Should I stay or should I go…
If I go there will be trouble – but if I stay it will be double.
I never thought I’d start a blog by using the lyrics of a Clash song, but occasionally needs must or rather Musk…
Since Elon Musk bought Twitter (now X) in October 2022 I think many of us have been holding our breath, waiting to see what the impact on the platform was going to be. And most importantly where his lines were going to fall on free speech versus hate speech and misinformation versus propaganda.
Most of us who care about free speech had hoped that Musk’s rhetoric would prove to be just that and that Twitter/X would not descend into a hate-filled word swamp. That his commitment to free speech would lead to enlightened debate rather than a forum seemingly designed to encourage the worst elements of human interactions.
I think it’s fair to say that Twitter was never a particularly pleasant platform to engage on. When I was a British Member of Parliament I received so many pieces of abuse in one day that I stopped using the platform – my staff took over my handle and used it solely for broadcast messages rather than engagement. It was only in 2020 that I reengaged and within a matter of weeks I had exposed myself to a wave of antisemitism because I had failed to update the security settings.
Which brings me to the line between debate, challenge and hate speech. Freedom to speak does not mean you have the right to be heard. No one has the right to make people listen to them. And equally no one has to listen or engage with hate-filled political rhetoric and propaganda. Unless they want to. In a civilised society there have to be lines that people shouldn’t want to cross. At least they shouldn’t expect to be able to without consequence.
Which brings me back to X/Twitter. The right of freedom of speech comes with responsibilities. It is to be cherished and celebrated. And must be balanced with the other rights outlined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We must use it wisely and to do so in a way that complies with the law. Hate speech and incitement to violence are the line. They are illegal and should not be considered protected speech on any platform.
This does of course put huge pressures on our media platforms. Including social media. An even hand is required. And a fair and balanced approach to freedom of speech needs to apply. This doesn’t really seem to be the case on X/Twitter. In recent months we’ve seen the reinstatement of a range of accounts (previously banned because of their appalling use of the platform) from Stephen Yaxley Lennon, Katie Hopkins to President Trump and Ye… the list continues.
At the same time as these controversial accounts were being reinstated Article 19’s Europe & Central Asia’s account on X was suspended. Article 19 is a global organisation which seeks to defend and promote freedom of expression. They received no explanation. Therefore we rightly ask, does Musk’s view of freedom of speech only apply if he agrees with you?
Given his own use of vile and racist slurs on X/Twitter in recent days I think it’s a fair assumption.
Which brings me to our own use of the platform. Should we stay or should we go? Aren’t we hypocrites for staying on the platform?
This is something the professional staff at Index are struggling with. We have repeatedly discussed the implications of our use of X in our campaign to extol freedom of expression around the globe. Herein lies the paradox. We could leave X tomorrow. Wash our hands of the worst aspects of human nature on the site and feel very proud of ourselves. However, we know that this platform enables us to reach people who can’t access news freely. It allows us to connect with campaigners and learn more about the reality faced by many in countries. In short: X allows us to campaign and share the voices of those who are voiceless.
Index has just shy of 80,000 followers. During our recent Freedom of Expression Awards we reached over 3 million accounts. These were mainly located in India because we awarded Mohammad Zubair our Journalism Award. This is an important example because the work of Mohammad at AltNews was spread far and wide through our use of X. These moments of light on the otherwise dark space of X are worth remembering.
And let’s be honest, one of the main uses of X in the Western world is to connect with journalists and decision-makers. In the UK and USA journalists are lovers of the platform and as night follows day so are the politicians. Should Index give up on trying to communicate with journalists on this platform? Should we turn our backs on this window into legislators’ days? Should we stay or should we go?
Index constantly asks ourselves, how can we be a voice for the persecuted if we remove ourselves from the public sphere?
In the last year we have sought to build our reach on other social media platforms but it’s a slow burn. And it’s a learning process as well which is helping us do our job better. We are discovering that content about some nations can reach more people on one social media channel over another. This has really helped us get more stories to more people.
So for now we have taken the decision to stay on X/Twitter as we build our reach on other platforms so that we can keep doing our job – providing a platform for the persecuted. But this remains a constant source of debate within Index.