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Rapid Twitter developments raise concerns about online safety

Posted on 15 November 2022

It has been two weeks since Elon Musk's purchase of social media giant, Twitter, for $44 billion. In this short time, Mr Musk has already introduced significant changes to Twitter, such as the launch of the "Twitter Blue" subscription service allowing users to buy blue-tick verification for a monthly fee of $7.99.

The ability for users to buy verified status with Twitter Blue raises concerns about the proliferation of accredited fake accounts and 'bots' on Twitter. Until now, the blue tick has been a tool to help users identify reliable information on Twitter. Twitter Blue has already been rapidly exploited by people to impersonate other accounts, such as major brands and current and former political leaders.

Only a number of days after its launch, the option to join Twitter Blue has now been removed and apparently put on hold. On Wednesday, Twitter also reportedly attempted to launch a second "Official" label for brands, governments, and high-profile individuals, but that was paused within hours of going live.

Reports state that thousands of employees lost their jobs at Twitter following Mr Musk's arrival and a number of senior executives of the company have resigned. This included Twitter's Head of Trust and Safety, Chief Privacy Officer, Chief Compliance Officer, and Chief Security Officer. Mr Musk also appears to have deprioritised the communications functions at Twitter, having reportedly dismissed a large proportion of the Twitter Communications Team. It remains to be seen whether the new strategy of Mr Musk being the mouthpiece of Twitter will be sustainable for the business.

These cuts, operational instability and Mr Musk's stance on free speech have created uncertainty amongst advertisers, who reportedly have pulled away from Twitter while they await to see how content moderation will be handled under its new leadership. 

For users, it is still yet to be seen how privacy and data will be handled under Mr Musk's tenure. Although, Mr Musk confirmed recently that Twitter's stance towards harmful material remains "absolutely unchanged". Twitter has previously been in the spotlight for its practices regarding user data. In May, Twitter was fined $150 million USD for illegally using users' data to help sell targeted ads and made to agree to new privacy rules and implement a new privacy and security programme. This process was understood to have been overseen by the executives reported to have resigned.

There is a sense of chaos at Twitter, including uncertainty about its future financial sustainability. Mr Musk reportedly said that "bankruptcy is not out of the question" for Twitter when addressing his staff last week. The US Federal Trade Commission, a top consumer protection regulator, is said to be "tracking recent developments at Twitter with deep concern". 

Given the speed of changes, the world is monitoring Twitter closely. In the UK, recent reports suggest that when the Online Safety Bill returns to Parliament its scope will be narrowed and will not address abusive conduct which fails to meet the criminal threshold (so called 'lawful but awful' material). With the developments at Twitter, users might rightly fear that there is a risk that this sort of abusive conduct will go unmonitored on the platform.

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