI might not be familiar with because, in many cases, Twitter and other social media platforms were faulted for not having humans who spoke those languages, and so hate speech went unchecked.

GIVENS: Yeah. That's absolutely right, and we were one of the groups that would push back on this. So this isn't to say that life was always perfect on the platform before, but they needed to do more - not do less. You need humans that understand the context in these different settings and more resources devoted to this type of work - not less.

SHAPIRO: Has Elon Musk talked about where he sees global Twitter usage and human rights in the priorities that he's setting for the company?

GIVENS: I have not seen a thoughtful conversation about this at all. You know, he had this meeting that he vaunted a couple weeks ago with civil rights leaders in the United States. And at the time, it was covered as an effort to appease advertisers - to say that he was going to respond to hate speech and harassment on the platform. That's a nice first step. He hasn't really followed up with that since. But if you look at who was in the room for that conversation, hugely important organizations in the United States focused on civil rights - the NAACP was there, Color of Change, Anti-Defamation League - but it was a decidedly U.S. focus. And again, I think that sends a terrible message about how they are thinking about the order of priorities when we know there are so many other human rights concerns around the world.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the last decade or so of Twitter's existence, there are these examples we offered of Twitter being used as a platform for organizing and for democracy and for free speech and human rights. There are also a lot of examples of hate speech flourishing on Twitter. When you look at the balance, which do you think has more often been the case?

GIVENS: I don't know if you can call it by percentage, but what I will say is that the company was trying. There were important moments where they took a stand to defend the rights of users to spread important messages online and to push back on instances of government repression or authoritarian efforts. One of the examples that I think is useful to point to is in India where the government pressured Twitter significantly to block accounts that criticized the government in power and the company pushed back and ultimately even filed a lawsuit to do so. Now we look at how that team is being staffed. Musk fired 90% of the 200 people in India at Twitter. They now have 12 people staffing Twitter in India. That's a country with over 1.3 billion people and over a hundred languages being spoken. So even if it wasn't great before, the lack of resources now, I think, again, is devastating.

SHAPIRO: There's a lot of speculation about whether Twitter will survive. If it were to disappear, do you see an alternative platform that people around the world are likely to gravitate to for the kinds of organizing that we've been talking about?

GIVENS: So we've seen already a big shift in users going over to Mastodon and what is sometimes called the Fediverse. These are different decentralized platforms that can intercommunicate the same way that I can text you no matter which cell phone company you're using. So I think there's an important glimmer of hope there. At the same time, even the people that run many of those services are saying they're overwhelmed by the sudden uptick. They have a lot of learning and growing to do to resource content moderation and all of the concerns that Twitter had in the past. The demand for this isn't going to go away. The power of a centralized place where people can share information with a really wide audience is hugely important for democracy and for expression.

SHAPIRO: That was Alexandra Givens, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Twitter, which no longer has a communications department, has not responded to our request for comment, nor has an attorney for Elon Musk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.