It was Easter, and Lola Aronovich, a Brazilian literature professor, was enjoying a break at a beach with no internet access, totally unaware of the defamation campaign being orchestrated against her on Twitter.
That day in April 2015, the son of Geraldo Alckmin, the former São Paulo governor and currently Brazil’s vice-president-elect, tragically died in a helicopter crash. Aronovich saw the events unfold on TV and headed home three days later – only to find thousands of vitriolic posts directed at her on Twitter for something she hadn’t done.
“A fake tweet was created where I was lamenting that Alckmin wasn’t in the crash. [The attackers] said I had deleted the tweet soon after posting it. The post went viral, and I got threatened by politicians, academics, and users with large follower bases,” Aronovich, who teaches at Federal University of Ceara, told Al Jazeera.
“I said I never wrote that. A far-right Twitter user noticed the image was false, but the damage was done. Some of the people [who reposted the fake tweet] deleted their posts, but no one ever apologised to me,” she said.
This was one of the many occasions where Aronovich, who uses Twitter to discuss feminism and human rights issues, has been bullied and abused on the social media platform.
“Someone harassed me incessantly for three years, and I get constantly attacked. I have blocked tens of thousands of users in the last decade,” said the professor, who has a base of just under 200,000 followers on Twitter.
Twitter Blue: ‘A license to attack’
Things do not bode well for activists like Aronovich with the changes to the platform under its new owner Elon Musk, namely paid verification product Twitter Blue.
“I am getting anonymous comments on my blog saying they cannot wait until [Twitter Blue] is available in Brazil. They are planning to create a verified profile in my name to defame me as they please,” Aronovich said.
The professor is concerned about Musk’s plans to enforce his vision as a “free speech absolutist”, while also generating profit.
“This is extremely dangerous, given that [Musk’s] supporters are usually those who harass others online with campaigns that may extrapolate into the real world,” Aronovich said. “[Twitter Blue] is effectively a license to attack.”
There are broader concerns over how the new management 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 with WhatsApp, the country’s most popular social app with 165 million users according to We Are Social and Hootsuite data.
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 associate researcher at Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
“It is as if all Brazilians are on Twitter even though they are not, since prints of what is published there get widely shared on other social networks, like WhatsApp,” he said.
Disinformation on Twitter directed to Brazilian users has worsened significantly over recent years, Nemer said. He noted the platform was unprepared for its increase in relevance in the country, driven by the attention President Jair Bolsonaro has garnered on Twitter when he used the platform – and other social media – to reach out to voters in his election campaign in 2018, a first in the South American nation. That, in turn, prompted a rise in the 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 advance his academic research, which focuses on the production and distribution of false information by far-right groups via messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp.
Similarly to Aronovich, Nemer’s Twitter activity made him a target, with threats received frequently. He fears the 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 as it directly hits the core of democracy while it discourages people from different social strata, race and sexual orientation to be part of the platform,” he noted.
More broadly, the academic believes Twitter will continue to play a crucial role in the new government led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was elected last month.
“The disinformation war will likely continue since it is about setting narratives and occupying spaces. Twitter is key in that sense, and I don’t see anyone [in the political scene] letting that go,” Nemer added.
Last week Musk said Twitter will limit the reach of negative or hateful content – something that had been in place prior to his purchase of the company – while also avoiding the deletion of such posts.
“[Musk] is trying to show progressive audiences that he is doing something to contain hate speech, given that these people have been leaving the platform in droves”, Nemer said.
However, such methods to curb the spread of hate content are somewhat inefficient, said Ale Santos, a Brazil-based Afrofuturism author and Twitter influencer.
“People who are dedicated to disseminating false and hurtful content online are constantly studying what the limits of the platform are and upgrading their way of spreading hate online,” Santos pointed out.
Paying for verification is a ‘luxury’
After Bolsonaro took office in 2019, Santos started using the platform more intensely to voice his political views.
“You couldn’t utter a word against the government and an army of [Bolsonaro] supporters would come crashing down like a tonne of bricks to offend, bully and criticise,” he said.
“They are not interested in the debate itself. Instead, they focus on creating controversy that will reverberate on the network”, said Santos, a fiction writer who has over 145,000 followers and got involved in a number of vicious debates with users, including the president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, and other far-right influencers.
After realising that activity on Twitter was taking its toll on his mental health, Santos chose to take his activism to other platforms.
“I decided to do that through my podcast, and through my literary work. I left Twitter aside for those debates: I still say what I think there, but don’t get involved in individual clashes with people,” he noted.
Musk’s plans to monetise the platform while turning it into a “town square” where everyone can have a voice don’t make sense when situated in the Brazilian reality, said Santos.
“A town square would be great if everyone could be in it. As a white American male, Musk appears to be quite alienated about 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 make it a stage for extremists,” Santos said.
On Saturday Musk brought back Donald Trump, 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 the latest decisions are a nod to far-right audiences.
“By doing that, [Musk] is implying that things will be easier for that group”, he said, adding this is also unlikely to please advertisers. “[Reinstating banned users] is another measure that can destabilise 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 longstanding issue in social media 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 reflex of the Capitol invasion rather than political processes that happened elsewhere,” she said, referring to former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledging to the US Congress that the site had played a role in the Capitol riots.
Need for regulation
The US also needs clear rules around what platforms can or can’t do, according to Santos. Brazil has proposed a bill to regulate social media which is currently stuck in Congress.
“They [the US] also don’t have a data protection law, whereas Brazil has one,” she said.
At an event held by Brazilian business leaders’ group LIDE in New York on Monday, Brazilian Supreme Court judge Alexandre de Moraes stressed the role of legislators in tackling the spread of false information online in Brazil. The judge also reinforced his plans to bring regulation to social networks so that they are no longer “a no man’s land”.
Given that Twitter has become central to the public discourse globally, the lack of regulatory mechanisms that take account of its significance is “unfortunate”, said Bill Thompson, a UK-based internet pioneer, and commentator at Digital Planet, a BBC World Service technology programme.
“That is an indication that we haven’t thought properly about how important these platforms are,” he said.
As for how Musk might ensure that Twitter is a better place to foster the democratic debate, Thompson noted, “He could say, ‘Make this a public square we can be proud of, with the engineering, tools, and facilities to be a positive contribution to humanity, and do this as my legacy.’”
“No one should own a town square,” and that the platform could exist under a public trust, Thompson added.
“[Musk] is someone who has many other businesses, is a wealthy person, and doesn’t need [Twitter] to make a profit,” he said.”Twitter could be independent of him and, indeed, everything else.”