During the week that Elon Musk took control of Twitter, Egyptian activists and their allies were campaigning for the release Alaa abd el Fattah, one of the national icons of the Arab Spring. Every Egyptian regime in el Fattah’s lifetime has imprisoned the 40-year-old blogger for offenses related to his protests. The latest charge, under Gen. Abdel Fattah el Sisi, was perhaps the most spurious; he was accused of “spreading fake news” for sharing a Facebook post about torture. He has now been in jail for most of the past 10 years.
Earlier this year, el Fattah went on hunger strike, consuming only 100 calories a day, and on November 7, as the COP27 environmental conference began in Egypt, he started to decline water, too. He’s demanding his release and that the government improve conditions in Egyptian prisons. His sisters, themselves formidable activists, mobilized the hashtag #FreeAlaa to draw international attention to his plight, but the signal seems to have gotten lost in the noise of Musk’s puerile, erratic behavior as Twitter’s new owner.
The confluence of events is revealing of social media’s broader arc over the past 15 years. What started as a space for banalities quickly evolved into a space for connection and political organizing. The Arab Spring was not the only social movement to use sharing platforms to raise international awareness of their cause. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter in the United States, #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria, and #MyDressMyChoice in Kenya used Twitter to bring their local messages to the world. In Kenya and Senegal, groups used Twitter to crowdsource parallel vote tallying and independent election monitoring, improving election outcomes. But while the future of the platform has always been precarious—its growth long ago outpaced its owners’ understanding of how it should function—Musk represents a new, urgent threat to the company.
As soon as Musk took over, he fired the human rights team, the Accra-based division of the Africa office, the entire India team, and the engineers who oversaw making the site more accessible to people with disabilities. By this weekend, Musk had also reportedly laid off 4,400 of the 5,500 contractors overseeing content moderation on the site. As el Fattah, a figurehead for the idea that social media can hold otherwise unresponsive governments accountable, battles for our attention, the owner of the platforms where many of us learned of el Fattah is banning people who hurt his feelings and threatening to sue anyone who criticizes him.
It is a duel for two possible futures for Twitter. For all its limitations—and there are many—Twitter is the closest that the world has to a transnational public sphere. Partly, this is a function of the site’s structure, which is public first and private second. Unlike other social networking sites, users must opt out of the public stream instead of opting in, and a 2017 Pew Center study found that 48 percent of Twitter users mostly follow people they don’t know, compared to only 3 percent on Facebook. The app encourages people to connect with new people rather than engage with people they already know.
This roughly sorts Twitter users into two categories—broadcasters and viewers. Thus in 2021, the Pew Center found that the most active 25 percent of users by volume produced 97 percent of all tweets from US adults. Twitter remains largely unattractive to the viewers, those who do not want to constantly broadcast themselves, which perhaps explains why the site has struggled to grow its user base. Viewers might find the constant stream of information overwhelming or feel that the opportunity cost of participating is too high, thereby limiting their presence on the site. Some viewers remain satisfied with anonymously retweeting others or passively consuming content on the site, but many more users prefer other sites.
But this also makes it the preferred medium for politicians, diplomats, journalists, movement leaders, and people for whom broadcasting their views is part of their job or their personal preference. Twitter makes it possible for these groups to find each other and exchange information. Marginalized groups shut out of legacy media can use Twitter to cultivate and engage audiences. With Twitter, we can build audiences and broadcast to a world where, as Arundhati Roy put it in her 2004 City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture, we are otherwise “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
Nothing about Musk’s behavior over the past week indicates that he understands any of this. His choices suggest that he is deliberately uninterested in Twitter’s social value, especially outside the United States. The debate over verification underscores this. Musk’s grasp of what people use verification for is US-centric, indeed Silicon Valley–centric. There are about 400,000 verified Twitter accounts in the world. In the United States, which seems to be the sum of Musk’s view of the world, these may include many celebrities or politicians. In the rest of the world, however, many of the most important verified users are government leaders, diplomats, and journalists on the front lines of complex political situations in the world and for whom the risk of imitation and the proposed $8 a month cost is high.
Independent journalists across Asia, Africa, and Latin America depend on that blue tick to do reporting that would not otherwise be published possible. Many are writing in contexts of censorship and intimidation, particularly of independent media. For instance, Mada Masr, an independent digital platform in Egypt whose editors have routinely faced arrest and detention, is not only able to consistently publish details of el Fattah’s arrests in Egypt but to do so for audiences outside Egypt. Imitation can undermine the credibility of such independent outlets, tarnish their reputations, and make it difficult for their work to surface in international networks.
Musk’s antagonizing and berating verified users is misguided enough, but turning off the features that make the site worthwhile for “the broadcasters” without introducing a suitable alternative is short-sighted and risky. That blue tick helps people and organizations like Rana Ayyub (India, 1.5 million followers), Rukshana Media (Afghanistan, 12.4K followers), Boniface Mwangi (Kenya, 1.8 million followers), and Farida Bemba Nabourema (Togo, 36K followers) show international audiences what they are doing without their having to navigate the censorship in their respective domestic media markets. Twitter under Musk has offered (then rescinded, then offered again) institutions the “official” tag as a substitute, but it’s not clear if independent journalists and activists in the Global South will qualify or how.
This tension has always been Twitter’s central problem: the divergence between Twitter Inc. and Twitter the online forum. The site is important in a way that cannot easily be quantified in financial terms and which means little in the Silicon Valley model of technological development in which investors incessantly attend to the conjoined twins of infinite growth and profitability. Twitter Inc. has never turned a profit—even as its social value has grown. Twitter Inc.’s customers are advertisers and its obligations are to shareholders, but users experience Twitter as a digital public square sustained by our civic obligations to one another. “Who will build and foot the financial and the social bill for Twitter as a public good?” remains one of the most vexing questions in platform governance today.
There’s a growing chance that Twitter Inc. will not survive Musk. That in and of itself is no great tragedy. Social media is a highly iterative space, and new things are already waiting in the wings. But there is a greater lesson here for the broadcasters who are using platforms to advance calls for social change. For us in the “rest of the world,” the people who run these platforms do not understand the role they play in our political lives. In my 2018 book, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, I detail how social movements in Kenya harnessed Twitter to foster social change and transformation that would not otherwise have been possible.
In that book, I also remind activists that social media can and should be used to advance causes, but that the platforms we have today are private corporations beholden to the whims of those who own them. That lesson is more urgent than ever as we watch Twitter implode thanks to the petty parochialisms of its new owner, while a person whose work made his platform worthwhile for so many of us fights for his life and freedom.