The Current

Changes at Twitter may put activists and protesters at risk, say experts

Twitter has become an important tool for activists to get their message out. But there’s growing concern about the impact that new owner Elon Musk might make it more difficult and, at times, dangerous.

Billionaire Elon Musk laid off Twitter’s human rights team shortly after taking over the platform

Demonstrators chant slogans while marching during the March of Solidarity for Iran in Washington, D.C. in October. Demonstrations have taken place inside Iran and around the world following the mid-September death of Mahsa Amini in custody. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

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Twitter has become an important tool for activists to get their message out, whether it's news of a human rights injustice, or plans for a protest.

But there's growing concern about the impact that Twitter's new owner Elon Musk might make it more difficult and, at times, dangerous for people protesting and activists trying to support them. 

"Because of measures that he's taken and layoffs that have happened and resignations that have occurred, it's as if the defences of this already weak platform have suddenly been dropped," Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, told Matt Galloway on The Current

In October, Musk, who is also Tesla's CEO, completed his $44-billion US acquisition of Twitter. That was followed by a landslide of layoffs, including the company's leadership team, as well as its human rights team. 

Close-up of short haired individual wearing a leather jacket, gesturing with his hands as he speaks.
Elon Musk has made changes to and dropped staff since purchasing Twitter. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Deibert says those firings are putting people at risk. 

"These are people that are doing their best in spite of some of the design features of the platform to help at-risk marginalized communities that are regularly targeted or harassed, or the focus or the object of spying over the platform," he said.

"They weren't doing it very well before because they lacked capacity and resources. Well, now they're gone."

A voice in Iran

Mahsa Alimardani, a senior researcher for the freedom of expression organization Article 19, points at what's happening in Iran as an example of how important social media platforms can be. 

"Without them the voices of Iranians essentially would not exist," said Alimardani.

Protests in Iran were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being arrested for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly. As those protests continue, Alimardani says many people are using Twitter to get the latest information. 

"It is essentially a place where, you know, international media comes to find what's happening on the ground in Iran," he said.

Iranian demonstrators are seen taking to the streets of the capital Tehran during a protest for Mahsa Amini, on Sept. 21, 2022, days after she died in police custody. (AFP/Getty Images)

It's become a double-edged sword, Alimardani said, because the Iranian government is also using it to get their message across. 

"It's incredibly hard for morale to see the state who's controlling the traditional media is also thriving on these platforms as well," she said.

Twitter recently introduced the option to purchase the signature blue verified checkmark, as part of their Twitter Blue premium subscription service.

The checkmark was previously only used to verify politicians, famous personalities, journalists and other public figures. Since the subscription became available, fake accounts impersonating public figures and companies have begun to crop up.

Alimardani says officials within the Iranian government are taking advantage of that, and purchasing checkmarks to give their previously unverified accounts the appearance of legitimacy.

And she says that's frustrating for protesters. 

"They're incredibly angry because they're facing this gruesome reality of what this regime is doing to them daily," said Alimardani. 

"At the same time, they feel this betrayal by platforms who aren't taking policies that are proportionate to the crimes of these actors that are also making use of these platforms to their advantage."

Mahsa Alimardani is a senior researcher for the freedom of expression organization Article 19. (Mahsa Alimardani)

Twitter has been used in other uprisings and cultural movements since its inception, such as the 2011 Egyption revolution, and Alimardani says it's an important platform for documenting history.

"They are really a part of the archive of the revolution. It's how this revolution has unfolded," said Alimardani. 

"If one day it does come to, you know, the successful completion that everyone wants to see ... Twitter will be an important component of Iranian history."

But if the platform were to go bankrupt, Alimardani is concerned about what would happen to that information. 

Safety risks

While not much else has changed yet, Deibert says it's the uncertainty that concerns him. 

"It's a train wreck and we've got an egocentric billionaire as the conductor. So many people are predicting that the platform might collapse, it might go insolvent. Even Musk himself said it may go bankrupt," said Deibert. 

"So we just don't know one day to the next because you have one person effectively determining the operations of a major component of our global public square."

In August, Twitter's former chief of information and security said the site's cybersecurity and privacy was broken. That has Deibert concerned about how oppressive regimes might be able to exploit those vulnerabilities.

Ron Deibert is the director of Citizen Lab, based out of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"I suspect that unless things change, we will be hearing about real-life harms that were precipitated by the insecurity of this platform," said Diebert. 

Despite Deibert's concerns about the current state of Twitter, he does believe in the internet's ability to connect people fighting for social justice. He says it's important for people to look at alternatives, even if there isn't a perfect solution. 

"What we desperately need is alternatives to private companies operating public spaces like this. And so maybe this will be a silver lining out of this disaster around Twitter that we may see alternatives emerge and become popular," he said.

The CBC reached out to Twitter for comment on safety and security concerns, but has not heard back.


Produced by Alison Masemann and Kate Cornick.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him on Twitter @phildrost or by email at philip.drost@cbc.ca.

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