It was Easter and Lola Aronovich, a Brazilian literature professor, was enjoying a break on a beach with no internet access, completely unaware of the smear campaign being orchestrated against her on Twitter.
That day in April 2015, the son of Geraldo Alckmin, the former governor of São Paulo and currently Vice President-elect of Brazil, tragically died in a helicopter crash. Aronovich saw the events on TV and went home three days later – only to find thousands of vicious messages on Twitter against her for something she didn’t do.
“A fake tweet was made complaining that Alckmin was not involved in the crash. [The attackers] said I deleted the tweet shortly after posting it. The post went viral and I was threatened by politicians, academics and users with large followings,” Aronovich, who teaches at the Federal University of Ceara, told Al Jazeera.
“I said I never wrote that. A far-right Twitter user commented that the image was fake, but the damage was done. Some people [who reposted the fake tweet] deleted their messages, but no one ever apologized to me,” she said.
This was one of many times Aronovich, who uses Twitter to discuss feminism and human rights issues, has been bullied and abused on the social media platform.
“Someone has been harassing me continuously for three years and I am constantly being attacked. I have blocked tens of thousands of users in the past ten years,” says the professor, who has a file of just under 200,000 followers on Twitter.
Twitter Blue: ‘A license to attack’
It doesn’t bode well for activists like Aronovich with the changes to the platform under its new owner Elon Musk, namely the paid verification product Twitter Blue.
“I get anonymous comments on my blog saying they can’t wait [Twitter Blue] available in Brazil. They plan to create a verified profile in my name to discredit me as they see fit,” Aronovich said.
The professor is concerned about Musk’s plans to further his vision as an “free speech absolutist” while generating profit.
“This is extremely dangerous, given that [Musk’s] supporters are usually the ones who harass others online with campaigns that can be extrapolated to the real world,” Aronovich said. “[Twitter Blue] is, in fact, a license to attack.”
There are wider concerns about how the new management will affect democratic debate on the platform. With 19 million users, Twitter is the ninth-largest social network in Brazil, which pales in comparison to WhatsApp, the country’s most popular social app with 165 million users, according to data from We Are Social and Hootsuite.
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 Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.
“It’s like all Brazilians are on Twitter, even if they’re not, as prints of what is published there are widely shared on other social networks, such as WhatsApp,” he said.
Disinformation on Twitter targeting Brazilian users has worsened significantly in recent years, Nemer said. He noted that the platform was unprepared for its increasing relevance in the country, driven by the attention President Jair Bolsonaro has received on Twitter when he used the platform – and other social media – to reach voters in his 2018 election campaign. a first in the South American nation. That, in turn, increased 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 dissemination of false information by far-right groups through messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp.
Like Aronovich, Nemer’s Twitter activity made him a target, with threats regularly received. He fears Musk’s recent decisions, such as firing the department that focuses on making the platform’s algorithm fairer and more transparent, will have dire consequences.
“Freedom of speech absolutism is a bad thing in Brazil because it directly touches the core of democracy, while discouraging people from different social strata, races and sexual orientations from being part of the platform,” he noted .
More broadly, the academic believes Twitter will continue to play a vital role in the new government led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, elected last month.
“The war on disinformation is likely to continue as it involves storytelling 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 existed prior to his purchase of the company — while also preventing such posts from being taken down.
“[Musk] is trying to show a progressive audience that he is doing something to curb hate speech given that these people have left the platform en masse,” said Nemer.
However, such methods of countering the spread of hate content are somewhat inefficient, says Ale Santos, a Brazil-based Afrofuturism author and Twitter influencer.
“People dedicated to spreading false and hurtful content online are constantly exploring the limits of the platform and improving their way of spreading hate online,” said Santos.
Paying for verification is a ‘luxury’
After Bolsonaro took office in 2019, Santos began using the platform more intensively to express his political views.
“You couldn’t speak a word against the government and an army of [Bolsonaro] supporters would come crashing down like a ton of bricks to insult, bully and criticize,” he said.
“They are not interested in the debate itself. Instead, they focus on creating controversies that reverberate across the network,” said Santos, a fiction writer who has more than 145,000 followers and has been embroiled in a number of vicious debates with users including the president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, and other far-right influencers.
After realizing that activity on Twitter was taking a 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. For those debates, I left out Twitter: there I still say what I think, but I don’t get involved in individual clashes with people,” he noted.
Musk’s plans to monetize the platform while turning it into a “town square” where everyone can have a voice make no sense in Brazilian reality, Santos said.
“A city square would be great if everyone could stand on it. As a white American male, Musk seems to be quite alienated from other cultures. In Brazil, where food insecurity has worsened, paying to verify on a social networking site is a luxury. It will widen the social divide within the platform and make it a stage for extremists,” Santos said.
Musk on Saturday brought Donald Trump backa day after he announced the platform reinstated 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] implies it will be easier for that group,” he said, adding that this is unlikely to please advertisers either. “[Reinstating banned users] is another measure that can destabilize the platform.”
Al Jazeera has not received a response to requests for comment sent to Twitter Brazil’s communications team or country manager Fiamma Zarife.
Insufficient attention to local contexts has been a longstanding problem on 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 took place elsewhere,” she said, referring to former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told the US Congress that the site had played a role in the rioting at the Capitol.
Need for regulation
The US also needs clear rules about what platforms can or can’t do, according to Santos. Brazil has introduced a bill to regulate social media, which is currently stuck in Congress.
“She [the US] also do not have a data protection law, while Brazil does have one,” she said.
At an event held Monday by Brazilian business leaders group LIDE in New York, Brazil’s Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes highlighted the role of lawmakers in tackling the spread of false information online in Brazil. The judge also strengthened his plans to regulate social networks so that they are no longer “a no man’s land”.
Given that Twitter has become central to public discourse worldwide, the lack of regulatory mechanisms that take into account its importance is “unfortunate,” said Bill Thompson, a UK-based internet pioneer and commentator at Digital. Planet, a BBC World Service technology company. program.
“That’s an indication that we haven’t thought through how important these platforms are,” he said.
On how Musk could make Twitter a better place to advance Democratic debate, Thompson noted, “He could say, ‘Make this a public square we can be proud of, with the technology, tools and facilities to make 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 rich person and does not need [Twitter] to make a profit,” he said. “Twitter could be independent of him and indeed of everything else.”