Jul 18, 2022 - Technology

Twitter's global agenda, with or without Musk

Illustration of a sad, sweating Twitter bird logo.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Twitter, weakened and distracted by months of conflict, faces a raft of global problems that won't wait while a Delaware court decides the fate of Elon Musk's acquisition deal.

Why it matters: Whoever ends up owning it, Twitter remains the world's nervous system for news, and its policies on elections, extremism, misinformation, harassment and censorship affect billions around the world and in the U.S.

Here are key items on Twitter's long list of policy problems:

(1) A showdown with the Indian government: Earlier this month, Twitter sued the Indian government, calling its orders to take down certain content and accounts "arbitrary" and "disproportionate," per a filing seen by the Washington Post. India is Twitter's fourth-biggest market, but increasingly tough social media rules, meant to crack down on dissent, have made doing business challenging.

  • "Twitter is going to be dealing with, at least for the next several years, an Indian government that is very interested in making all kinds of tech companies, Twitter included, bend the knee to those in power," Justin Sherman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Axios.
  • Twitter also faces new challenges from strict content rules in other countries like India and Japan, Russia, Turkey and South Korea.

(2) Platform manipulation by foreign actors: State-sponsored information operations meant to either boost certain candidates or inflame certain causes are still a problem on Twitter, Jared Holt, a senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told Axios.

  • Twitter and other social media platforms have failed to keep up with evolving Russian propaganda efforts around its invasion of Ukraine, according to new research reported by the Washington Post.
  • Holt said he also expects information operations will continue to take aim at U.S. elections in the 2022 midterm cycle.

(3) World leaders and elected officials spreading misinformation or inciting violence: Twitter's world leaders policy holds politicians to different standards from other users because of the inherent newsworthiness of their statements.

  • That opened it to continual criticism in the U.S. under former President Trump, before he got booted off the platform in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
  • Expect these controversies to multiply as politicians challenge the outcomes of contentious elections in the U.S. and abroad.
  • The policy aims to avoid putting Twitter in the uncomfortable position of having to arbitrate election outcomes when leaders challenge them, but its critics insist the platform must do more to combat democracy-undermining lies.

(4) New rules in Europe and a fragmented global internet: The EU's Digital Services Act, which sets new rules for tech platforms on taking down illegal or otherwise harmful content, is set to go into effect this fall.

  • The law could force Twitter, along with other global platforms, to reshape its operations in Europe, thanks to new restrictions on targeted advertising and transparency requirements that will force the platform to be more explicit about how it works.
  • The United Kingdom's Online Safety Bill, working its way through Parliament, would also place new obligations on Twitter.

(5) Harassment: Twitter has made notable attempts to limit harassment, but the problem — which often plagues women, journalists and people from any marginalized groups around the world — isn't anywhere close to going away.

Between the lines: American law gives private business plenty of free rein on speech issues, so Twitter has been able to make new policies on the fly during crises.

  • Musk says he wants Twitter to maximize free speech, and if he ever owns the company, he could quickly change its rules — but the world won't stop presenting the platform with hard cases.
  • "Whether Elon Musk takes over or not, the First Amendment is a uniquely American ideal, and the fact of the matter is in most of the world, they can't operate as a free-speech utopia platform," Holt said.

What they're saying: Twitter "continues to focus on our work to keep people safe online, and to protect and promote a free and open internet. ... Protecting the health of the public conversation remains our top priority," Twitter spokesperson Elizabeth Busby said in a statement.

What we're watching: Republicans have long complained that Twitter and other platforms are biased against conservatives.

  • If they win Congress in November, they are likely to pressure Twitter to reinstate Trump and loosen its content rules.
Go deeper