Musk’s Twitter deal stirs fears of abuse in Asia, Middle East

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Elon Musk’s plan to acquire Twitter has alarmed human rights activists in Asia and the Middle East, where social media platforms have been accused of inciting violence.

Musk has called himself a free speech absolutist and criticized Twitter’s policy of moderating content. But rolling back such curbs on hate speech would put vulnerable people at risk, said Phil Robertson of advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

“Incitement to violence against a minority group, like we saw with the Rohingya when the platforms did not take down hate speech and abuse, is a very real danger,” Robertson, deputy director for Asia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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“We could go down a very dark hole if we go down that path again,” he said.

United Nations investigators said Facebook played a key role in spreading hate speech that fueled violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in 2017, which refugees said included mass killings and rape by soldiers.

Twitter, which has faced criticism for not doing enough to stop ethnic slurs, hate speech and incitement to violence in Ethiopia where there has been fighting since 2020, did not respond to a request for comment.

“We work hard to minimize toxic and illegal content,” the company said on its website.

“We try to minimize the distribution and reach of harmful or misleading information, especially when its intent is to disrupt a civic process or cause offline harm.”

Content moderation

In India - which is the third most popular country in the world for Twitter with about 24 million users according to research site Statista - slurs and memes on social media regularly attack Muslims and low-caste Dalits.

“The problem of caste-targeted expression and discrimination is rife, which Twitter has failed to address in a nuanced and effective manner,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at digital rights group Access Now.

Musk’s intent to privatize Twitter and reduce content moderation raises concerns that “more rampant online abuse can translate to offline harms against people’s security and liberties,” he said.

“Across Asia, we have observed incitement to violence by political actors and extremists targeting human rights defenders and minorities amplified on Twitter” in countries including India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, he added.

Rana Ayyub, a Muslim journalist who is often critical of Hindu right-wing politicians in India, has been trolled and threatened online for her work.

Musk’s proposals would put him at loggerheads with Asian governments that want tech companies to quickly remove content they deem as inappropriate, and the European Union where new rules call for more aggressive online policing of hate speech.

Online abuse

In the Middle East, online hate speech is rising, according to 7amleh, an Israeli-based non-profit that advocates for Palestinian digital rights, which recorded more than 620,000 online conversations involving racism and incitement last year.

Twitter accounted for 58 percent of incitement on social media, often targeting Arab members of parliament, it said.

“This calls for greater seriousness in dealing with hate speech, especially since this discourse leads to real world harm,” said Mona Shtaya, an advocacy advisor at 7amleh.

She described Musk’s proposal to end anonymity on Twitter as “dangerous, especially for peoples who live under oppressive regimes, which often pursue activists and human rights defenders based on what they publish on social media.”

In Lebanon, journalist Luna Safwan was threatened online after she posted a tweet about the militant group Hezbollah’s political influence - a trend seen globally with many women journalists also reporting that online abuse spills offline.

Access Now has called on Twitter to halt the sale until it sets out “concrete measures to protect human rights, regardless of who owns the company,” including conducting an independent human rights impact assessment of the proposed acquisition.

That might reveal the concerns of “people who live in the majority world - the Global South,” said Mishi Choudhary, legal director of the Software Freedom Law Center in Delhi, which represents the rights of internet users.

“They don’t have the institutions to protect their rights, yet constantly face harassment at the hands of their own leaders and their proxies,” she said.

“They are the growing future markets for all these platforms - and yet their voices are absent from the discourse.”

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