‘It’s given a voice to many’: chaos at Twitter sparks real fears for free speech in south-east Asia

Social media has been crucial to pro-democracy protests across the region, from Myanmar to the Milk Tea Alliance in Thailand and Hong Kong

When Thai journalist and free speech defender Pravit Rojanaphruk joined Twitter in 2011, the social media platform was for him just a home for a few academics and politicos arguing among themselves.

But over the next decade – in tandem with Thailand’s pro-democracy and monarchy reform movement – young people and activists flocked to Twitter to organise, share information and exchange protest tactics across borders. Pravit himself increasingly turned to his 85,000 followers to get the word out about facing forced resignation and sedition charges for criticising the government.

“It’s given a voice to many people who have been voiceless. Many used a pen name, so they feel much more comfortable,” Pravit says. “Over the past three or four years, Twitter has been the outlet driving the agenda.”

Pravit and other journalists and activists across south-east Asia fear that could soon change. Since buying the site last month, mercurial tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has slashed about half the company’s staff, proposed an $8-per-month payment system to gain a verified account and raised alarms about the proliferation of disinformation and hate speech.

The site’s future has sparked a unique conversation in parts of Asia, where criticising governments or royal figures can lead to long jail sentences and activists have few public places to speak out anonymously.

“Things that activists rely on for communication through social media, like community moderation, safety and so on, are often dependent on a few people running the site,” said a young Singaporean activist who asked to remain anonymous and uses Twitter to quickly gather and share information difficult to find elsewhere. “The whole site can change on their whim.”

Chief concerns include whether Twitter will make users de-anonymise their accounts and how it will deal with requests from authoritarian regimes to hand over user information, as well as government-linked disinformation campaigns.

Kirsten Han, a Singapore activist who tweets out anti-death penalty content and promotes a newsletter covering taboo topics to nearly 30,000 followers, wrote in a recent thread that loosening moderation could not only further the spread of disinformation but also give “governments an excuse to justify passing more laws, implement more regulations, and generally give themselves more power to further regulate and clamp down on online expression”.

‘What was fomented on Twitter became real in the streets’

Pro-government or royalist bot accounts flooded Twitter during the 2020 Thai protests and the 2018 Malaysia elections, with users in Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar reporting similar phenomena as early as five years ago.

Activists have fought back by flagging accounts en masse and launching their own hashtag campaigns. In the early days of Myanmar’s 2021 coup, a deluge of new anonymous users tweeting #HeartheVoiceofMyanmar and #SaveMyanmar garnered millions of supporters on the site. In Cambodia, exiled opposition leaders announced their attempts to return home on Twitter, while in Thailand, #WhyDoWeNeedAKing was tweeted more than a million times amid the protests.

Most importantly, activists say, the platform helped Asian protesters to build solidarity between nations. The Milk Tea Alliance – an online democracy campaign born around the 2020 Hong Kong and Thai uprisings – revealed young people’s shared experiences and encouraged them to take to the streets, recalls Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a Thai activist and Milk Tea Alliance leader whose Twitter account has more than 175,000 followers.

“I tweeted before the 2020 youth uprising, ‘Is it enough to be successful by doing hashtag campaigns?’ We have to look at Hong Kong and others – this should be the means not the end, and we have to go to the streets to protest,” Netiwit says. “And finally what was fomented on Twitter became real in the streets.”

“I have seen the craziness of Elon Musk,” he adds. “I am afraid of big tech companies trying to control [Twitter] … We have to have the internet for the people.”

Others aren’t sure what to think. Teeranai Charuvastra, vice-president of the Thai Journalists Association, has never been impressed with Twitter’s management of misinformation. But, he says, “I’m afraid it could go from bad to worse. Maybe it’ll just stay bad, but to be honest, I don’t see how it’ll go from bad to good.”

Fiona Kelliher in Phnom Penh

The GuardianTramp

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