Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been tumultuous, to say the least. Twitter Verification has been rolled out and everyone interested in the service can pay $8 a month to get verified and receive benefits, such as the coveted blue tick, with a potential for higher visibility and reach on the platform.
In theory, verification will result in fewer bots on Twitter, leading to better quality information and less fake news and misinformation. Verification could also deter users from sharing or producing objectionable content that may be attributed to or traced back to them, possibly preserving the entire system’s information quality. It will presumably lead to fewer echo chambers. All of this benefits all Twitter users, including advertisers.
However, as people from the Global South already lack easy access to social media, will the introduction of paid verification lead to even fewer of them on Twitter? What does this mean in terms of algorithmic justice? It can be assumed that if fewer people from a particular region are verified, their tweets will not gain the same traction or reach as those in other locations. Worse, can only those who pay from the Global South access quality information and reach a wider audience within and beyond their countries and networks? What does this mean for elite social media capture in the Global South?
There appears to be little attention being paid to what Twitter verification means for the Global South, where, in some countries, $8 per month could equate to a child’s monthly school fee. At the very least it needs to be better explained. Even if adjusted for the price according to country, is Twitter verification killing equity for apparent equality of access and reach?
Saudi royalty and the Qatari sovereign fund are a large part of the investor pool that co-invested with Musk to enable his acquisition of Twitter. Authoritarian monarchies are hardly bastions of democracy, particularly in the Global South. One could presume that investment means a certain degree of influence on Twitter’s direction, whether related to content moderation or which aspect of the platform to develop. What does this mean for any human rights violations regarding freedom of speech? Will citizens of the Global South be able to exercise their right to political expression freely on Twitter?
Moreover, Twitter’s Head of Legal, Policy and Trust, Vijaya Gadde, was an Indian-born American citizen with links to the Hindutva-based Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He was recently fired by Musk, and was responsible for many content moderation decisions. According to whistle-blower Peiter ‘Mudge’ Zatko’s testimony to the US Senate, Twitter had allowed a ‘foreign agent’ to be placed by the Indian regime in Twitter’s head office. It has been documented that both Kashmir– and Palestine-related content has long been suppressed on Twitter. Does this signal that both Kashmir and Palestine will be provided at least equal — not preferential — coverage as that afforded to other political and military conflicts in the world? Will Twitter algorithms no longer reflect political biases and double standards?
In an ideal scenario, the new management could push Twitter to pay greater attention to conflicts in the Global South as mainstream Western media tends not to provide adequate coverage, particularly if they do not involve the West.
Musk has emphasised that Twitter’s content moderation council will have people with widely divergent viewpoints to create inclusive content moderation policies and decisions. Some countries in the Global South do not, at times, have the strongest safety records or laws to protect people from hate speech and slander. What does this mean for the security of life and property with online hate easily spilling offline in those countries?
Billionaire Musk has sent mixed signals so far. From retweeting conspiracy theories to cryptic messages to neo-Nazis, his communication strategy has left much to be desired. However, Musk has shown a willingness to stand by some of the high-profile Twitter suspensions dictated before his tenure. A case in point is that of Alex Jones. The justification was because “[he has] no mercy for anyone who would use the deaths of children for gain, politics or fame”; according to human trafficking and child abuse activists, Twitter is now taking child exploitation seriously, with child abuse-related content being removed.
While Musk has enforced certain boundaries about child safety issues, critics claim that Twitter’s content moderation policy is now “wholly dependent on which side of the bed he wakes up on or how users respond to random polls”. If proven to be true, that can be dangerous for democratic values anywhere in the world, not just in the Global South. It would be beneficial to have a clear content moderation policy as Twitter moves to expand and include more users in future.
In terms of plans to include payments on the Twitter platform, presumably to pay for products, services or content, it appears that, given that the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, Binance, co-invested with Musk in Twitter by contributing $400 million, cryptocurrency may be the preferred, if not only, method of payment.
This approach can raise questions about inclusivity because many people in the Global South do not have the knowledge of or easy access to cryptocurrency-related infrastructure or cryptocurrency assets. Does this mean that they cannot access token-gated products, services or content? Furthermore, if people from the rest of the world can charge and receive payments in cryptocurrency on Twitter (even from advertising that may rely on user impressions from the Global South), would it be fair to people from the Global South who cannot be paid for their creations or citizen journalism yet form the basis for others being paid for content that they view?
This problem remains unresolved even when considering regular fiat payments when so many in the Global South remain unbanked or without any relevant financial infrastructure. Unless inclusive financial infrastructure (an example may be the option of mobile wallets) is in place and utilised in the Global South, content monetisation should not occur.
Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition has tremendous potential and challenges for the international community, particularly in the Global South. Given that the next wave of social media users is likely to come from the Global South, it would make good business sense to develop products and policies with them in mind, along with everyone else across political spectrums and socioeconomic strata.
This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Middle East Monitor.