Self-described “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk is waffling on his US$44bil (RM194.4bil) purchase of Twitter, citing concerns that the company misrepresented the number of bots — or automated accounts — on the platform, according to news reports.
For the sake of Black and brown Twitter users who use the platform to discuss social issues, myself included, I hope the deal falls apart.
Musk used to maintain an online facade of being apolitical, but his Twitter-flurries since April have provided clarity to some of his social and political beliefs. He has called the Democratic Party a party of division and hate. He hinted at lifting the ban on former president and constant Twitter-rule breaker Donald Trump. In Trumpian fashion, Musk has claimed critical media reports about him are veiled political attacks.
Prominent conservatives in the US who claim companies like Twitter are somehow silencing their agendas while amplifying liberal ones have applauded Musk’s takeover bid.
But Twitter isn’t a welcoming space for marginalised voices, and Musk at the helm of the company would only make the environment more toxic.
“There’s a tremendous amount of racial name-calling that I get. It’s the kinds of things that, if I wasn’t a journalist, would make me think more than twice about not being on Twitter,” said Erika D. Smith, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times who often writes about issues related to race. “Because seriously, why would you want to be subjected to that kind of abuse?”
Twitter allows for public dissent and the challenging of antiquated power structures. But hate speech has also long been part of the platform’s DNA. The groups subjected to it most are people of colour, particularly Black women, meaning those with the heavy burden of carrying social justice movements in this country are also the most likely to be harassed into silence on Twitter.
Twitter’s own conduct policy says the company wants to combat “abuse motivated by hatred, prejudice or intolerance, particularly abuse that seeks to silence the voices of those who have been historically marginalised.” In a transparency report last summer, Twitter claimed that between July and December 2020, it took action against more than one million accounts that violated its policy on hateful conduct, a 77% increase from the same period in 2019.
Clearly, Twitter has room for improvement in limiting hate speech.
Smith told me she’s been called a “Black (expletive)” on the site often. I’ve personally been told to “go back to Africa” on multiple occasions. Progressive Oakland City Council Member Carroll Fife, a Black woman, told me it isn’t unusual for her to receive threats of physical violence.
“It was a lot, and it continues to be a lot. Sometimes I think about what would be the next step for someone who says these things,” Fife told me. “Would someone try to harm my family?”
This level of abuse tracks with what an Amnesty International study in 2018 revealed about the experiences of women of colour on Twitter. The report showed Black women were 84% more likely than white women to be targeted by hateful tweets.
Some of this race-based harassment is nuanced, but no less stinging. A 2021 Brookings Institution study on cyberbullying and online reactions to systemic racism described several forms of racist discourse on Twitter, including reverse racism, where it’s alleged that “members of a racial group typically considered victims of racism acted as perpetrators of racism,” and racial scapegoating, which involves “shifting the blame for racist actions, behaviours, policies, and institutions onto the marginalised racial group.”
Last month, Musk said: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square.” Though it’s too early to say for sure how he may formally change the platform’s guidelines around hate speech, Musk has argued against removing offensive comments on social media, if they’re legal.
Meanwhile, Musk’s multibillion-dollar electric car company, Tesla, has been embroiled in multiple lawsuits involving accusations of racial discrimination, particularly against Black workers. Tesla tried to frame one of the lawsuits as a publicity stunt.
“We have to wonder if our voices can be trusted in the hands of someone with this kind of history,” said Ashley Weatherspoon, the founder of the Black-women-focused lifestyle blog “Dear Young Queen,” who in 2009 helped popularise the #UKnowUrBlackWhen hashtag. “Or will we all lose it while he’s out preaching about giving people freedom of speech?”
Musk will go on revealing more of himself, politically, as his attempt to acquire Twitter drags on. He’ll again rail against censorship while lambasting the left and teasing support from the right. To his more than 97 million followers, he’ll go on obfuscating the fact that his dream for Twitter’s future is a nightmare for Black and brown people.
Truth is, a lot of us are living through a version of that nightmare right now. – San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service