Hate speech spikes on Musk’s watch; another internet blackout in Myanmar; Egypt’s paranoia on show at COP27
The pile of problems wrought by Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover is growing by the minute. When staff tasked with keeping harmful speech off the platform were suddenly locked out of internal systems, reports of violent, hateful, and otherwise bad speech immediately spiked. This is troubling on the eve of U.S. midterm elections, but as I wrote last April, the ramifications could be much worse in other parts of the world — indeed, my colleague Kofi Yeboah reports that Twitter’s Africa team is “gradually dissolving.” Soon after he “sank” into Twitter’s HQ, Musk began promising to form a “content moderation council” in the near term. But coming from the notorious Twitter troll who has already fired the company’s best brain on the issue, this doesn’t bring much comfort. I’m also wary of the reported plan to charge users a monthly fee to maintain their “verified” status — research has shown how this feature provides important protection against impersonation for journalists in high-risk environments.
The only comic relief I’ve found in this whole nightmare so far has come from The Verge’s Nilay Patel, whose searing smackdown of Musk covers basically everything that experts are worrying about, but with more zeal than anyone else can muster. Don’t miss it.
After months of fearmongering and unsubstantiated online rumors of voter fraud fueled by incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters, Brazilian voters elected Lula da Silva in last Sunday’s runoff election. Meanwhile up north, the fearmongering and lies are ongoing as we approach midterm elections in the US. Far-right groups are using fringe platforms like Truth Social (and less fringey platforms like Telegram) to organize everything from vigilante surveillance of ballot drop boxes to all-out civil war in the lead-up to U.S. midterm elections. In a departure from what we saw in the lead-up to the 2021 attack on the U.S. capitol, it seems like at least some of these groups have moved to smaller platforms that don’t have the kinds of content moderation rules that Facebook and Twitter are known for. This doesn’t mean that their efforts won’t have dangerous real-life consequences, but by using these smaller, niche platforms, they simply will not reach as many people as they would on Facebook or Twitter. Media Matters has put together a list of prominent groups, most of which go by deceptively mainstream-sounding names like “Honest Elections Project” and “Audit the Vote PA.” Dig into it if you dare.
After Myanmar’s military junta-led government bombed a civilian gathering in Kachin state on October 24, killing 80 people, authorities instituted a communication blackout, leaving residents without access to Wi-Fi, in a state where mobile internet connections have been shut down for more than a year. “When the bombs dropped on Sunday evening, the mostly-civilian crowd was left isolated, unable to contact friends and family to seek help and urgent medical attention,” said Wai Phyo Myint, Asia Pacific Policy Analyst at Access Now.
Can Elon help? I had no intention of bringing this full circle, but I can’t seem to escape Elon Musk. In late September, civilian politicians and activists in Myanmar asked Musk to deploy Starlink, his satellite-based internet service company, to circumvent shutdowns like the one in Kachin state. Magical though it might sound, Starlink needs on-the-ground infrastructure in order to work effectively, and this can easily become a target. We need look no further than Ukraine to see how this could go wrong.
EGYPTIAN STATE’S PARANOIA ON SHOW AT COP27
In a recent letter to his mother, written from inside Wadi el Natrun prison, Egyptian political activist Alaa Abd El Fattah speculated on the effects of floods in Pakistan, the demise of global ice cover, and the future of energy production in Africa.
But unlike his usual weekly letters, this one never reached her. When he learned of this, he summarized it for her in his next message, which his cousin translated for me. He noted that he’d said nothing about the “upcoming conference,” referring to the COP27 climate summit starting on November 6 in Sharm el-Sheikh. “It was probably well written, flowing, lucid, so maybe they felt it was dangerous,” he wrote.
Only agents of a state as paranoid as Egypt would rush to dispose of such a letter, lest it cause a stir or bring about some unwanted change.
This paranoia will likely be on full display next week as delegates from around the world descend on Sharm, the seaside resort city in Egypt’s heavily militarized Sinai Peninsula. Of course, the event itself will be tightly controlled. The streets of Sharm will likely remain orderly, with no throngs of scrappy activists like we saw in Glasgow last year. Rather, there will be a designated area where authorized demonstrations will take place and undoubtedly be watched closely. Local residents say day-to-day surveillance feels higher than ever, with new military checkpoints and plainclothes police officers stationed across the city.
Even the UN is anxious. A group of UN human rights experts issued a statement last month pointing to the arrests of human rights defenders, NGO asset freezes and travel restrictions that have created “a climate of fear for Egyptian civil society organizations to engage visibly at the COP27.” Just this week, hundreds were arrested over plans to stage protests in cities across Egypt on November 11.
What does it mean that major decisions affecting our climate will be hashed out in Egypt, which many of us see as an “early adopter” authoritarian tech state?
Abd El Fattah is no doubt thinking about this question. Jailed or investigated under every Egyptian head of state who has served during his lifetime, the 40-year-old activist and technologist has been a central figure in pushing for democratic change in Egypt — and using technology to drive these efforts — since the early 2000s. He is currently serving a five-year sentence for allegedly spreading false news about prison conditions in Egypt, which he knows all too well.
The British-UK citizen has been on a hunger strike since last April, eating 100 calories per day — just enough to stay alive. With the summit fast approaching, Abd El Fattah has stopped eating once again and has vowed to stop drinking water on November 6, the first day of the summit.
In a recent piece for The Intercept, Naomi Klein asked “If international solidarity is too weak to save Alaa — an iconic symbol of a generation’s liberatory dreams — what hope do we have of saving a habitable home?”
WHAT WE’RE READING:
- The Intercept: Iranians are now well into the second month of protests following the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody, and internet and mobile shutdowns have been part and parcel of the state’s response to protests. A new report from The Intercept features documents obtained from Iranian mobile provider Ariantel, that describe a web program for remotely manipulating mobile connections.
- Mada Masr: If you want to do some deep thinking on tech and the relationship between authoritarianism and energy, read this June 2022 piece for Mada Masr by Omar Hamilton. “A rapid transition away from fossil fuels could collapse authoritarian regimes from Angola to Algeria to Azerbaijan,” he writes. “Or, it could be the foundation of an era of plentiful, centrally controlled, domestic, renewable power for the governments and corporations that are fast enough to adapt.”
- Election Integrity Partnership: Researchers from Stanford’s Internet Observatory and the Digital Forensic Research Lab analyzed a data set released by Twitter itself (in an arrangement that may not survive the Musk transition) showing the activities of “inauthentic” networks of users who were tweeting and promoting discussions favoring the interests of the Iranian and Chinese governments in the lead-up to U.S. midterm elections. The relevant accounts have been suspended from Twitter, but the data is here for anyone to peruse.