In Brazil, Twitter users fear the effects of Musk’s reign | Business and Economics News


It was Easter and Lola Aronovich, a professor of Brazilian literature, was enjoying a break on a beach without internet access, completely unaware of the smear campaign orchestrated against her on Twitter.

On that day in April 2015, the son of Geraldo Alckmin, former governor of São Paulo and current vice-president-elect of Brazil, tragically died in a helicopter crash. Aronovich saw the events unfold on TV and returned home three days later – only to find thousands of vitriolic messages directed at her on Twitter for something she hadn’t done.

“A fake tweet was created in which I lamented that Alckmin was not involved in the accident. [The attackers] said I deleted the tweet shortly after posting it. The post went viral and I was threatened by politicians, academics and users with large subscriber bases,” Aronovich, who teaches at the Federal University of Ceara, told Al Jazeera.

“I said I never wrote that. A far-right Twitter user noticed the image was fake, but the damage was done. Some of the people [who reposted the fake tweet] deleted their messages, but no one ever apologized to me,” she said.

It was one of many occasions where Aronovich, who uses Twitter to discuss feminism and human rights issues, faced bullying and abuse on the social media platform.

“Someone has been harassing me nonstop for three years, and I’m constantly being attacked. I’ve blocked tens of thousands of users over the past decade,” said the professor, who has a database of just under 200,000 followers on Twitter.

Twitter Blue: “A license to attack”

Things don’t bode well for activists like Aronovich with changes to the platform under new owner Elon Musk, namely paid verification product Twitter Blue.

“I get anonymous comments on my blog saying they can’t wait [Twitter Blue] is available in Brazil. They plan to create a verified profile in my name to defame me at will,” Aronovich said.

The professor worries about Musk’s plans to enforce his “free speech absolutist” vision, while generating profits.

“It is extremely dangerous, given that [Musk’s] supporters are usually those who harass others online with campaigns that can extrapolate into the real world,” Aronovich said. “[Twitter Blue] is effectively a license to attack.

There are broader concerns about how the new leadership will affect democratic debate on the platform. With 19 million users, Twitter is the ninth largest social network in Brazil, which pales in comparison to WhatsApp, the country’s most popular social app with 165 million users according to data from We Are Social and Hootsuite.

Despite its relatively small user base, the microblogging site plays a vital role in shaping public opinion online, according to David Nemer, a professor at the University of Virginia and a research associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. from Harvard University.

“It’s as if all Brazilians are on Twitter even if they are not, because the impressions of what is published there are widely shared on other social networks, such as WhatsApp,” he said. .

Misinformation on Twitter aimed at Brazilian users has worsened significantly in recent years, Nemer said. He noted that the platform was unprepared for its increased relevance in the country, prompted by the attention President Jair Bolsonaro received on Twitter when he used the platform – and other media. social – to reach voters during his election campaign in 2018, a first in the South American nation. This, in turn, has led to increased adoption of the tool across the political spectrum.

With nearly 70,000 followers on Twitter, Nemer uses the platform as a tool for activism and to advance his academic research, which focuses on the production and dissemination of false information by far-right groups via messaging apps. such as Telegram and WhatsApp.

Like Aronovich, Nemer’s Twitter activity made him a target, with threats frequently received. He worries that recent moves by Musk, such as ousting the department responsible for making the platform’s algorithm fairer and more transparent, could have disastrous consequences.

“Absolutism in freedom of expression is bad in Brazil because it directly touches the heart of democracy while discouraging people from different social strata, races and sexual orientations from being part of the platform,” he said. he noted.

More broadly, the academic believes that Twitter will continue to play a crucial role in the new government led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, elected last month.

“The disinformation war is likely to continue as it is about setting up narratives and occupying spaces. Twitter is essential in this sense, and I don’t see anyone [in the political scene] drop it,” Nemer added.

Last week Musk said Twitter would limit the reach of negative or hateful content – something that was in place before his purchase of the company – while avoiding the elimination of these positions.

“[Musk] trying to show the progressive public that they are doing something to contain hate speech, given that these people have left the platform in droves,” Nemer said.

However, such methods of curbing the spread of hateful content are somewhat ineffective, said Brazil-based Afrofuturism author and Twitter influencer Ale Santos.

“People who are dedicated to spreading false and hurtful content online are constantly studying the limits of the platform and improving how they spread hate online,” Santos pointed out.

Paying for verification is a “luxury”

After Bolsonaro took office in 2019, Santos began to use the platform more intensely to express his political views.

“You could not utter a word against the government and an army of [Bolsonaro] fans would crumble like a ton of bricks to offend, intimidate and criticize,” he said.

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“They are not interested in the debate itself. Instead, they’re focused on creating controversy that will ripple through the network,” said Santos, a fiction writer who has more than 145,000 subscribers and has embroiled himself in a number of vicious debates. with users including the president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, and others far away. good influencers.

After realizing that activity on Twitter was taking a toll on his mental health, Santos chose to take his activism to other platforms.

“I decided to do it through my podcast and through my literary work. I left Twitter aside for these debates: I always say what I think there, but do not involve me in individual clashes with people,” he noted.

Musk’s plans to monetize the platform while turning it into a “town square” where everyone can have a voice don’t make sense when set in the Brazilian reality, Santos said.

“A public square would be great if everyone could be there. As a white American male, Musk seems to be quite alienated from other cultures. In Brazil, where food insecurity has worsened, paying for verification on a social networking site is a luxury. It will amplify the social divide within the platform and make it a stage for extremists,” Santos said.

On Saturday, Musk brought back Donald Trump, a day after announcing the platform reinstated some banned Twitter users including author Jordan Peterson, comedian Kathy Griffin and conservative parody The Babylon Bee. Santos believes the latest decisions are a nod to far-right audiences.

” By doing this, [Musk] implies that things will be easier for this group,” he said, adding that it probably won’t sit well with advertisers either. “[Reinstating banned users] is another measure that can destabilize the platform.

Al Jazeera did not receive a response to requests for comment sent to Twitter Brazil’s communications team or its country manager, Fiamma Zarife.

Insufficient attention to local contexts is a long-standing problem in social media sites like Twitter, said data protection and global internet governance consultant Bruna Martins dos Santos.

“The content policies of these platforms are commands from the United States to the rest of the world, created as a reflex of the Capitol invasion rather than the political processes that took place elsewhere,” she said, making a reference to former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledging to the US Congress that the site played a role in the Capitol Riots.

Need for regulation

The United States also needs clear rules on what platforms can and cannot do, according to Santos. Brazil has proposed a bill to regulate social media which is currently stalled in Congress.

“They [the US] also don’t have a data protection law, whereas Brazil has one,” she said.

At an event in New York on Monday organized by the group of Brazilian business leaders LIDE, Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes highlighted the role of lawmakers in combating the spread of false information in line in Brazil. The judge also reinforced his plan to regulate social networks so that they are no longer “a no man’s land”.

Given that Twitter has become a central part of public discourse globally, the lack of regulatory mechanisms that take into account its importance is “unfortunate”, said Bill Thompson, a UK-based internet pioneer. Uni and commentator for Digital Planet, a BBC World Service technology. program.

“It’s an indication that we haven’t thought about the importance of these platforms properly,” he said.

As for how Musk could make Twitter a better place to foster democratic debate, Thompson noted, “He could say, ‘Make it a public place we can be proud of, with the engineering, the tools and facilities to be a positive contribution to humanity, and do so as my legacy.

“No one should own a public plaza,” and that the platform could exist under a public trust, Thompson added.

“[Musk] is someone who has a lot of other businesses, is a wealthy person and doesn’t need [Twitter] make a profit,” he said. “Twitter could be independent of him and, indeed, of everything else.

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