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How Are Changes at Twitter Impacting Africa?

FILE - Twitter logo and a photo of Elon Musk are displayed through magnifier in this illustration taken October 27, 2022.

Since Elon Musk closed his $44 billion deal to purchase Twitter last month, concerns have been rising about the implications for Africa amid disruptive changes that include mass terminations and plans for a monthly verification fee that could make reliable information harder to find.

The billionaire Tesla CEO, who has cited free speech protection against "cancel culture" as a key reason for his purchase of Twitter, is facing fierce criticism since he acquired the social media platform. Many have been questioning the impending overhaul of content moderation practices and the firing of thousands of employees, including Twitter staff in Ghana.

Sources speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity said workers at Twitter's Africa headquarters in Accra were laid off only days after its office officially opened for the first time on Nov. 1. Twitter had announced its intention to establish an African presence last year under former CEO Jack Dorsey.

Twitter did not respond to VOA requests for comment.

Musk defended the move, tweeting that "unfortunately there is no choice when the company is losing over $4M/day" and those impacted would be offered three months of severance pay. It is unclear whether all Twitter employees in Ghana will receive the same benefit.

Twitter announced last week that users will soon have to pay $7.99 per month for verification — a feature that was previously free for notable figures who passed a vetting process. But the rollout of the optional Twitter Blue subscription was delayed until after U.S. midterm elections Tuesday over worries of "impersonations."

Musk has billed the revamped blue checkmark as the end of the "current lords & peasants system" and said it "will democratize journalism & empower the voice of the people."

Phiwokuhle Mnyandu, lecturer of African Studies at Howard University in Washington, told VOA that Twitter may achieve that objective, particularly in "middle income country like South Africa" where "$8 is about 140 rand — that’s a price for a burger in downtown Johannesburg."

Others say the disparity will shift from those struggling to get famous to people who can't afford to pay.

"It will not be leveled in the sense that it will be only be the haves that will be subscribing, whereas the have nots will not be" supporting "the assertion that has been there for a long time that Twitter is only for the elites and those that have a lot of money," said Onishias Maamba, news editor at Kwithu FM 93.3 radio station in Lusaka, Zambia.

Users have flooded Twitter with complaints regarding the fee, especially journalists.

“I can’t be parting with $8 a month just for sharing information. I can share information without a verified account," said Zimbabwe-based freelance journalist Privilege Musvanhiri speaking to VOA.

Concerns over the potential spread of misinformation and fake accounts on the platform have also increased.

Yoel Roth, Twitter's head of safety and integrity, acknowledged Monday that the process of verification has been "tricky" for years and said he supports the transformation of the blue check to signal "authenticity (you are who you say you are)" rather than "notability (you’re “important” by some standard)."

In an apparent attempt satisfy both sides, product executive Esther Crawford said Tuesday that Twitter would launch a new free "Official" badge for prominent figures that were "verified as official" while others would still be free to purchase blue checks.

A day earlier, Roth had tweeted that Twitter Blue would be postponed until after Election Day in the U.S. due to "the risks of impersonation of public officials."

On Wednesday, some users whose profiles displayed the new gray check noticed the mark had disappeared before Musk tweeted that he had "killed it," reversing course back to the paid blue check he said "will be the great leveler."

The confusion prompted a flurry of questions on Twitter with many left wondering about the future of the platform.

"Please note that Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months," Musk tweeted, vowing to keep trying and evolving.

Alternative social media networks, such as Mastodon, have received increased attention as Twitter attempts to become profitable while retaining its users.

Twitter co-founder Dorsey's Bluesky Social recently announced it is in beta testing and will launch soon.