Politics

Twitter layoffs will shrink free speech around the world

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TWITTER, INC. — now under new management, if that’s the right word — fired about half its workers over the weekend, a big story by anyone’s standards. Yet some teams and countries suffered worse — and that is a story with global political implications.

In India, for example, Twitter seems to have laid off 90% of its employees. In Brazil, a team of 150 was let go, according to Bloomberg Línea. Shortly after Elon Musk took over the company, the number of employees with the ability to suspend or ban an account for breaches of user policies was at least temporarily reduced from “hundreds” to about 15.

Musk’s vision for Twitter is not particularly complex. He views it as a software platform first, and only then as a social network. The company should care about the plumbing that lies behind the posts, not the posts themselves and how they connect to each other: Speech on the network should be largely unmoderated and unmediated. The obvious corollary is that Twitter’s halls should filled with coders; all the “content” people are superfluous to the company’s mission.

Yet Musk has said his goal for Twitter is actually to “empower the voice of the people” and to become “by far the most accurate source of information in the world.” Let’s take these claims at face value. Do his actions further them? Can a company dominated by coders really fulfill those goals in places such as India, if it employs just a dozen people locally?

Musk’s idea that unmoderated, unmediated speech on a values-free platform will lead to democratization and empowerment simply doesn’t hold true in the countries where most Twitter users live. Half of the company’s ad revenues come from the United States but over 80% of its users live elsewhere — most of them in countries that don’t have the constitutional and legal protections for speech that Americans such as Musk take for granted.

Platforms that want to operate in such countries need to be able to make hard choices over content. Traditionally, Twitter has said that, in order to create an attractive and accessible space for its users, it will follow government and court orders in the countries where it operates. But it also takes action beyond what is strictly required by law, removing tweets and suspending accounts that violate its own internal rules on hate speech and disinformation.

Importantly, the company also occasionally says it’s unable to obey official dictates. Last year, Twitter got into a tussle with the Indian government when it refused to block some accounts bureaucrats had ordered it to shut down. At the time, the company insisted that “we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians.”

In other words, to “empower the voice of the people” in most countries around the world, you sometimes have to do more than what is strictly required by law, and sometimes you have to do less. Promoting free speech in the US is relatively simple, given that the First Amendment is on your side. Elsewhere in the world, it requires teams of content specialists, government relations people, and lawyers.

The charitable way of looking at this is that Musk — whose online bio currently reads “Twitter Complaint Hotline Operator” — is so naïve that he genuinely thinks he can solve a lot of these problems himself. It’s been reported, for example, that he was “personally moderating” tweets about the closely fought Brazilian election last week. (There are 20 million Twitter users in Brazil.)

Even if you think that Musk is Superman, or possibly Tony Stark, the evidence is already piling up that this task might be a little beyond one man. You can’t easily apply political intuitions that have been formed in a very specific US discourse to other, complicated countries such Brazil. Unsurprisingly, this approach created trouble for Musk within a week, when he promised to “look into” the suspension of some right-wing accounts in Brazil. The assurance was given, publicly and on Twitter, to a not-at-all-suspended television personality with a million followers, who also happens to be the grandson of Brazil’s last military dictator.

Musk might think the Twitter he bought crimped free speech. But governments from Turkey to Nigeria to India disagree. They worry that Twitter brings American notions of what constitutes free expression into their societies, reducing their ability to police speech. They would celebrate a platform with less moderation and less capacity to push back against state power. The chances are that they are right and Musk is wrong about what it takes to defend free speech.

BLOOMBERG OPINION