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Asia’s Dissenters Hungry Over Elon Musk’s Twitter Revolution

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

Han’s outspoken posts draw attention to the rights of migrant workers, racism the government claims does not exist and, in most cases, the hundreds of non-violent executions of drug offenders carried out in the city-state during the last decades.

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

In June, Han was asked to hand over access to her Twitter, Facebook and 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 posts on her social media accounts, including Twitter, as evidence to launch the investigation, which is ongoing.

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Han has no plans to stop using Twitter, but the way he uses it may change as the rules governing the platform face a radical shakeup under new owner Elon Musk.

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

As Han continues to wait for the details of the changes to be revealed, she worries that Internet trolls will impersonate her and sow confusion among her followers.

“I guess I’m going to lose the blue mark at some point, but it also seems as the details come out that blue mark verification will only be available to whoever pays,” Han told Al Jazeera.

More fundamentally, Han worries that Musk doesn’t understand the responsibility that now falls on his shoulders.

“He’s a businessman who, just by observation, has a somewhat inflated sense of how qualified he is to get things done,” he said.

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“He doesn’t seem to be qualified or really that knowledgeable about how communication platforms, social media and technology work, and what responsibilities they have, which is quite concerning.”

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Han isn’t the only one worried.

Singapore authorities strictly control protests and political speech in the city-state [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

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

Many live in countries where the authorities severely restrict freedom of expression. For such users, Twitter can be a vital window to the outside world, a rare platform for open debate, often 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 questions about his understanding of the complexities of social media.

The Tesla founder, a self-described “free speech absolutist” who has accused Twitter of exhibiting a left-wing bias, has pledged to reshape moderation policies on the platform to encourage streaming and discussion from a broader spectrum of points of view.

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

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

In countries like Myanmar, where Twitter has played a major role in information sharing since a military coup in 2021, Musk’s inauguration has raised anxiety and concern.

Despite government crackdowns on social networks and media at home and abroad, anonymous accounts have continued to spread information about state-sponsored violence and anti-government protests.

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

Now, things could get worse as moderation becomes even scarcer and government-linked accounts proliferate, Maung said.

“We are concerned that the changes will make Twitter more dangerous for users in Myanmar 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 said. Al Jazeera.

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

Activists are also concerned about how Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink, could be influenced by China, where he has significant business interests.

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Tesla set up its largest production plant in Shanghai and earlier this year opened a showroom in Xinjiang, where Beijing has waged a long-running crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities, even as major brands Westerners publicly distanced themselves from the region.

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

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

While Twitter, like other Western social media platforms, is blocked in China, Beijing oversees a host of state-sponsored “wolf warrior” accounts that screen their messages and monitor the social media activity of dissidents. Chinese living abroad.

Many of these accounts also harass users who post on topics considered sensitive to China, such as the political status of Taiwan 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 one concern for dissidents like her is abuse of Twitter’s feature for reporting inappropriate content by government-backed accounts and bots. condition.

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

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

It’s unclear whether the situation will worsen with fewer “guardrails” on the platform, he said, while there are also concerns about whether Chinese state media will continue to be clearly labeled as such.

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

“I haven’t decided yet,” he told Al Jazeera.

Pravit Rojanahruk
Veteran Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk says many Thais are concerned about what will happen to their personal data after Musk takes over 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 time under the country’s harsh lèse-majesté laws.

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

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“Twitter is one of the top two or most popular social networking applications when it comes to political debate. It is the least censored in Thailand, even compared to Facebook. Many of the Thai users actually use a pseudonym,” Pravit told Al Jazeera.

“They are not using a royal 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 the use of anonymous accounts.”

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