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Twitter firings have ‘serious consequences’ for rights, campaigners warn

Twitter’s disbanding of its Africa office and human rights team poses a threat to information across the continent

Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu
11 November 2022, 3.19pm

A Nigeria-based entrepreneur opens the Twitter app on a phone in Lagos in 2021


Seun Sanni/Reuters/Alamy

Digital and human rights campaigners have warned that Twitter’s decision to fire its human rights team will have “serious consequences” on LGBTIQ+ and civil rights in Africa, openDemocracy can reveal.

The warning comes days after the social media site laid off most of its staff in Africa, despite having promised a “long-term commitment to the region” when it announced it was opening its first African office, in Ghana, last year.

Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, the sacked employees in Accra, Ghana’s capital, were not offered a severance package, according to a report by CNN. Some fear these redundancies, at Twitter’s only office on the continent, could mean the end of Twitter’s presence in Africa altogether.

Campaigners told openDemocracy that the removal of the human rights department will have “serious consequences for the civic space”, and could leave LGBTIQ communities vulnerable to prosecution in countries where same-sex relationships are outlawed.

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In a tweet defending his move to slash almost half of Twitter’s workforce, including its entire human rights team, new owner Elon Musk said: “There is no choice when the company is losing over $4M/day.”

Threats to internet users in Africa

The layoffs in Accra have raised issues around the expendability of African tech offices, and ultimately, user safety. Twitter’s office in Accra – still the company’s only office on the continent – had opened just days before the mass firings. Employees had previously been working from home due to the pandemic.

Although Africa has a much lower internet and Twitter usage than other continents, users are “more exposed to technology-related affronts which go against the premise of a free, fair and open internet”, research and communications expert Juliet Nanfuka told openDemocracy.

Nanfuka works for Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa, which promotes effective and inclusive information communications technology policy in Africa.

The increase in recent years of African governments shutting down the internet as a way to control their citizens is alarming. The “absence of independent oversight mechanisms further exposes citizens, state critics, journalists and opposition actors to the whims of state interests,” said Nanfuka.

Now we don’t know what will happen if we find homophobic threats and disinformation on Twitter

Rightify Ghana, an LGBTIQ+ organisation

In Ghana, an anti-LGBTIQ bill currently before Parliament has exposed the country’s queer community and activists to waves of homophobic attacks, including media disinformation, police raids and kidnappings. Online spaces like Twitter had become the safer alternative for rights organising, but there, too, the community has been met with threats and anti-LGBTIQ+ misinformation.

“The Twitter human rights department was important in handling cases related to safety concerns,” said a spokesperson for Rightify Ghana, one of the country’s most visible LGBTIQ+ organisations on the platform. “Now we don’t know what will happen if we find homophobic threats and disinformation on Twitter.”

Rightify Ghana fears Twitter’s disregard for human rights could leave queer Ghanaians and their allies especially vulnerable to prosecution under the proposed anti-LGBTIQ+ law. Clauses 12 to 16 would criminalise LGBTIQ “propaganda, advocacy, support and other promotional activities”, with clause 12 specifically prohibiting the dissemination of LGBTIQ-related content online. Offenders face “no less than five years imprisonment”.

“If the bill is passed, both traditional and new media platform owners and users could be liable for prosecution,” Rightify Ghana told openDemocracy. “Even with a human rights team, we were still concerned about whether Twitter would share our information with the government if the bill is passed. Now, without a human rights team, it could be worse.”

‘One of the last civic spaces’

‘Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African organisation pushing for digital rights and inclusion for young people on the continent, told openDemocracy that the Twitter leadership “does not appreciate how much the platform means to human rights work”.

For many journalists and activists, “it is one of the last standing civic spaces,” he said.

“[Platforms like Twitter] are just beginning to understand the African (and Global South) context because they started from Silicon Valley and have no clue what it means to use digital tools in a repressive country where other options could lead to your arrest or worse,” Sesan added.

But social media giants including Twitter have also been accused of stoking ethnic violence on the continent, including in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict. Last year, Meta whistleblower Frances Haugen testified in the UK parliament that Facebook's engagement-based algorithms enabled hate content to reach more people.

Haugen told British MPs that Facebook’s system was "literally subsidising hate on these platforms". She also claimed it was ‘’substantially cheaper to run an angry hateful divisive ad than it is to run a compassionate, empathetic ad’’.

Persistent poor content moderation

“There’s a lot of evidence that platforms seem to benefit more in the short term from polarised communities… but unfortunately, this is not sustainable in the long run,” said Odanga Madung, a tech fellow at the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to ensuring the internet remains a public space for all.

Madung has reported on how algorithms have likely been manipulated to spread disinformation, including how Western conservative groups such as CitizenGo appeared to have influenced Twitter discourse on reproductive health legislation in Kenya, and how Kenyan civil society was undermined through coordinated disinformation efforts on the platform.

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A day after purchasing Twitter, Musk announced plans for a “content moderation council… with widely diverse viewpoints”, but stressed that no major changes had been made to the moderation policies yet.

Madung maintains that weak regulatory frameworks across Africa have led to a lack of transparency on the interventions that platforms like Twitter make on the continent.

“Judging purely based on the outcomes in countries like Ethiopia, it’s clear that many of their human rights commitments may be cosmetic rather than substantial,” he warned.

Rights activists have long pointed out the weaknesses in social media platforms’ moderation of hateful content – especially in non-English languages mostly spoken in the Global South.

For Rightify Ghana, Twitter’s in-app system for reporting hateful anti-LGBTIQ+ content “didn’t work for us like we wanted, as we reported many cases and no action was taken”, according to the group’s spokesperson.

Working directly with the now-scrapped Twitter human rights team, the organisation saw how the platform responded to their safety concerns. “Sometimes people make hateful posts in the local language and Twitter may find nothing wrong with it,” the spokesperson explained.

The group recommends tech giants invest resources into “hiring or partnering with locals to help them identify offensive or hateful posts not made in languages their platforms know”.

Twitter should not treat human rights… as nice-to-haves, but as essential

‘Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative

Two reports published by the Global Project Against Hate And Extremism (GPAHE), a US-based global monitoring group, this year found anti-LGBTQ+ conversion therapy disinformation is “distressingly easy to find online” – especially in languages other than English. The group also found that tech giants including Twitter had failed to clamp down on anti-LGBTIQ+ conversion therapy disinformation on their sites.

Heidi Beirich, one of the reports’ authors and a co-founder of GPAHE, told openDemocracy the layoffs of the human rights team are “essentially a disaster”.

She added: “This has been a problem since these platforms arose – without civil society criticisms I’m not sure any of them would have put in place their various [user safety] policies. But now we face the limits of PR pressure.”

According to Paradigm Initiative’s Sesan, “Twitter should not treat human rights… as nice-to-haves, but as essential in a trust economy that is emerging from the damage done by COVID-19, the rise of extremism online, wars in Ethiopia, Ukraine, and so on, and clampdowns by governments.’”

Twitter is currently rolling out new features such as a subscription plan to create less reliance on advertising for revenue, creator monetisation, and a new verification programme for any user willing to pay an $8 fee, but there are already doubts as to the latter’s efficacy in curbing impersonation and disinformation.

By Friday this week, some users reported that the Twitter Blue sign-up option, which costs $8 a month for a subscription had vanished – just days after its launch. The feature has been met with chaos and mockery by many users.

openDemocracy was unable to reach Twitter for a response.

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