It was Easter and Lola Aronovich, a Brazilian literature teacher, was enjoying a break on a beach with no Internet access, unaware of the smear campaign being orchestrated against her on Twitter.
On that day in April 2015, the son of Geraldo Alckmin, former Governor of São Paulo and current Vice President-elect of Brazil, tragically died in a helicopter crash. Aronovich watched the events unfold on television and headed to her house three days later, only to find thousands of scathing posts directed at her on Twitter for something he hadn’t done.
“A fake tweet was created in which he was sorry that Alckmin was not in the accident. [The attackers] He said that he had deleted the tweet shortly after posting it. The post went viral and I was threatened by politicians, academics and users with a large fan base,” Aronovich, who teaches at Ceara Federal University, told Al Jazeera.
“I said I never wrote that. A far-right Twitter user noted that the image was fake, but the damage had already been done. some of the people [who reposted the fake tweet] He deleted his posts, but no one ever apologized to me,” he said.
This was one of many times that Aronovich, who uses Twitter to discuss feminism and human rights issues, has been harassed and abused on the social media platform.
“Someone harassed me incessantly for three years and they attack me constantly. I have blocked tens of thousands of users in the last decade,” said the professor, who has a Twitter follower base of just under 200,000.
Twitter Blue: ‘A license to attack’
Things are not looking good for activists like Aronovich with changes to the platform under its new owner Elon Musk, namely the paid verification product Twitter Blue.
“I get anonymous comments on my blog saying they can’t wait until [Twitter Blue] is available in Brazil. They are planning to create a verified profile in my name to smear me however they please,” Aronovich said.
The professor is concerned about Musk’s plans to enforce his vision as a “free speech absolutist” while also turning a profit.
“This is extremely dangerous, since [Musk’s] sympathizers are often those who harass others online with campaigns that can be extrapolated to the real world,” Aronovich said. “[Twitter Blue] it is effectively a license to attack.”
There are broader concerns about how the new administration will affect the democratic debate on the platform. With 19 million users, Twitter is the ninth largest social network in Brazil, which pales in comparison to WhatsApp, the country’s most popular social app with 165 million users according to data from We Are Social and Hootsuite.
Despite its relatively small user base, the microblogging site plays a vital role in shaping public opinion online, according to David Nemer, a professor at the University of Virginia and a research associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Information Society. Harvard University.
“It is as if all Brazilians were on Twitter even though they are not, since the impressions of what is published there are widely shared on other social networks, such as WhatsApp,” he said.
Disinformation on Twitter targeting Brazilian users has worsened significantly in recent years, Nemer said. He noted that the platform was unprepared for its growing relevance in the country, spurred by the attention President Jair Bolsonaro drew on Twitter when he used the platform, and other social media, to reach voters in his 2018 election campaign. , a first in the South American nation. That, in turn, caused a surge in adoption of the tool across the political spectrum.
With nearly 70,000 followers on Twitter, Nemer uses the platform as an activism tool and to further her academic research, which focuses on the production and distribution of false information by far-right groups through messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp.
Similarly to Aronovich, Nemer’s activity on Twitter made him a target, with threats frequently received. He fears that recent decisions by Musk, such as ousting the department focused on making the platform’s algorithm fairer and more transparent, will have dire consequences.
“Absolutism in freedom of expression is a bad thing in Brazil, since it directly hits the core of democracy while discouraging people of different social strata, race and sexual orientation to be part of the platform,” he noted.
More generally, the academic believes that Twitter will continue to play a crucial role in the new government headed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was elected last month.
“The disinformation war is likely to continue as it is about establishing narratives and occupying spaces. Twitter is key in that sense, and I don’t see anyone [in the political scene] let it go,” Nemer added.
In the past week Musk said Twitter will limit the reach of negative or hateful content – something that had been in place prior to the company’s purchase – while also preventing the removal of such posts.
“[Musk] he’s trying to show progressive audiences that he’s doing something to contain hate speech, given that these people have been leaving the platform en masse,” Nemer said.
However, such methods of curbing the spread of hateful content are somewhat inefficient, said Ale Santos, a Brazil-based author of Afrofuturism and Twitter influencer.
“People who are dedicated to spreading false and hurtful content online are constantly studying what the limits of the platform are and improving their way of spreading hate online,” Santos said.
Paying for verification is a ‘luxury’
After Bolsonaro took office in 2019, Santos began using the platform more intensively to express his political views.
“You couldn’t utter a word against the government and an army of [Bolsonaro] supporters would collapse like a ton of bricks to offend, intimidate and criticize,” he said.
“They are not interested in the debate itself. Instead, they focus on creating controversy that will reverberate online,” said Santos, a fiction writer who has more than 145,000 followers and has engaged in a series of vicious debates with users, including the president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, and other far-right influencers.
After realizing that activity on Twitter was taking its toll on her mental health, Santos opted to take her activism to other platforms.
“I decided to do it through my podcast and my literary work. I put Twitter aside for those debates: there I continue to say what I think, but I don’t get into individual clashes with people, ”she said.
Musk’s plans to monetize the platform and turn it into a “town square” where everyone can have a voice make no sense when set in the Brazilian reality, Santos said.
“A city square would be great if everyone could be in it. As a white American male, Musk seems quite detached from other cultures. In Brazil, where food insecurity has worsened, paying for verification on a social networking site is a luxury. It will amplify the social gap within the platform and turn it into an arena for extremists,” Santos said.
Musk brought Donald Trump back on Saturday, a day after he announced the platform was reinstating some banned Twitter users including author Jordan Peterson, comedian Kathy Griffin, and conservative parody outlet The Babylon Bee. Santos believes that the latest decisions are a nod to far-right audiences.
“Doing that, [Musk] it means things will be easier for that group,” he said, adding that this is unlikely to please advertisers. “[Reinstating banned users] It is another measure that can destabilize the platform.”
Al Jazeera did not receive a response to requests for comment sent to Twitter Brazil’s communications team or its country manager, Fiamma Zarife.
Insufficient attention to local contexts is a long-standing problem on social networking sites like Twitter, said Bruna Martins dos Santos, a data protection and global Internet governance consultant.
“The content policies of these platforms are orders from the United States to the rest of the world, created as a reflection of the invasion of the Capitol rather than political processes that occurred elsewhere,” he said, referring to former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. , acknowledging to the United States Congress that the site had played a role in the Capitol riots.
Need for regulation
The United States also needs clear rules about what the platforms can and cannot do, according to Santos. Brazil has proposed a bill to regulate social media that is currently stalled in Congress.
“They [the US] they also don’t have a data protection law, while Brazil has one,” he said.
At an event held by the group of Brazilian business leaders LIDE in New York on Monday, Brazil’s Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes highlighted the role of lawmakers in addressing the spread of false information online in Brazil. The judge also reinforced his plans to regulate social networks so that they stop being “no man’s land.”
With Twitter becoming central to public discourse globally, the lack of regulatory mechanisms that take its importance into account is “unfortunate,” said Bill Thompson, a UK-based internet pioneer and Digital Planet commentator. , a technology of BBC World Service. Program.
“That is an indication that we have not thought correctly about the importance of these platforms,” he said.
As for how Musk could ensure Twitter is a better place to foster democratic debate, Thompson noted: “He could say, ‘Make this a public square we can be proud of, with the engineering, the tools and the facilities to be a positive.” contribution to humanity, and make this as my legacy.’”
“No one should own a city square,” and that the platform could exist under a public trust, Thompson added.
“[Musk] is someone who has many other businesses, is a rich person and does not need [Twitter] to make a profit,” he said. “Twitter could be independent of it and, indeed, of everything else.”