Why the United Nations is needed on Twitter
Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has prompted fears of an explosion of hate and harmful disinformation on the platform.
Malicious actors are already testing the limits of the new regime. One study found the prevalence hate speech terms spiked on Twitter in the hours after the takeover. Others reported a sudden surge in racist content, wild conspiracy theories, anti-Semitic memes, and shocking language.
There are hints that repeat rule breakers may no longer be sanctioned or banned. For the already marginalized, abused, and harassed, this would be simply disastrous.
Some active Twitter users are leaving.
But the UN is still there, along with other institutions and media whose job involves sharing sane, fact-based, and life-saving information with the world.
Twitter and other platforms are crucial tools for people working to make the world a better place. In autocratic countries, they allow people to seek out banned news. In war zones, it allows uprooted people to keep in touch. Movements have been born on social media that have improved human rights.
At the United Nations, my social media team works every day to distil trustworthy UN information into accessible posts for our millions of followers. These concerned global citizens seek out our social media presence to learn about the world and how they can get involved. We have painstakingly built, connected, inspired, and enabled a global community striving for a better future.
But Elon Musk’s promise to make the platform an online haven for free speech has us worried. What does that really mean in the age of disinformation? Twitter before was no haven. Like all social media platforms, its algorithms are hard-wired to drive engagement, putting profit above civility when they amplify provocative material. They generate outrage and division and downplay informed and nuanced debate.
How do we safeguard free speech and democracy while fighting back the flood of online disinformation and hate that is designed and spread to deliberately cause harm? We can’t forget that lives are at stake. Elections, the war in Ukraine, climate change, we don’t have time to get this wrong.
Musk says free speech is “the bedrock of a functioning democracy.” On that much we can agree. But we let’s be careful of too narrow an understanding of free speech. The kind of free speech that underpins democracy isn’t about being unorthodox for the thrill of it. And this is not a game; democracy is in a critical moment.
But the issue I have with Musk’s take is bigger than that. The problem is being framed all wrong. The nemesis of free speech is not content moderation. It’s disinformation, hate speech, incitement to violence. Platforms must face facts: They’re constantly being abused by bad actors seeking to distort reality, undermine democratic institutions, and erode trust in science.
It’s disinformation that chills free speech and amplifies authoritarian and populist agendas. And it’s disinformation that attacks minority groups and pushes women journalists, politicians, and gender equity advocates out of public life. It foments hatred of minorities, and in Myanmar and elsewhere it has resulted in many deaths.
Disinformation isn’t just deadly, it is threatening our very future. In the pandemic, it helped persuade millions not to protect themselves with vaccines and ignore public health measures such as masks and distancing. It is disinformation that is undermining trust in climate science and prompts attacks on activists.
We have learned a lot, but even before the changes at Twitter, we were already losing the battle against disinformation. The scale of the problem is huge, and as Irene Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, wrote in a recent report, social media platforms’ response to disinformation has been “woefully inadequate.”
Those who care about free speech and democracy need to do more, not less, to stop harmful lies spreading online. Platforms need a more robust and transparent system of moderation, one that frees the digital public square of hate speech, disinformation, incitement to violence or child abuse. One that puts protecting human rights front and center.
The UN is urging social media platforms to do their human rights due diligence and review their business models against the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. That means facing up to the impact their companies have on the world and making them more humane. For all our sakes.
This is about much more than the freedom to say whatever you want online. Twitter has a responsibility to protect human rights and save lives. Platforms wield great power to shape our future. We need their help to drown out the lies that seek to undermine it.
The answer isn’t to leave these spaces. That only helps the minority hellbent on causing harm. Fewer voices for good only makes hateful views appear more widespread and mainstream than they are. Instead, we will redouble our efforts, raise our voices louder, as we urge Twitter to, in the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk in an open letter to Elon Musk, “to ensure human rights are central to the management of Twitter.
Our fears only make us more determined: we will not cede the ground to the haters. We will stay on social media as a source of trusted life-saving information and inspiration to our millions of followers. We will stay to stand up for science, civility, and all those striving for a better world.