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Research & Analysis

Elon Musk To ‘Authenticate’ All Twitter Users, Create Two-Tiered System of Speech

Elements of Musk's vague and potentially pernicious plans are reminiscent of WeChat in China, the dystopian "everything app" that Musk has praised and said he wants to "copy."

There has been a good bit of discussion and concern lately over the fact that Elon Musk – despite his posturing as a free speech savior – is actually still openly in favor of “deboosting,” demonetizing, and outright banning people based on vague and selectively enforced “rules,” and even seemingly his own arbitrary whim.

Less widely discussed, but arguably equally concerning, is his talk about “authenticating all humans.”

This framing by Musk dates back to at least April of 2022, when Musk first announced that he had made an offer to acquire Twitter, saying that it needed to be “transformed.”

The following week, he said in a filing that he had secured financing, and he made this statement the same day:

He added minutes later:

This garnered quite a bit of support, but also raised a lot of eyebrows from people who recognized the possible implications of what he was saying:

Four days later, Twitter announced that it had accepted Musk’s buyout offer. In the official press release, Musk once again talked about “authenticating all humans” without elaborating about what that would mean or addressing people’s (valid) concerns. Here he is sharing a screenshot of that quote on Twitter the same day:

The Chinese Model

Wondering what this supposed “authentication” plan will look like and what the implications might be for free speech, privacy, and anonymity on Twitter is hardly irrational.

In late May of 2022, just over a month after making the statements quoted above, Musk was filmed discussing his Twitter takeover, and he said that he’d like to “copy WeChat.”

ELON MUSK: I mean, we don’t even have an app that’s as good as WeChat in China. Like, in China you can live on WeChat, basically. […] Anyone who has been there, it’s like, you live on WeChat. You do payments, you do everything. It’s like – it’s great. WeChat’s kick-ass. And we don’t have anything like WeChat outside of China. So, I was like, my idea would be: how bout if we just copy WeChat?

RYAN LEVENSON: Buys Twitter. Copies WeChat.

ELON MUSK: Yeah, pretty much!

RYAN LEVENSON: …Profit.

ELON MUSK: (Laughs) Yes!

Here’s the clip:

This is telling for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that WeChat is pretty much the exact kind of dystopian nightmare app that many in the Western world – including a large number of the people currently cheering for Musk – have rightfully feared for years:

Even more telling: Almost a decade ago, WeChat started demanding that users provide their real name to the company at the behest of the Chinese government, which the company retains on “the back end.”

An article on the anti-censorship website Global Voices reported in August of 2014 (bold added):

China’s Internet authority has issued a new rule requiring all messaging app companies to set up real-name registration for users, an effort mainly aimed at WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app. The State Internet Information Office said on Thursday that while users can still use nicknames, they have to provide real names to register on the back end

The same article also laid out the obvious motives and dangers of such a move:

Some see it as a violation of privacy, and many worry that it could be used to track down users who help spread news critical of the government. […] Since May 2014, parent company Tencent has been attempting to verify the real identities of the users behind public accounts by forcing the public account holders to upload their ID and mobile phone information. Before each message was sent to subscribers, the public account runner has to scan his or her own personal WeChat code. This way, Tencent can always find out whoever spread the “illegal” message. The same announcement was made about Twitter-like service Sina Weibo last year. Although people have found ways to circumvent the rule, the serious crackdown on public accounts on Sina Weibo had a chilling effect all over the country. With the new crackdown on mobile apps, people are likely to watch their words before they post anything sensitive on WeChat.

Other publications like TNW also reported on these and other related developments at the time, noting that:

All these initiatives mean that the situations for which a Chinese Internet user can maintain an anonymous online profile are becoming virtually non-existent. In late 2012, China made it mandatory for all Internet users to register with their real names — which followed nearly a year after the Chinese government introduced a compulsory real-name policy to the country’s Twitter-like microblogging services.

In 2017, Quartz reported: “In China you now have to provide your real identity if you want to comment online.”

The article begins:

The Chinese government under president Xi Jinping is continuing to make life on the internet difficult for its potential detractors. […] the country’s highest internet regulator [has] released new rules (link in Chinese) that govern who can post what online. The upshot: anonymity on the Chinese internet is just about dead.

The new rules are the most recent instance of the Cyberspace Administration of China’s (CAC) efforts to enforce “real-name registration,” which aims to severely limit internet activity for users who do not provide identifying information. There are already rules in place that require using your real name to register for WeChat, mobile phone numbers, Weibo, and other services for a few years. But the latest rules target the relatively unruly world of online communities and discussion forums.

“For users who have not given identifying information, platforms for and providers of online communities may not allow posting of any kind,” the announcement declares.

In 2021, the South China Morning Post reported:

China’s internet watchdog is updating regulations on how users of domestic online platforms identify themselves, making it harder for censored social media accounts to be revived. […] It was designed to prevent owners of banned social media accounts from registering under a similar name on another platform

Recapping part of the backstory we saw above, it also said:

China started implementing a strict real-name registration system in 2017. This requires users of Chinese microblogging service Weibo and multipurpose social media platform WeChat, marketed as Weixin on the mainland, to authenticate their accounts with their national ID, mobile phone number and other relevant documents.

So, to review:

  • WeChat, in compliance with dictates from the Chinese government, starts requiring users to “authenticate” themselves with personally identifiable information (aka “PII”), which they store in their database while still allowing users to use pseudonyms publicly.
  • Once this is in place for a few years, pseudonyms – and pseudonymous users – are banned. Real names only.
  • In the intervening years, China continues to tighten the screws, making it increasingly difficult to avoid such bans or post anything online without “authenticating” with your “national ID, mobile phone number and other relevant documents.”
  • China is now increasingly monitoring the online behavior of its (now overwhelmingly-deanonymized) citizens on apps like WeChat, and tying that in to their social credit score:

And of course:

  • Elon Musk loves and wants to copy WeChat.

Pseudonyms

With this in mind, let’s now take a look at some of Musk’s more recent statements.

Musk “clarified” a few weeks ago that, even though he is determined to “authenticate” all Twitter users, he will (supposedly) continue to allow pseudonyms on Twitter (for now).

Some of the replies:

(Again, “PII” = Personally Identifiable Information, such as your real name, phone number, biometric data, driver’s license number, etc.)

A week and a half later, Musk unbanned Jordan Peterson, who immediately began praising Musk while heavily agitating for “know your customer” rules on Twitter, and for Musk to segregate anonymous users – which Peterson smears en masse as “cowardly troll demons”– from “real verified people.”

While there was a large amount of push-back against Peterson, one user said: “Totally agree We need less anonymity on this platform.” Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s former CEO, replied directly to this, saying that “would be a big mistake.” Musk, in turn, replied to Dorsey, saying:

If that sounds a lot like China and WeChat, that’s because it is. Here are some of the replies to Musk:

Backend Data

That last point – about Twitter receiving and retaining the PII that they use to “authenticate users,” thereby linking a person’s pseudonym to their real identity on the “back end” – is one that you’ll notice has been made repeatedly in some of the replies we’ve seen.

Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, is another person who chimed in on this point. In response to the notion that Musk should “just keep the backend data secure,” he said:

“Zk-SNARK” is an acronym that means “Zero-Knowledge Succinct Non-Interactive Argument of Knowledge.” Here’s a brief explanation from Investopedia

Zk-SNARK is a zero-knowledge proof protocol used in encryption […] This proof was first developed and introduced in the late 1980s, and is now employed by the cryptocurrency Zcash to solve a perceived anonymity problem with Bitcoin-type blockchains. […] The idea behind these proofs was first developed in the 1980s. Put simply, a zero-knowledge proof is a situation in which each of two parties in a transaction is able to verify to each other that they have a particular set of information, while at the same time not revealing what that information is.

Some of the replies to Buterin:

Other users proposed an alternative protocol called Mina, another zero-knowledge technology:

Whether or not these specific technologies would be the ideal solution, the overriding point is that Musk is not (it appears) giving an indication that he is interested in protecting the privacy of pseudonymous users in this way, i.e., that he doesn’t want a database of their personally identifiable information. He is not addressing people’s concerns about privacy and PII at all. Instead, he’s vaguely talking about “authenticating” everyone “through the payment system plus phones.”

Second-Class Citizens

If you search Muks’s tweet history for the words anonymity and anonymous, you will not find spirited advocacy for these concepts online. What you will find in his tweet history though, if you search for other related terms, is the following, from 2018:

This is basically the same thing Jordan Peterson has been aggressively and bizarrely advocating for since the moment Musk unbanned him. Musk, it turns out, has been thinking about it for years.

Is Musk actually going to implement something along these lines, though? Yes, he’s already in the process of doing so.

He said as far back as May of this year:

This was in response to a thread about creating this type of two-tiered system, where “verified” people using their “real identities” get special treatment that pseudonymous user’s don’t – a thread featuring a video clip of none other than Nina Jankowicz, former executive director of the Biden administration’s infamous and short-lived “Disinformation Governance Board”:

As usual, Musk’s reply didn’t address this elephant(s) in the room, which many once again pointed out:

Last month, after officially taking over Twitter, Musk reiterated the same thing that he floated back in May, namely that Twitter Blue users (i.e., people who “authenticate”) will get “priority in replies”:

This is simply another form of the “freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach” policy that Musk has also touted recently.

This is one of the richest billionaires on Earth, who is also a major Pentagon contractor, following the same path as WeChat, which he openly says he wants to “copy.”

This is something that must be highlighted and resisted.

Here’s what Twitter now says when you click the Twitter Blue button (red underline added):

Once again: If you don’t “verify,” your tweets are effectively “deboosted,” just as Musk explicitly said he would also (continue to) do for “negative” and “hate” tweets.

Let’s give the last word to Bloomberg reporter Ryan Gallagher, who wrote a Twitter thread saying:

Asked a former Twitter employee about Elon’s proposal here to make people verify their identities on Twitter via phone & payment system. Their response: “It’s insane, he will get dissidents jailed & tortured if he implements this”

People in countries like Saudi Arabia use Twitter anonymously to voice criticism of their government because if they use their real name they can get jailed for a long time. Read about Salma al-Shehab, just one recent example.

[He links to The Guardian: “Saudi woman given 34-year prison sentence for using Twitter“]

Musk’s suggestion would involve Twitter storing a trove of sensitive data that could expose anonymous users’ real identities. That’s dangerous; recall Twitter was previously compromised by Saudi spies & was also allegedly infiltrated by China

[He links to Bloomberg: “Former Twitter Employee Convicted of Spying for Saudi Arabia“]

Such a policy would also likely deter some dissidents & activists in authoritarian countries from using this platform at all, which would be a gift to the world’s worst dictators.

Image Credit: Steve Jurvetson (CC BY 2.0). May be modified from original.
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