When the invasion of Ukraine began in February, the sheer scale of information on social media in the first few days made it perhaps the most documented war in human history.
Citizens and soldiers in Ukraine have heavily relied on Twitter to counter Russian disinformation, identify war crime locations, track Russian battle losses, and more.
But what is the future of these efforts, after Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover? Over the past few days, we’ve seen an outpouring of U.S. users worrying about what big changes—or even a shutdown—of the site would mean for them. But for many users in other parts of the world, especially those undergoing conflict or repressive governments, the stakes are much higher. In Ukraine, for example, there’s reason to worry about the security and privacy of civilians who are documenting atrocities. Misinformation and Russian propaganda will almost surely spread more quickly, thanks to skeleton content moderation teams. And if the site goes down, one of the outside world’s main ways of tracking the conflict will be suddenly unplugged. (Musk, it should be noted, once suggested via a Twitter poll that Ukraine should follow a Russian-backed peace plan.)
Or think about Iran, which finds itself embroiled in its eighth week of protests after the killing of Mahsa Amini by the so-called “morality police,” and provides another grim window into potential consequences. What if the accounts of protesters are silenced or impersonated, or their personal data—private messages, location data, and contacts—are compromised? If Twitter becomes a less safe place to organize and advocate, it may have a dangerous chilling effect.
Around the world, activists and citizens depend on Twitter, but it’s particularly acute for those who live in authoritarian (or authoritarian-leaning) countries and conflict zones. Social media’s role in facilitating social movements has long been lauded as a triumph of both the market and public ideals. Just over a decade ago, Twitter was praised as a tool that enabled the events of the Arab Spring (the “first livestreamed revolution”), when social media served as a megaphone to the outside world. But the past few weeks have highlighted a discomforting truth: Most of these movements are a mere corporate decision away from losing access to connections, privacy, and safety.
The power of pre-Musk Twitter (ideally) was as a public forum where people from across the world could trade in ideas. Domestically, my research into the 2020 George Floyd protests found that Black Lives Matter activists used Twitter to mobilize resources, document police brutality, fight disinformation, and share tactics for protester safety—all showcases of the of the power of the public square. That public square is at risk now, a fire spreading that could burn it down entirely.
One major danger is that Musk’s focus on profit could come at the expense of protest movements and other marginalized groups. Take the troubled rollout of Twitter Blue—users jumped on the feature to impersonate companies or notable public figures and make posts that have reportedly cost some of those companies billions of dollars. Imagine for a moment someone pretending to be a verified Iranian protester or a member of the BLM movement, and sharing tweets that put activists in danger or undermine their credibility. This is a real concern: As the Washington Post reported, “those who subscribed to Blue Verified were often accounts promoting right-wing politics, cryptocurrency speculation or adult content such as pornography.” Twitter Blue is now on hold, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come back—or that the new Muskian Twitter won’t roll out other new, potentially dangerous features without thinking through the ramifications.
That’s particularly true given the staffing cuts and the general chaos at Twitter. Without strong user security and platform usability, the people who rely on Twitter the most are at higher risk. Disinformation and other attacks targeting minority communities are nothing new, but the chances of tragic outcomes are even greater now, given the guardrails that once existed—for example, content moderation and trust and safety teams—have been taken down. The risk is especially dire in conflict zones, where information could be the difference between life, death, incarceration, or violence.
Some people have already chosen to migrate off Twitter and toward proposed alternatives such as Jack Dorsey’s new Bluesky App, Mastodon, and Cohost—and many people have talked about doing so. But building new networks takes time and resources that not everyone has.
These new networks also simply don’t have the same reach. Protesters in Iran are relying on social media tools to spread information about the regime’s crimes and mobilize their protest movement. Large networks let people inside the country share images of police brutality and killings, so international pressure can be brought to bear. (It’s worth acknowledging that there’s also plenty of misinformation: For example, on Twitter, Instagram, and other feeds, messages spread alleging that 15,000 arrested protesters are being marked for execution, when in reality only five death sentences been announced so far, according to reporting from Aljazeera.)
Moderating social media content, especially in languages besides English, is already a major challenge for platforms. (See, for instance, Facebook failing to remove content targeting the Rohingya in Myanmar.) In countries like Ukraine and Iran, that means wide swaths of false information in other languages may go unchallenged—putting citizens and activists at risk. And for every Ukraine, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, which are benefiting from at least some international attention, there are many other countries where Twitter has been instrumental for protesters: Thailand, India, Myanmar, Mexico, and many more.
There are also the complications of Elon Musk’s relationships with foreign powers such as Saudi Arabia, which is now the second largest investor in Twitter. Saudi Arabia and Iran have a contentious relationship, but Saudi Arabia has recently taken steps to prosecute those who speak out against its government on Twitter; the Saudi ownership stake raises of the question of future influence over moderation and privacy practices on the site. While the situation is at its most acute on Twitter, these problems are much bigger than one platform. For instance, TikTok, another tool being leveraged by Iranian protesters, is owned by ByteDance, which the Chinese government holds a stake in. The Chinese government, meanwhile, is seeking a closer relationship with the Iranian government.
The question, of course, is what to do—and there are no easy answers. Is it government regulation, or perhaps a new model of public service-oriented social media sites? Or maybe a new commercial platform, an open-source and decentralized social media system like Mastodon? But then we are back to the same question of reach. Twitter, for all its flaws, has been unparalleled in its ability to surface information from people whose voices often go unheard.
Now business has changed—but the need for a platform where people can share information in their most precarious moments hasn’t.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.