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.
Following the brutal attacks on Israel by Hamas on 7 October, violations of free speech have occurred at such pace and scale that it has made keeping track a challenge. The situation was already difficult before that date: Israel was in the grip of a huge crisis, the country stalled by endless protests in response to the government’s attempts to neuter the Supreme Court, while Amnesty International identified “a general climate of repression” in Gaza Strip under Hamas. Since the war started, the right to freedom of expression has gone from bad to worse in both Israel and Palestine, and indeed around the world. Whilst a degree of deterioration was predictable – conflict is never the arena in which rights improve – the current state could hardly be foreseen.
Starting with media freedom, on 7 October itself, of the 1,400 people who were murdered by Hamas several were Israeli reporters on duty. Following the massacre, Israel’s response has resulted in the death of at least 5,000 (according to the latest UN figures from 23 October), again including a number of journalists. Although none of the journalists from either side of the divide were killed for what they had written, they lost their lives though their line of work, making the media landscape all the poorer.
Others have, however, been punished for their work. Journalists from outlets including the BBC, Al-Jazeera, RT Arabic and Al-Araby TV have all reported obstructions to their reporting by the Israeli military, police and others since the conflict began. On 12 October, a team of BBC Arabic reporters were dragged from their vehicle, searched and held at gunpoint by police in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, despite their vehicle being marked “TV” and the presentation of press cards, the BBC reported. On 26 October, Lama Khater, a freelance writer with Middle East Monitor and a political activist, was arrested by the IDF in the city of Hebron, West Bank, her husband Hazem Fakhoury told CPJ. Confrontational attacks have been coupled with subtle ones: On 9 October, for example, The Jerusalem Post reported that its website was down following a series of cyberattacks. The group Anonymous Sudan claimed responsibility for the attacks, reported Axios and Time magazine.
Media freedom could deteriorate further. On 16 October, Israel proposed new emergency regulations that would allow it to block broadcasts that harm “national morale”. Officials threatened to close Al-Jazeera’s local offices under the proposed rule and to stop the global news organisation from freely reporting on the war.
With the situation on the ground increasingly difficult and with limited media from Gaza itself, the internet more broadly, and social media specifically, is a lifeline. And yet getting information within and out of Gaza has become increasingly difficult. Internet services have been disrupted by the attacks, while Palestinians and their supporters allege that social media platforms, in particular Instagram, are “shadow-banning” their content. Instagram’s owner, Meta, has denied this, but they have admitted that they inserted the word “terrorist” automatically into translated bios of Palestinian users, something they apologised for on 19 October.
Social media giant X, which has had a tumultuous ride under owner Elon Musk over the last year to say the least, has also been flooded with misinformation, as we reported on 18 October. Images have been adopted from other conflicts, fake accounts created in a smorgasbord of lies intended to sow confusion, division and hate. At a time when it could be providing an essential role in the spread of crucial information, trust is low.
As those within Israel and Palestine struggle to access reliable news, international media outlets find themselves in the middle of claims of irresponsible reporting, such as jumping too fast to conclusions over who was behind the explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital, and accusations of bias. The latter can sometimes be unhelpful noise. To instantly shout “censorship” can be erroneous. There are a host of reasons why newspapers and broadcasters might run a story or interview a person (some being mundane, merely down to the availability of one person over another). Impartiality is not a prerequisite for outlets that are not funded by taxpayers. Nor does objectivity equate to equal weight for views. Still, with a conflict as complicated as that between Israel and Palestine, as longstanding, as heated and as volatile, a plurality of views and careful attention to how information is both interrogated and reported is crucial. It’s not clear that every outlet has adhered to these fundamental principles.
As for the actual red pen, one example of direct censorship came from Yale University’s campus newspaper, the Yale Daily News, which censored a pro-Israel opinion piece by removing references to Hamas atrocities. We suspect there are others. Alas the nature of censorship and self-censorship means we don’t always know about them.
Has criticising Israel become a punishable offence for the average person? A “McCarthyite backlash” against criticism of the country’s bombardment of Gaza has been claimed by civil rights groups in the USA, as people are fired, threatened with dismissal or blacklisted from future jobs, according to the Guardian. Take one example: Michael Eisen, editor of the scientific journal eLife, was forced out of his job after reposting an article from satirical magazine the Onion with the headline: “Dying Gazans Criticized for Not Using Last Words to Condemn Hamas”. In Germany, the journalist Michael Scott Moore noted that “the tendency in Berlin right now is to squelch as much criticism of Israel as possible”, citing the arrest of a Jewish Israeli protesting the war amongst others. In the UK, home secretary Suella Braverman suggested that waving Palestinian flags and using popular pro-Palestine slogans could be illegal and a ministerial aide was sacked from his government role following his letter to the prime minister calling for a ceasefire. In Switzerland, all demonstrations related to the conflict were banned in Zurich. In Australia, New South Wales authorities vowed to stop marches from proceeding. And in Israel, in one of the more unpleasant twists, the parents of hostages, who were protesting in Tel Aviv, were spat at and abused by supporters of current leader Benjamin Netanyahu. This in addition to police saying they’ve investigated and detained more than 100 people for their social media activity and, as we reported last week, activists being arrested in Jerusalem for putting up posters with the message: “Jews and Arabs, we will get through this together.”
Staying with Israel, human rights activists worry the detentions are due to the police adopting a wider interpretation than normal of what constitutes incitement to violence. A well-known singer and influencer, Dalal Abu Amneh, was held in police custody for two days. According to Abeer Baker, her lawyer, she was accused of “disruptive behaviour” by police officers, who said her posts could incite violence, in particular one featuring an image of the Palestinian flag with the Arabic motto: “There is no victor but God.” Baker said Abu Amneh was expressing a religious sentiment, while Israeli authorities interpreted the singer’s post as a call to arms for Palestinians. This example highlights a tension right now, the question of what defines hate speech and how we balance the rights for people to protest (be it online, in the streets or through petitions) versus the rights for people to live free from fear and persecution. Some of the banners and comments made at protests have been vile. They are clearly, irrefutably hate speech and given recent events – an Orthodox Jewish man assaulted in London, a mob storming Dagestan’s airport looking for people arriving from Israel, cemeteries and synagogues set alight in Tunisia and Austria, to name just a few – one could argue incitement. Still, it is clear that there has been huge overreach. Many who have been punished for what they’ve said have been peaceful, with views that – even if you disagree with them or find them uncomfortable – should be protected.
The above is far from an exhaustive list. It could go on and on. Consider Adania Shabli, the Palestinian writer whose event at Frankfurt Book Fair was called off. Consider the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose appearance at 92NY, one of New York City’s leading cultural organisations, was pulled on the back of his criticism of Israel. Yet even this incomplete tally paints a grim picture. Free speech can be difficult and no more so than with Israel-Palestine, a conflict which is and always has been so deeply emotive and tribal. The knee-jerk response at present seems to be to silence. This is no solution. As George Orwell famously said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This applies as much to those in Israel as it does to those in Gaza and to all of us outside. There have already been enough victims and casualties – let’s ensure free speech is not another.
The tragedies unfolding in Israel and Gaza are putting the social media platform X to the test – a test that X keeps failing. X, formerly known as Twitter, has elevated disinformation alongside fact-based reports on the conflict that range from graphic images created through AI, video game footage, and a plethora of recycled clips from Syria’s decade-long conflict.
Yet X’s disinformation overload should have been expected. Since Elon Musk’s acquisition of the platform, it has undergone a series of algorithmic and “aesthetic” changes that upended the credibility of the content. Instead of boosting posts from experts and on-the-ground reporting, X’s algorithm promotes Twitter Blue subscriptions, accounts which pay for a verification checkmark. This “pay to play” method has served to boost accounts of bots and propagandists, and has enabled disinformation to go viral in a short amount of time.
Musk’s favourite sycophants are being rewarded for their click-baiting methods amid the violence in Israel and on the Gaza Strip. Mario Nawfal – an obscure businessman who gained a following on X from his endorsements by Musk – posted a 2020 YouTube video showing Turkish missiles fired in northern Syria. Nawfal misstated: “Salvo of rockets fired by Hamas from the Gaza Strip towards Israel” alongside the video.
His message was tagged with a “community note” – an X fact-check system implemented through crowd-sourcing. But the post remained up, highly visible because of X’s algorithm. As of this writing, the post had more than two million views.
Musk’s own attention-seeking posts amid the violence demonstrate that. “All Tesla superchargers in Israel are free,” Musk posted. But his gesture was not all about altruism. There was a caveat. The post was restricted to replies from paid subscribers only.
Of greater concern is the platform’s role and influence in spreading distortion and disinformation. Musk bought Twitter for his own ideological reasons, and has viewed himself at war with “woke” values, which he argues erodes the foundations of democracy. Through his own personal crusades he has aligned himself with far-right ideologues and authoritarian leaders. And in turn he has garnered their loyalty.
Musk has made other changes on X that also have had a profound impact on how facts are represented. Earlier this month, X removed media-composed headlines from news articles. Musk argued the change was to “greatly improve the aesthetics” of the platform. But now users are shown images without context, allowing for bots, propagandists and even meme accounts to fill in the blanks with unsubstantiated claims. The result has created an alternative reality where conspiracies reign over fact.
As Twitter, the platform was a digital democratiser that gave voice to ordinary citizens beyond the confines of traditional media. In times of political upheaval or natural disaster, Twitter had a reputation for delivering on-the-ground reporting and firsthand accounts in real time.
Now it is Musk’s personal megaphone promoting his political views and business interests.
X’s representation of the events in Israel and Gaza reveal that the platform’s strengths for truth-telling are eroded and all but gone. Will we heed the warnings by Twitter’s demise or even realise the impact X now has on how we see the world?
“In the past couple years, I’ve gotten kicked off of PayPal and Venmo,” sex worker Maya Morena told me. “I’ve gotten kicked off Twitter. I had 80,000 followers on Twitter; I had 30,000 followers on Instagram, I had 30,000 on Tumblr. I lost all those platforms.”
Morena’s experience isn’t unusual, though it also isn’t well known. When the right talks about censorship, it focuses obsessively on liberals protesting conservative speakers. When the left focuses on censorship, it points to the efforts by red states to criminalise the teaching of LGBT and Black studies. The longstanding, and worsening, policing and censorship of sex workers online is seen by all as either justifiable or unimportant. It is neither though; the censorship of sex workers affects their livelihood, their ability to advocate for themselves, and puts their safety and their very lives at risk.
That’s why when Twitter started promising that Twitter Blue would boost visibility and engagement on the platform, many sex workers signed up. The service hasn’t really solved sex worker’s problems. But the hopes around it, and the backlash to it, demonstrate just how isolated sex workers are, and how much they need solidarity from those who care about free speech.
A Sustained Assault on Sex Worker Speech
Government, gatekeepers and the public have long been very uncomfortable with sexual speech, going all the way back to laws that criminalised the shipping of sexual material through the mail in the late 1800s.
The early internet gave sex workers the ability to advertise directly to clients and to be visible online in ways that had been previously unimaginable. Sites like Backpage and Craigslist allowed people to promote erotic services and, importantly, allowed them to vet clients. Homicides of sex workers cratered in cities where Craigslist opened erotic services websites as sex workers were able to get off the streets and out of danger.
Despite clear evidence that free speech made sex workers safer, policy makers and anti-sex advocates insisted, with little to back them up, that adult services on the internet contributed to trafficking.
The “watershed moment” for sexual censorship, according to Olivia Snow, a dominatrix and a research fellow at the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, came in 2018, with the bipartisan passage of FOSTA/SESTA. These laws made platforms legally responsible for user-generated sexual content. That gave many platforms an incentive, or an excuse, to purge sex workers.
Backpage was shut down by the government in 2018; Tumblr purged most NSFW content the same year. So did Patreon. Payment processors and banks have been escalating a longstanding war on sex workers, preventing them from accessing funds or doing business. Even OnlyFans, which has built its business almost entirely on sex workers, decided to get rid of sexual content, though it reversed its decision after a backlash from creators.
As sex workers have been shut out of most sites, Twitter has become more and more important to the community. “Twitter is the only major social media platform that tolerates us,” Snow said. “It is by default the least shitty of the platforms.”
Twitter Is Welcoming—But Not That Welcoming
A recent study found that 97% of sex workers rely on Twitter as their top site for finding followers. Writer and sex worker Jessie Sage explained that while she has accounts on sex worker sites like Eros and Tryst, “the people who book me tend to do so because they find me and then they go look at my socials.” Clients use Twitter to verify that sex workers are who they say they are, and to see if they have shared interests. And, Sage says, Twitter allows sex workers to share information. “Being able to connect with other sex workers allows us to create pathways and resources and screening resources for each other that keep us safe.”
Sage also says Twitter is vital because it lets sex workers show that they’re not just sex workers. “Most of my Twitter’s just talking about books I like to read and things that I’m thinking about,” she told me. “But there’s something very political about that, because I’m saying that I am a sex worker, and I’m also all of these other things. And when we get shoved off of social media, we lose that and we become dehumanised. And when we become dehumanised, our existence becomes much more ripe for abuse.”
While Twitter is somewhat welcoming to sex workers though, it’s not that welcoming. Sex worker accounts are often deprioritized by the algorithm (a process sometimes referred to as shadowbanning). Deprioritisation can mean that accounts don’t show up in search results or that they don’t show up in follower’s feeds. That makes it hard to build an audience. It can also make it easy for bad actors to impersonate sex workers and catfish clients. “Fake accounts on Twitter are able to get more followers than me, because I’m already censored,” Morena told me. “It’s a big problem for all sex workers.”
Twitter Blue to the Rescue, Sort Of
In December, new Twitter owner Elon Musk claimed that for $8/month, Twitter Blue users would begin to be prioritised in search and in conversations on Twitter. Many sex workers hoped Twitter Blue would give them more visibility.
Sex worker Andres Stones says that in his experience post-Musk Twitter has strangled his engagement and has “had a very large and negative impact” on his business.” It’s not clear whether this is because Musk is more aggressive in restricting adult content, or whether the new Twitter simply throttles engagement for everyone who isn’t on Twitter Blue. Either way, Stones says, “I started subscribing [to Twitter Blue] out of necessity.” It hasn’t gotten him back to where he was before, but it’s at least slowed the slide. “It’s been helpful only insofar as not having it was a death knell for engagement.”
Other sex workers report similar experiences. Morena says it hasn’t been that helpful, though it’s given her content an “extra push.” Sage struggled because Twitter Blue didn’t allow her to change her screen name easily, which made it difficult for her to advertise her travel dates.
Block the Blue
Sex workers saw Twitter Blue as a possible way to navigate censorship and deprioritisation on the one important social media platform that warily tolerates their existence. But in the broader cultural conversation, Twitter Blue was portrayed as a service solely for Elon Musk superfans and fascist trolls.
Mashable reported on a Block the Blue campaign, which encouraged Twitter users to adopt a Blocklist targeting all Twitter Blue accounts. It was embraced by NBC News reporter Ben Collins, Alejandra Caballo of the Harvard Law Cyberlaw Clinic and other large progressive accounts. Twitter comedian and celebrity @dril told Binder, “99% of twitter blue guys are dead-eyed cretins who are usually trying to sell you something stupid and expensive.” Blocking them, @dril suggested, was funny and a way to undermine Musk’s right wing political agenda.
But a small study by TechCrunch found that the vast majority of Twitter Blue accounts were not right wing harassment accounts. Instead, people used the service because they wanted features like the ability to post longer videos, or two-factor authentication—or because they were, like sex workers, businesspeople trying to boost engagement.
Ashley, a sex worker and researcher of online platform behavior who did her own study of Twitter Blue users, told me that the Block the Blue list is frustratingly counterproductive. The best way to block hateful trolls, she argued, is to block the followers of large right-wing troll accounts.
“I’m all in favour of users being empowered to block people,” she says, “but combined with the fact that so many sex workers are using this, [Block the Blue] is really just sharing a sex worker block list. Because there’s way more sex workers than hateful people on there.”
Ashley adds that the majority of Twitter Blue users are probably just random people experimenting with the service. The point though is that sex workers are using the service at high rates, but have had little success in getting their interests, or existence, recognised by progressives who are supposedly fighting for marginalised people. Matt Binder, who wrote the Mashable article about Block the Blue, told me he doesn’t believe that sex worker concerns did much to interrupt or slow the Block the Blue campaign which has “become somewhat of a meme on the platform,” he said. (He added that he thinks more people block individual users than use the block list, and doesn’t think there’s been much “friendly fire.”)
Musk and the right are no friends to sex workers; as Snow told me, the right-wing “neo-fash, neo-Satanic Panic” targeting LGBT people is built on terror and hatred of anything associated with sexuality, which includes sex workers (many of whom are LGBT themselves.) But progressive leaders often don’t feel accountable to sex workers either, and mostly ignore sex workers when they say (for example) that blocking everyone using Twitter Blue will further isolate them.
Twitter Blue isn’t a solution. But it’s a reminder that sex workers face extreme and debilitating censorship. More people need to listen to them.