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Elon Musk calls himself a free speech absolutist. What could Twitter look like under his leadership?


After an on-again, off-again, at times contentious flirtation with the social media platform Twitter, tech billionaire Elon Musk says he is once again interested in buying it. On Thursday, a judge gave Musk and Twitter until October 28 to close their deal and end their months-long legal fight and avoid a high-profile trial. But the latest twist in this ongoing saga has resurfaced questions about what the popular social media site will look like under the leadership of a so-called free speech absolutist. Musk has openly criticized Twitter's policies that monitor hate speech, disinformation and online abuse, and has publicly claimed he would work to undo some of them.

That made us want to reach out to Nina Jankowicz. She is a disinformation expert who's spent years researching online behavior and safety. But her interest in this, as it is for many women in public life, is not just academic. Earlier this year, she was the target of a vicious campaign of online abuse, all because she was appointed to a federal government working group aimed at combating disinformation. So we thought about what a Twitter buyout could mean for the safety of women, and for that matter, other historically marginalized groups online. That's a topic she writes about in her book, "How To Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment, And How To Fight Back." And she's with us once again.

Nina Jankowicz, thanks so much for joining us.

NINA JANKOWICZ: Great to talk to you again, Michel.

MARTIN: So it seems at least somewhat likely that Musk could own Twitter by the end of the month. Of course, the story has had so many twists and turns, you know, we can't know for sure. But as a person who spends a lot of time looking at social media and engaging with it, what was your reaction to this week's news?

JANKOWICZ: For a free speech absolutist to take control of a platform like Twitter, where so many people spend their time and when there's where there's a lot of debate going on, this is not just about, you know, allowing a free speech free-for-all. This is about eventually silencing marginalized voices. That free speech free-for-all is going to mean less speech for marginalized groups. Because what happens online these days - and I know this personally, as you said - is it's not just the expressly illegal content or the content that directly incites violence. And that's the stuff that Musk said he would prohibit. All the rest of the policies would go away. It's not just that stuff that is silencing for marginalized groups.

What I've experienced is that, you know, you get thousands and thousands of messages that are kind of borderline in terms of violence. Some of them are directly threatening. And what that does is change your calculus about how you engage online. You know, in Brazil, which is also in election season right now, Reporters Without Borders recently did a survey that showed that 80% of women journalists in Brazil change how they interact online because they're afraid of attacks, because they want to keep themselves safe from those attacks. And if we were to remove all the protections that Twitter has, I really worry about the silencing effect that that would have for women and marginalized voices.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about what that was like? As we mentioned, you were appointed to chair the Disinformation Governance Board. And then you quickly became the target of an online disinformation and harassment campaign. And I just want to point out that the purpose of this was to figure out how to deal with, for example, disinformation directed at would-be migrants, disinformation directed at people spreading falsehoods about COVID vaccinations and things like that. These are public safety measures and also measures designed to keep people from making bad decisions about whether to cross the border, for example, because we know that certain sort of campaigns are directed at some of these groups. So what is that like?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah. I mean, so the first thing to understand is that the entire harassment campaign was based on this foundational lie that the Disinformation Governance Board would be policing American speech. And I think it's important to note that the board had absolutely no ability or purview to take any operational action like that. That's not political spin. That's just the truth. I would not have taken the job if that were the case.

And so based on this foundational lie, I had thousands of my fellow Americans sending me, you know, things ranging from just kind of curse words and insults, picking apart my physical appearance, talking about the weight that I gained during pregnancy, things like that - because I was eight months pregnant at the time. But also, you know, direct threats to me and my family, my unborn child, people saying that I should be sent to Russia and killed, people saying that I had committed treason. And this was their 1776 moment. And I should, you know, watch my back, that sort of thing.

My research, as you've noted, has focused on online harassment and abuse. And so I was probably as well-prepared as I could be for these attacks. But it was still really difficult because my work is online. And, you know, a lot of my life is online, as it is for most people these days. So by encountering these messages over and over and over, every time I opened up, not just Twitter but Facebook, but Instagram, every account that I have online, basically. And I've also received, you know, mail to my home, phone calls. It really does have an effect, even for someone who prides herself on being outspoken and will not back down.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think is important to point out is that women aren't the only people who are subjected to this conduct. I mean, recently The Daily Beast wrote about a science fiction writer who four years ago wrote just a tweet saying he didn't think Norm MacDonald was that funny. I mean, this is before it was known that Norm MacDonald was suffering from cancer and so forth. But he just said, I don't think he's that funny. And so he has been subjected to a campaign of vicious harassment ever since by people who seem to think it's their job to do it.

I mean, he has been swatted. He's had law enforcement falsely called to his home under false pretenses, and has been completely unable to defend himself from this conduct. And frankly, it's not an exaggeration to say that people who have been targets of online harassment campaigns have taken their own lives because it was just more than they could deal with. So the question I guess I have is, why is this not seen as more of a public health or criminal justice concern?

JANKOWICZ: I think it's seen as a problem, but not seen as an urgent problem. So we heard from the Twitter whistleblower Mudge - Peiter Zatko - that things like online harassment just fall by the wayside because of the exigent problems that come up at platforms, security problems that they're forced to then throw all their resources to. And I think that's why his testimony is so powerful, along with the testimony of other tech whistleblowers that we've heard from over the past few years, because the tech companies are just putting out fires based on the problems that their platforms have created. They are not thinking proactively about the harm that their platforms can cause - or in some cases, they are actively looking the other way and really prioritizing profit over the humanity of their users. And we've seen in countries like Australia where there's an e-safety commissioner, and in the U.K., which is pursuing an online safety bill, that, you know, the tech companies are going to have to face some more accountability for their duty of care for their users.

MARTIN: Periodically, there have been moves in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere in Europe and other parts of the world to think about how these tech companies should be addressed in the public sphere, given their impact on public life, not just in the United States, but around the world. And is there any urgency around that, or does this give us an opportunity to think about that again?

JANKOWICZ: You know, Michel, I've really become quite pessimistic after my own experience that both the Congress and the U.S. government are really up to the task of conducting oversight over these platforms. Again, I do not want the U.S. government to have any right to silence Americans. It does not have that right, thanks to the First Amendment. But I do think there needs to be oversight over the ways that platforms are conducting content moderation calls and the policies that allow these types of network harassment campaigns to flourish. Other countries are further ahead than we are. But I really think that the solutions, at least in the short term, are going to be in the public sphere. And that's why I'm focusing my work on non-profit advocacy campaigns rather than trying to make big overarching policy change because it just does not seem like anyone is up to the task of taking on this hugely profitable industry that is flourishing on hate.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, is it possible that people could just stop using the platform? Is that a thing that could happen?

JANKOWICZ: You know, I just had a conversation with my husband about this this morning. And he said, you know, what are you thinking about? If Musk buys the platform, what will you do? And I think it's really important to underline that for so many people, not just Twitter, but platforms like Facebook and Instagram, it is a really important part, not only of their social life, but of their careers. I mean, I have not only put my work out there through Twitter, I've made really important professional connections around the world. Some of my closest colleagues and friends in my sphere of work are people that I primarily got to know on Twitter.

Not to mention that, you know, when I do interviews, when I publish new pieces, when I testify before Congress, I share that and expose people to these ideas using the internet. So it is a decision I've not made yet, but I think it's important to underline that it's not just about fun cat pictures online. This is a place where people increasingly live their lives and do work. And so we really need to think about, again, the tech companies' duty of care to the millions of users that are entrusting them with this significant part of their lives.

MARTIN: That's Nina Jankowicz. She's a scholar who researches disinformation and its effect on democracy. Her latest book is "How To Be A Woman Online: Surviving Abuse And Harassment, And How To Fight Back." Nina Jankowicz, thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us once again.

JANKOWICZ: Great to be with you, as always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.