As one of the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets demanding “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice” during the Arab Spring, I experienced firsthand the best and worst that Twitter has to offer.
As the government took control of the media, shut down the internet, and cracked down on dissent, we the people found refuge in Twitter to plan protests, notify protesters of route changes and safe locations, and keep track of people who were arrested or delicated. But just as the government unleashed security forces to attack us physically in Tahrir Square, they have also hunted us down online, unleashing a coordinated wave of abuse and disinformation to intimidate and silence journalists and activists.
What we naively thought of as a safe space on Twitter turned into a nightmare of coordinated harassment and misinformation. The constant threat and the level of anxiety and fear that dictatorial regimes inflict on anyone who opposes them leads many people to self-censor or leave the journalistic profession.
Like so many journalists and human rights advocates, I am deeply concerned about Elon Musk’s possible takeover of Twitter. when musk describes social networks as a “digital plaza” for public debate and asserts that “freedom of expression is the foundation of a functioning democracy”, who could disagree? I have risked my life to freely express my demand for human rights and advocate for democracy. Today, as an exile in the United States, I work for the free speech advocacy organization PEN America to keep writers and journalists safe online and offline.
Musk’s understanding of free speech implies that the playing field is level and that we are all treated equally and safely online, so I can say with absolute certainty that getting rid of all barriers on Twitter, including meaningful content moderation policies and processes, deliberately ignores the ways in which rampant online abuse chills freedom of expression.
People are targeted not just for what they say online, but simply for being outspoken members of a particular group: because of their race, their faith, their gender identity, their sexual orientation, and their disability. If women and minorities, journalists and human rights defenders are pushed off digital platforms due to serious and ongoing abuse, public debates are left in the hands of the privileged few with the loudest voices. If Twitter is where “critical issues for the future of humanity are discussed”, the question is who matters in these debates.
If Elon Musk truly wants to make Twitter a free speech safe haven for all, he needs to remember that social media is a critical tool used by journalists, dissidents, and activists around the world to speak truth to power. And those in power cynically deploy coordinated campaigns of harassment and disinformation to undermine a free press and eliminate dissent.
Throughout its history, Twitter has prioritized American and English-speaking users over the safety of Black and Brown people and others from marginalized communities around the world. The platform has been extremely slow to implement meaningful policies and features to better protect its most vulnerable users. After a decade of tireless advocacy by civil society and activists, Twitter has finally started to make progress in recent years in addressing abuse and misinformation. But there is still a lot of work to do done, including: giving people the option to filter abusive content they receive so they can review and address it later, with the help of trusted allies; facilitate the documentation of online abuse; making it easier for people to separate their personal and professional identities online and allowing them to control their privacy settings accordingly.
When voices are silenced and speeches cool, public discourse suffers. Freedom of expression and user agency do not exist without online safety and security. By reducing the harmful effect of online bullying, platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can ensure that social media becomes more open and fair to all users.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.