From China to Thailand, dissidents fear Musk’s Twitter reign

Taipei, Taiwan – Singaporean activist and journalist Kirsten Han uses Twitter to talk about things that Singapore’s government would rather keep secret.

Han’s outspoken posts draw attention to the rights of migrant workers, the racism the government claims doesn’t exist and, most often, the hundreds of executions of non-violent drug offenders carried out in the city-state over the past few decades.

For her work, Han has been condemned on the floor of Singapore’s parliament and targeted by the police, something she also tweets about to the 29,000-odd followers of her verified account.

In June, Han was required to turn over access to her Twitter, Facebook Instagram accounts when she was investigated under Singapore’s Public Order Act for holding a four-person vigil against the death penalty. Police cited Han’s postings on her social media accounts, including Twitter, as evidence for launching the probe, which is ongoing.

Han has no plans to stop using Twitter, but how she uses it may change as the rules governing the platform face a radical shake-up under new owner Elon Musk.

Musk plans to scrap Twitter’s identity authentication system as soon as this week, offering the distinctive blue check mark, once reserved for verified high-profile users, to anyone willing to pay $8 a month.

While Han is still waiting for the details of the changes to unfold, she is concerned about the prospect of internet trolls impersonating her and sowing confusion among her followers.

“I assume I’m going to lose the blue tick at some point, but then it also seems – as the details come out – that the blue tick verification thing is just going to be available to whoever pays,” Han told Al Jazeera.

More fundamentally, Han worries that Musk does not understand the responsibility that is now on his shoulders.

“He’s a businessman who, just from observation, has a somewhat overinflated sense of how qualified he is to do things,” she said.

“He doesn’t seem qualified or really that knowledgeable about how communication and social media and tech platforms work, and the responsibilities that they have, which is quite worrying.”

Han is not the only one worrying.

Authorities in Singapore tightly control protest and political speech in the city-state [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

Across Asia, activists, journalists, and Twitter users plugged into human rights and social justice issues are worried about how the social media platform will change under the leadership of the world’s richest man.

Many live in countries where freedom of speech is severely curtailed by authorities. For such users, Twitter can be a vital window to the outside world, a rare platform for open debate – often from behind the veil of anonymity – or both.

For critics, the concerns range from questions about Musk’s ideological leanings and his business interests in countries like China to doubts about his understanding of the complexities of social media.

The Tesla founder, a self-described “free speech absolutist” who has accused Twitter of exhibiting left-wing bias, has pledged to reshape moderation policies on the platform to encourage the airing and debate of a wider spectrum of views.

On Friday, Musk set in motion a radical restructuring of the company by firing about half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees, including the entire human rights team, according to former legal counsel Shannon Raj Singh.

Al Jazeera did not receive a response to requests for comment sent to the Twitter accounts of the company’s communications teams or its head of safety and integrity, Yael Roth.

In countries like Myanmar, where Twitter has played an important role in sharing information since a military coup in 2021, Musk’s takeover has prompted anxiety and concern.

Despite a government crackdown on social media and both domestic and foreign media, anonymous accounts have continued to disseminate information about state-sponsored violence and anti-government protests.

Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson for Justice for Myanmar, an account with 165,000 followers, said Twitter had already been failing to counter psychological warfare and misinformation shared by Myanmar’s military administration on social media.

Now, things could take a turn for the worse as moderation becomes even more sparse and government-linked accounts proliferate, Maung said.

“We are concerned that changes will make Twitter more dangerous for Myanmar users who are under threat from an illegitimate military junta, and that Twitter under Elon Musk could provide greater space for the junta and its supporters to spread disinformation and hate speech,” Maung told Al Jazeera.

Tesla
Tesla’s largest production facility is located in Shanghai, China [File: Aly Song/Reuters]

Activists are also worried about how Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink, could be influenced by China, where he has major business interests.

Tesla has established its biggest production facility in Shanghai and earlier this year opened a showroom in Xinjiang, where Beijing has carried out a lengthy campaign of repression against the Uighurs and other ethnic minority Muslims, even as major Western brands publicly distanced themselves from the region.

“The worry is that if Elon Musk is potentially corrupt or trying to appease the Chinese government, he will be handing over data and he will be giving the Chinese government access to data,” Vicky Xu, an Australia-based researcher and journalist who has documented her harassment by pro-Beijing accounts on social media, told Al Jazeera.

“Twitter is such an important platform for advocacy and dissent. With Elon Musk, even if he’s never going to hand over any data to China, even if the Chinese government was not able to influence him, there’s still a psychological fear that a lot of dissidents or activists feel that this platform is just not as free as before and it is not as impartial as before or not as pro-democracy as before.”

While Twitter, like other Western social media platforms, is blocked in China, Beijing oversees a large number of state-sponsored “wolf warrior” accounts that project its messaging and monitor the social media activity of Chinese dissidents living abroad.

Many of these accounts also harass users who post about issues deemed sensitive to China, such as Taiwan’s political status or political repression in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet.

Sandra, a Hong Kong-based Chinese-language Twitter account with more than 47,000 followers, said a concern for dissidents like her is the abuse of Twitter’s function for reporting inappropriate content by state-backed accounts and bots.

The Hong Kong democracy activist said she was suspended from Twitter for 6 months in 2019 after being targeted by pro-Beijing accounts for posting about the city’s anti-government protests.

Sandra said many Chinese dissident accounts have faced similar issues, with appeals taking months to reach a resolution.

It is unclear if the situation will get worse with fewer “guard rails” on the platform, she said, while there is also concern about whether Chinese state media will continue to be clearly labelled as such.

Sandra, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sweeping crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, said she was still waiting to see how the changes would play out.

“I have not decided yet,” she told Al Jazeera.

Pravit Rojanaphruk
Veteran Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk says many Thais are worried about what will happen to their personal data after Musk’s takeover of Twitter [File: AP Photo]

In Thailand, Twitter is one of the few spaces where citizens can take advantage of anonymity to debate the future of the monarchy without risking jail under the country’s tough lèse-majesté laws.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, an award-winning journalist who was previously charged with sedition for criticising the military government, said many Thais are worried about what will happen to their personal data and whether military-backed accounts will proliferate.

“Twitter is one of the two premier or most popular social media apps when it comes to political discussion. It’s the least censored in Thailand, even compared to Facebook. Many of the Thai users are actually using a nom de plume,” Pravit told Al Jazeera.

“They aren’t using a real identity when it comes to sensitive discussions about the monarchy, and we don’t know [how] Elon Musk is going to interpret this debate about using anonymous accounts.”

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