If you’ve been online lately—the last 24 hours, specifically—you’ve probably seen Tesla CEO and world’s wealthiest man Elon Musk has purchased Twitter. After years of terrorizing users on the platform with garbage memes pulled from your racist uncle’s Facebook page and referring to even mild detractors as “pedo guy[s],” Musk is now promising to make big changes at Twitter, and some people who professionally care about women have concerns about what those changes could entail.
“He’s talked about how his number one concern is free speech, even though we know that’s not entirely accurate, because he himself has a history of suppressing speech he doesn’t like. But what’s extremely concerning is his saying that he’s not going to remove things, even if they are violent, even if they are not true, even if they are conspiracy theories are dangerous,” Bridget Todd, communications director at the women’s rights group Ultraviolet, told Jezebel.
If Twitter is converted into a “private enterprise without express conditions to maintain community standards,” Todd said in a Monday press release on the matter, the platform “would revert into a more dangerous place for women.” In particular, “harassment and threats of violence online, especially against Black women and women of color, would skyrocket.”
“Without any conditions for Musk to purchase Twitter, the platform’s community standards and recourse to ban users who violate those standards, Twitter could set a dangerous precedent for other social media companies to follow,” Todd added. “This is a massively slippery slope.”
Musk has frequently cited a reverence for “free speech” as the reason for his interest in Twitter, despite the obvious reality that the 50-year-old’s latest obsession is very much rooted in some sort of sad mid-life crisis. But his promise to foster freer speech on the platform is more than a little concerning, nonetheless: To Very Online, libertarian provocateurs such as Musk, “free speech” often refers to unchecked harassment of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color, and trolls debating their human rights to feel smart. Under Musk’s leadership, Tesla’s factory faces a number of lawsuits for rampant racism “reminiscent of Jim Crow,” as well as endemic sexual harassment and even assault.
“Free speech” as it’s defined in the Constitution—which means the government cannot arrest you for expressing opinions it doesn’t like—actually has very little to do with Twitter, a private corporation with full authority to ban as many Nazis, public health threats, and abusive, revenge porn-posting exes as it deems fit. “The fact that we’re talking about platforms like Twitter, when really we should be talking about government suppressing speech, certainly is an issue in this country,” Todd told Jezebel. “It always seems to be about white, conservative-leaning men being ‘canceled,’ and we never leave room in that conversation for the reality that it’s women, queer folks, trans folks, sex workers, people of color, Black women, who traditionally have our speech threatened for our presence on social media platforms or elsewhere.”
Per Ultraviolet’s own research, a third of women under the age of 35 and 70% of LGBTQ adults report being harassed online, and 61% of women compared with 48% of men characterize online harassment as a “major problem.” The organization also cited research from Amnesty International that found Black women were 84% and women of color in general were 34% more likely than white women to be targeted by online abuse. Twitter currently clocks in at a “C-” on Ultraviolet’s report card grading social media platforms on their policies on hate speech, violent threats, disinformation, and discrimination. The group notes recent improvements in areas such as “cyberstalking and revenge porn,” but continued shortcomings in other areas, like spread of disinformation on abortion and anti-LGBTQ harassment.
In taking Twitter private and relaxing already insufficient content moderation standards, Musk could place vulnerable users at even greater risk—including by possibly (probably) allowing former President Trump to make a return to the platform, which banned him last year following his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Disinformation and right-wing conspiracy theories are often a significant, driving force in escalated online attacks on marginalized people. Disinformation about covid, for example, has contributed to an increase in attacks on Asian Americans, while the routine disinformation about immigrants and people of color perpetuated by Trump routinely drove online harassment of marginalized people—and ultimately, the Capitol insurrection itself.
“It is imperative that Twitter’s Board of Directors acknowledge that with Musk in charge, Donald Trump, who had been banned from the platform for repeated violations of terms of service and incitement to violence, including right-wing extremists and white supremacists, will likely have their accounts restored,” Todd said. “Republicans in Congress are already cheering Musk’s bid for Twitter—and looking forward to this exact moment.”
There are ultimately a number of murky aspects surrounding Musk’s acquisition of Twitter on Monday, including how it was financed: through significant contributions from groups like Morgan Stanley and “other unnamed institutions,” where Musk otherwise didn’t have the liquid assets necessary for such a buyout. “That the only kind of public information [Twitter has] provided is these vagaries shows they do not feel they need to be accountable to us, their user base—and that is absolutely incorrect,” Todd said. “These platforms would not exist without us. We deserve to expect accountability from how these decisions are made.”
According to Todd, the acquisition as a whole is “proof that Big Tech cannot regulate itself,” and we need “urgent action from Congress” to hold social platforms accountable to protect democracy.
As concerned as I am with everything about this ordeal, I’m still, above all else, just deeply annoyed. A rich white man is yet again parading out a pseudo-intellectual conception of free speech as an excuse to reduce women and marginalized people’s digital lives to targets for sexists and white supremacists, and their human rights to abstract, stupid thought experiments. And because he has $44 billion in cash (which is a lot of money just to stop this image from being circulated), we all have to just watch it happen. The last person in the world I’ll be taking lectures about “free speech” from, mind you, is a man who has fired employees over inane YouTube videos and barred workers from attempts to organize at his extremely dangerous, low-paying factory.