Taipei, Taiwan – Singaporean activist and journalist Kirsten Han uses Twitter to talk about things Singapore’s government would rather keep secret.
Han’s outspoken posts draw attention to the rights of migrant workers, the racism the government claims doesn’t exist and, mostly, the hundreds of executions of non-violent drug offenders carried out in the city-state over the past few decades.
For her work, Han has been condemned on the floor of Singapore’s parliament and targeted by the police, something she also tweets about to the 29,000 followers of her verified account.
In June, Han had to hand over access to her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts when she was investigated under Singapore’s Public Order Act for holding a four-person vigil against the death penalty. Police cited Han’s posts on her social media accounts, including Twitter, as evidence for launching the investigation, which is ongoing.
Han has no plans to stop using Twitter, but how she uses it could change as the rules governing the platform face a radical shake-up under new owner Elon Musk.
Musk plans to scrap Twitter’s identity authentication system as soon as this week, offering the distinctive blue check mark, once reserved for verified high-profile users, to anyone willing to pay $8 a month.
While Han is still waiting for the details of the changes to unfold, she worries about the prospect of internet trolls impersonating her and causing confusion among her followers.
“I assume I’m going to lose the blue tick at some point, but then it also looks – as the details come out – that the blue tick verification thing is only going to be available to whoever pays,” Han told Al Jazeera.
More fundamentally, Han worries that Musk doesn’t understand the responsibility that now rests on his shoulders.
“He’s a businessman who, just from observation, has a somewhat exaggerated sense of how capable he is of doing things,” she said.
“He doesn’t seem qualified or really that knowledgeable about how communications and social media and technology platforms work, and the responsibilities they have, which is quite concerning.”
Han isn’t the only one worried.
Across Asia, activists, journalists and Twitter users engaged in human rights and social justice issues are worried about how the social media platform will change under the leadership of the world’s richest man.
Many live in countries where freedom of speech is severely curtailed by authorities. For such users, Twitter can be an important window to the outside world, a rare platform for open debate – often from behind the veil of anonymity – or both.
For critics, concerns range from questions about Musk’s ideological leanings and his business interests in countries like China to doubts about his understanding of the complexities of social media.
The Tesla founder, a self-described “free speech absolutist” who has accused Twitter of exhibiting left-wing bias, has pledged to reform moderation policies on the platform to encourage the airing and debate of a wider range of views courageously
Musk launched a radical restructuring of the company on Friday, laying off about half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees, including the entire human rights team, according to former legal counsel Shannon Raj Singh.
Al Jazeera received no response to requests for comment sent to the Twitter accounts of the company’s communications teams or its head of safety and integrity, Yael Roth.
In countries like Myanmar, where Twitter has played an important role in information sharing since a military coup in 2021, Musk’s takeover has sparked anxiety and concern.
Despite a government crackdown on social media and both domestic and foreign media, anonymous accounts continued to spread information about state-sponsored violence and anti-government protests.
Yadanar Maung, a spokesman for Justice for Myanmar, an account with 165,000 followers, said Twitter had already failed to counter psychological warfare and misinformation shared on social media by Myanmar’s military administration.
Now things could take a turn for the worse as moderation becomes even more sparse and government-linked accounts proliferate, Maung said.
“We are concerned that changes will make Twitter more dangerous for Myanmar users threatened by an illegitimate military junta, and that Twitter under Elon Musk could provide greater space for the junta and its supporters to spread disinformation and hate speech,” Maung said. said Al Jazeera.
Activists also worry about how Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink, could be influenced by China, where he has major business interests.
Tesla has established its largest production facility in Shanghai and earlier this year opened a showroom in Xinjiang, where Beijing has waged a long campaign of repression against the Uighurs and other ethnic minority Muslims, even as major Western brands have publicly distanced themselves from distanced the region.
“The concern is that if Elon Musk is potentially corrupt or trying to appease the Chinese government, he will hand over data and he will give the Chinese government access to data,” Vicky Xu, an Australia-based researcher and journalist who has her documented harassment by pro-Beijing accounts on social media, told Al Jazeera.
“Twitter is such an important platform for advocacy and dissent. With Elon Musk, even if he’s never going to hand over any data to China, even if the Chinese government couldn’t influence him, there’s still a psychological fear that many dissidents or activists feel that this platform just isn’t as free as it used to be and it’s not as impartial as it used to be or not as pro-democracy as it used to be.”
While Twitter, like other Western social media platforms, is blocked in China, Beijing oversees a large number of state-sponsored “wolf fighter” accounts that project its messages and monitor the social media activity of Chinese dissidents living abroad .
Many of these accounts also harass users who post about issues considered sensitive to China, such as Taiwan’s political status or political repression in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.
Sandra, a Hong Kong-based Chinese-language Twitter account with more than 47,000 followers, said a concern for dissidents like her is the abuse of Twitter’s feature to report inappropriate content by state-backed accounts and bots.
The Hong Kong democracy activist said she was suspended from Twitter for 6 months in 2019 after being targeted by pro-Beijing accounts for posts about the city’s anti-government protests.
Sandra said many Chinese dissident accounts have faced similar issues, with appeals taking months to reach a resolution.
It is unclear whether the situation will worsen with fewer “rails” on the platform, she said, while there are also concerns about whether Chinese state media will still be clearly marked as such.
Sandra, who asked to remain anonymous because of the comprehensive crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, said she was still waiting to see how the changes would play out.
“I haven’t decided yet,” she told Al Jazeera.
In Thailand, Twitter is one of the few spaces where citizens can take advantage of anonymity to debate the future of the monarchy without risking jail time under the country’s strict lèse-majesté laws.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, an award-winning journalist previously charged with sedition for criticizing the military government, said many Thais are worried about what will happen to their personal data and whether military-backed accounts will proliferate.
“Twitter is one of the two leading or most popular social media apps when it comes to political discussion. It is the least censored in Thailand, even compared to Facebook. Many of the Thai users are actually using a nom de plume,” Pravit told Al Jazeera.
“They’re not using a real identity when it comes to sensitive discussions about the monarchy, and we don’t know [how] Elon Musk is going to interpret this debate about the use of anonymous accounts.”