Elon Musk’s Twitter Chaos Is Going to Be Even Worse Overseas

Gutting the workforce will make it harder to protect dissidents and police misinformation.

By , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
Twitter headquarters stands on 10th Street in San Francisco, California.
Twitter headquarters stands on 10th Street in San Francisco, California.
Twitter headquarters stands on 10th Street in San Francisco, California, on Nov. 10. David Odisho/Getty Images

It isn’t usual for the United Nations’s human rights chief to write a letter to the new owner of a technology company. But last week, that’s exactly what Volker Türk did.

In an open letter to Elon Musk days after his takeover of Twitter, Türk laid out six principles he urged Musk to keep “front and center” for the platform, including the protection of free speech, prevention of hate and violence, and effective content moderation in non-English languages. 

“As the new owner of Twitter, you have enormous responsibilities given the platform’s influential role as a digital space,” Türk wrote.

It isn’t usual for the United Nations’s human rights chief to write a letter to the new owner of a technology company. But last week, that’s exactly what Volker Türk did.

In an open letter to Elon Musk days after his takeover of Twitter, Türk laid out six principles he urged Musk to keep “front and center” for the platform, including the protection of free speech, prevention of hate and violence, and effective content moderation in non-English languages. 

“As the new owner of Twitter, you have enormous responsibilities given the platform’s influential role as a digital space,” Türk wrote.

Türk was right to be concerned. A day earlier, Musk laid off half of Twitter’s global workforce—around 3,700 people—which included its entire human rights team, according to a tweet from the company’s human rights counsel, Shannon Raj Singh. According to local reports, most of Twitter’s workforce in India was let go, and Twitter’s first Africa office in Accra, Ghana, was reportedly gutted less than a year after it opened and days after employees convened in person for the first time. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on the layoffs.

The company’s user base around the world numbers in the hundreds of millions, and while that is far smaller than social media competitors such as Meta, YouTube, and TikTok, Twitter plays an outsized role in hosting and driving the global conversation. It is used by world leaders, government agencies, dissidents, activists, and journalists—in many cases against each other. 

In the past, Twitter has stood up for freedom of expression and human rights against governments that wish to curb those rights. In India, it filed a lawsuit against the government over demands to take down numerous accounts. In Nigeria, Twitter was banned for seven months after it took down a tweet by the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, that was interpreted as threatening violence against protesters. (The platform was reinstated earlier this year after Twitter pledged to establish an office and appoint a representative in the country.)

Twitter has over the last several years developed a reputation for pushing back on government demands or resisting ones that in its view seem inconsistent with either local law or human rights law, or [its] values as a company,” said David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the former United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. 

Musk’s focus so far has been on squeezing money out of users to make up for vanishing advertising revenues, adding digital payment capabilities to Twitter and making employees return to the office. He hasn’t discussed how the platform will deal with some of the thornier issues it faces around misinformation, election security, government repression, and hate speech. 

Musk has shown little sign of concerns for Twitter users or employees that are outside the U.S.,” said Mishi Choudhary, a lawyer and online rights activist who founded the Indian branch of the Software Freedom Law Center. “Between the claims for absolute free speech and compliance of laws, it is clear that the learning curve for the billionaire will be steep.”

Twitter’s ability to effectively moderate content and protect its most vulnerable users took several more hits on Thursday with the simultaneous departures of its chief information security officer, its chief privacy officer, and its head of trust and safety. 

People who are in really high-security situations should not have been using Twitter for direct messages that are risky anyway, but that doesn’t mean people weren’t doing that. There’s a lot of community there,” Kaye said. “I don’t think [Musk] is thinking much about it at all, and since he fired most of the people who do that work, I don’t see how he can get up to speed on what that involves.”

Twitter and other social media platforms have long been accused of not doing enough to crack down on hate speech and misinformation around the world, including countries such as Ethiopia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and parts of the Middle East. Twitter has in some cases taken a stand to protect freedom of speech, refusing, for example, to take down hundreds of accounts last year at the behest of the Indian government during protests against controversial agricultural laws.

Twitter isn’t the only platform with a vast global reach and a problematic human rights track record that will now be operating with fewer employees. Meta, which has over a billion users around the world across platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp, laid off 11,000 workers earlier this week, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a public post. Zuckerberg did not reveal which teams and countries have been most significantly affected by the layoffs, and Meta already outsources much of its global content moderation around the world to contractors. The company has a history of missing key local context in overseas markets—often with devastating effects. In Myanmar, Facebook acknowledged that it did not do enough to prevent hate speech and violence against the Rohingya minority group, and documents leaked by a company whistleblower last year revealed it faced a similar issue in a more recent conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. (A Meta spokesperson did not comment on the recent layoffs.) 

Languages have been a particularly tricky problem for platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, with blind spots around the world that have seen them struggle to police misinformation and hate speech in many cases.

Moderation in non-English languages is significantly poorer than it is in English, both because of the lack of language expertise on the part of people at these companies but also because even the automated tools that help with content moderation work much less better for non-English languages,” said Samir Jain, policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. “We were already in a situation where the social media companies weren’t as good at moderating speech online; the real fear is that they’re going to become materially worse.”

Even as Musk’s Twitter devolves further into internal chaos, experts point out additional vulnerabilities for the platform’s global operations stemming from his business links. Musk’s co-investors in Twitter include government entities from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and his ownership of electric carmaker Tesla and satellite company SpaceX could give governments additional leverage against Twitter. Should that come to pass, it is not clear that Musk—who has said he believes in free speech as long as it “matches the law” in the applicable country—would take a meaningful stand.

He’s got Tesla trying to open and build markets in places like India, so how does that weigh into his desire to be more responsive to government demands?” Kaye said. “It’s all just deeply concerning in ways that I certainly didn’t fully anticipate just a couple of weeks ago.”

Rishi Iyengar is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Iyengarish

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