Despite initial reluctance by the board of Twitter, Elon Musk struck a deal to purchase the social media giant for USD 44 billion. This makes him the sole owner of Twitter. Elon says that his intentions are to uphold the important “town square” that Twitter can be. Yet, his takeover should remind us of the current invisible digital attack on our freedom to think.

“You should never have an information space like this owned by one person. No matter what their ideals are.”

Susie Alegre, Human Rights Lawyer

What ultimately swayed the board to go forward with the sale, were the perspectives of Twitter’s shareholders. Would this be profitable for them? The answer was Yes. The decision to sell to Elon Musk by the Twitter board was a profitable deal.

Our massive public spheres of communication are controlled by individuals who want, and need, these platforms to turn a profit.

This will time, and time again, prove to go before the benefits of its users.

In 2021, Frances Haugen blew the whistle on how Facebook prioritizes profit over people. She shared internal documents showing how the company knew that it was doing harm, yet did nothing. This included, the ill effects for young girls’ mental health and even its influence in genocide.

Digital violence against women has been experienced and witnessed by 85 % of women who use the internet.

Hate speech, bullying and discrimination lives on these platforms, with close to no regulation.

Musk says he’ll defend free speech and fight censorship, yet, simultaneously black employees are suing him for racial discrimination.

Actor and feminist activist Jameela Jamil wrote on Instagram about her decision to leave Twitter following Musk’s takeover. Her public decision was followed by digital attacks of hate and threats from men online.

“I don’t want a freedom of hate speech because it is detrimental to the freedom of speech of the oppressed as they face such horrific and scary real life consequences for objecting to their oppression. This is a move towards (esp straight male) white entitlement. Nobody else is safe there if they do not think the already HORRIFYING vitriol on the app is enough “freedom.” It’s about to become the Purge and some sort of crypto bro fever dream I fear.”

Jameela Jamil

So, how does Big Tech get into our heads?

On April 27, 2022, I attended an online event organized by OpenDemocracy. The panel discussed big tech’s influence on our freedom of thought. Human Rights Lawyer and author of Freedom to Think, Susie Alegre, explained how big tech decides what we see, hear and experience; and how that in turn deprives us of independent thought.

Big tech’s products are built to be addictive, and they are gaining so much information about us – as we continuously use them in our daily life.

Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff and author of Surveillance Capitalism, said at the same event, “We’ve tended to underreact to this new [digital] power – information warfare that uses our family photos and all our personal information in a benign form of power to get into our heads.” 

“It’s the weaponization of our own information against us ordinary citizens in our everyday lives.”

Shoshana Zuboff

Artificial Intelligence is using our data to not only improve their services to us, Zuboff explains. It goes far beyond targeted advertisement. We don’t know what the algorithms look like, how they collect data from us or how that data is used.

The data is not only used to decide what reality is presented to us, but in ways that can have severe consequences for democracy and human rights.

Google, Meta (Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp), Amazon, Twitter, Microsoft, and Apple are all private companies that use our data to grow in profit. When big tech get into our heads, it begins to dismantle our freedom and our possibility to live in a peaceful, democratic world.

“It should be guaranteed that a global information platform isn’t owned by a single person,”  

Susie Alegre

What can we do to protect our freedom of thought?

1. Understand that these companies won’t fix themselves – there needs to be oversight and protections put in place.

In 2020, Timnit Gebru, an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher who at the time worked at Google, had produced a research paper with evidence of ethical issues with Google’s Artificial Intelligence. In short, after attempts to silence her, she was fired from the company. Since then she has started her own research institute continuing her important work with Ethical AI.

On the subject of Musk’s purchase of Twitter, Timnit Gebru has tweeted her opinions.

“The pattern of claiming you want to make AI/AGI “beneficial for humanity” while showing us some of the most unsafe products, THEN convincing us that YOU will be the one saving us from the issues? Witnessing this constant pattern drives me nuts. And then the cycle continues.”

Timnit Gebru

Time and time again, we’ve seen that these big tech companies cannot self-regulate. They continue to silence those within the company who try to flag the faulty AI, or the ethical issues that they pose.

“What we need is recognition across the liberal democracy, that the digital must live in democracy’s house. So that our people and societies finally get to benefit from the fruit of this digital age.”

Shoshana Zuboff

Professor Zuboff reminds us to remember what these platforms were supposed to be. They were supposed to be networks she says, “not machine jungles driven by surveillance capitalism”.

Therefore, it’s not up to “Elon Musk or any other guy to make something better or worse”, it’s up to us to work politically.

Use your voting rights by contacting your representatives. Turn to your lawmakers. Demand legislation that will hold these companies accountable.

This week, the European Council have finally launched an agreement on the Digital Services Act. It may not be perfect, but it is a first step towards overseeing platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

2. Prioritize self care by setting boundaries for your digital use

“I leave my phone downstairs. It’s small and liberating. Seperating yourself is a good start.” 

Susie Alegre

Seperating yourself from your phone and other digital tools have proven to help you sleep better and stay in a better state of health. It gives you the freedom to choose what you allow into your brain, instead of the constant download chosen for you as you scroll.

This space provides you with the freedom to have interesting thoughts and give you the resources you need to make truly informed decisions about your life.

3. Keep learning

Continue to learn about what these massive companies know about you. Hey, there are even apps for that!

Tech moves fast, and our laws aren’t keeping up – so it really is up to us to keep a learning mindset to protect ourselves and others.

Shoshana Zuboff concluded the OpenDemocracy event by saying this, “Nothing is inevitable! We’re big, we’re strong. We can change it. Pay attention!”

It’s not even a question about whether or not to use Twitter – or any other big tech platforms for that matter. It’s about your awareness of it’s impact on you and the world. As well as, your awareness of the power you hold to be a part of creating positive change.

As for me, I’d rather not be at a “town square” where privileged white men are given space to shout their sexist and racist jokes (just have a scroll through Musk’s personal Twitter feed).

Instead, I’d like to create spaces where we can collectively solve the world’s most pressing issues. And do so by allowing space for underrepresented voices to be heard – and no longer be underrepresented!

I would also like to personally call for feminist tech activists to reach out to Girls’ Globe at info@girlsglobe.org, so that we can continue to learn and rise against the power of big tech together.

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