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Elon Musk Has Put Twitter’s Free Speech In Danger

Before becoming Twitter’s CEO, owner, and “Chief Twit,” Elon Musk had often lobbed criticism at the platform for its approach to content moderation, even going so far as to target the company’s former policy chief Vijaya Gadde. But while Musk has expressed his concern about “liberal bias” on the platform, many activists, journalists, and advocates outside the US—where the majority of Twitter’s users reside—have begun to worry about how Twitter, now without a board or shareholders and led by a CEO with multiple business entanglements, will respond to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning governments that have long sought to control public opinion.

“How he treats pressure from countries like Saudi Arabia and India—I think those are key indicators of where he’s going with the platform,” says David Kaye, former UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression and clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine.

While Twitter does not boast nearly as many users as Meta-owned Facebook or Instagram, it is widely used by activists, civil society groups, journalists, and politicians—all of whom are influential in shaping public policy and opinion. The platform has also proved crucial for those organizing protests in places like India, Nigeria, and Argentina, and has provided an avenue for those living in highly controlled societies like Saudi Arabia to voice criticism of their governments.

Jason Pielemeier, executive director of the Global Network Initiative, says Musk’s goal to build Twitter’s user base to more than a billion people could also affect his willingness to battle it out with foreign governments to keep content on the platform.

Although they may not represent a huge share of Twitter’s revenue stream right now, countries like Turkey, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan, which have very large, increasingly online populations, are all attractive markets as the company looks to grow its revenue and increase its user base, according to Pielemeier. But all of those countries have had arguments with Twitter specifically or with social media companies more broadly, he says. Last year, the Nigerian government ordered all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block Twitter after the platform deleted a tweet from the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, for violating its policies. The government lifted the ban only after Twitter agreed to open an office in the country and pay local taxes.

In India, Twitter’s third largest market, the company filed a case earlier this year to contest the government’s order to remove individual pieces of content as well as whole accounts that the government considers a risk to India’s security or sovereignty.

But Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international counsel and Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now, worries that Twitter under Musk may not continue with the lawsuit. (In his August countersuit against Twitter, Musk cited the lawsuit in India as a threat to the company’s presence in its third largest market.) “It would be a vindication of a very problematic, unconstitutional set of actions by the Indian government,” he says. “It also sends a signal to the global tech industry, saying ‘Back off, don’t try to do more.’”