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Impersonation, increasing hate speech, targeted intimidation campaigns against activists - these are all problems Twitter users have long dealt with around the globe. Now, human rights and freedom of expression advocates are warning that new owner Elon Musk's drastic cuts and chaotic changes at Twitter are heightening the risks for everyone. NPR's Shannon Bond reports.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Mishi Choudhary doesn't have to imagine how a social network that's understaffed can lead to real-world harms. She need only look to mob killings in her own country, India, fueled by social media posts.
MISHI CHOUDHARY: The majority world, the Global South, is an expert on all of these issues.
BOND: Choudhary is a lawyer and founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, a digital rights organization. And for advocates like her, the risks Elon Musk is taking with Twitter are all too familiar.
CHOUDHARY: I generally say that we have been watching the same reality TV shows. India is two or three seasons ahead.
BOND: Because even before Musk slashed more than half of jobs at Twitter, eliminated thousands of contractors, including content moderators, and forced the resignation of hundreds more workers, Twitter was already struggling to manage the impact the platform has around the world, especially in languages other than English. Shannon McGregor is a communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She says it's a problem shared by the major social networks.
SHANNON MCGREGOR: They don't have enough people who understand the language and the culture and the politics to be involved in these things.
BOND: Still, Twitter and its staff were aware of what's at stake. Even though only a small proportion of India's 1.4 billion people use the social network, it's influential among politicians, the media and activists.
THENMOZHI SOUNDARARAJAN: One tweet could set off a pogrom.
BOND: Thenmozhi Soundararajan is executive director of Equality Labs, which advocates for the rights of India's Dalit community.
SOUNDARARAJAN: Before Musk acquired Twitter, it was understood within the company that markets in South Asia, including India, were countries in which mass atrocity was agreed to be occurring.
BOND: Her group is part of Twitter's Outside Trust and Safety Council, which advises the company, helping it develop lists of racist slurs, for example. The council has not met since Musk took over. Soundararajan and others are alarmed by the changes Musk has already made, from announcing he will reinstate many accounts that Twitter had kicked off for breaking its rules to selling blue checkmarks that previously indicated Twitter had verified the identities of high-profile accounts.
SOUNDARARAJAN: It is not clear to me at all that Musk knows the kinds of liability he's creating with these sort of antics.
BOND: At the same time, Musk has gutted the teams that set and enforced Twitter's rules. The company's human rights group and teams that work to prevent political manipulation are gone. That's fueling worries bad actors will have free rein to abuse the platform ahead of important elections around the world. Joan Donovan is an expert in online extremism and disinformation at the Harvard Kennedy School.
JOAN DONOVAN: The possibility for different kinds of media manipulation and disinformation campaigns to proliferate is enormous.
BOND: Meanwhile, digital rights activists are wondering how far Musk's avowed commitment to free speech extends in countries where Twitter doesn't make a lot of money. In India, Twitter is locked in a legal battle with the government. It's challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi's orders to censor critics on social media. Lawyer Mishi Choudhary says that stance has sent a powerful message.
CHOUDHARY: I rely on the fact that Twitter does not cave in to the pressure of my government and continues to allow me to speak no matter what I'm speaking against them.
BOND: She's waiting for any sign that Musk will stand up for her, too. Shannon Bond, NPR News.
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