We Need to Talk About Twitter
Let’s ignore the billionaire cage fight drama for a minute, because something very dangerous is happening on Twitter, and is poisoning the public dialogue.
In April of last year, Elon Musk sold about $8.5 billion in Tesla stock, purchased about nine percent of Twitter, then offered to buy the platform at a premium. He then tried to backpedal; there was a whole spectacle about whether Musk was manipulating the price and so on. When it became clear that the law was on Twitter’s side, Musk sold off more Tesla stock — totaling about $7.5 billion — ostensibly to fund the purchase.
Musk acquired Twitter last October, making the company private, and quickly laid off half of the workforce. He disbanded Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council. He described himself as a “free-speech absolutist.” He criticized the suspension of accounts; in particular Donald Trump’s, which has since been reinstated.
Musk tweeted a statement about the purchase. “The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence. There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society,” the statement read, before pivoting into blaming “traditional media” for fueling polarization.
Musk continued that Twitter “cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences! In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all…”
If you think this might be gaslighting, you’re right.
In April, Musk rolled back rules banning intentional misgendering of trans people. Trans folks are regularly antagonized by individuals who invade their social media space to invalidate their identity. It’s cruel, unprompted behavior that is wholly appropriate to ban.
Twitter Policy on Hateful Conduct
Twitter’s “Hateful Conduct” policy includes “sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity,” and commits to “combating abuse motivated by hatred, prejudice or intolerance, particularly abuse that seeks to silence the voices of [the] historically marginalized” or “abuse based on their perceived membership in a protected category.”
The policy also bans “inciting fear or spreading fearful stereotypes about a protected category, including that members… are more likely to take part in dangerous or illegal activities,” “inciting others to harass members of a protected category on our off platform,” “inciting others to discriminate in the form of denial of support to the economic enterprise of an individual or group because of their perceived membership in a protected category,” though the statement continues that this doesn’t include boycotts or protests (forgive me, but what’s the difference?).
Also prohibited is “targeting others with repeated slurs, tropes, or other content that intends to degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes,” “the dehumanization of a group of people,” and hateful imagery “whose purpose is to promote hostility and malice against others.”
Twitter Hate Speech Soars Under Musk
According to the BBC, a full third of formerly banned accounts reinstated under Musk are clearly violating Twitter guidelines. Tweets referenced include depictions of child exploitation, rape and violence directed at women and LGBTQ+ folks, and incessant labeling of queer people as “groomers” or, ultimately, some sort of pedophile. They’ve also brought a resurgence of vaccine disinformation and conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and the 2020 election.
According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, since Musk’s Twitter takeover the average daily tweet presence of slurs has increased dramatically: use of the racist ‘n-word’ increased 202 percent to 3,876, use of the homophobic ‘f****t’ word increased 58 percent to 3,964, use of the misogynistic ‘c**t’ word increased 33 percent to 17,937, and use of the transphobic word ‘t****y’ increased 62 percent to 5,117. Perhaps most upsetting is that the average number of engagements (replies, retweets, and likes) on these tweets increased 273 percent, from 13.26 to 49.5 engagements per tweet.
It’s Time to Leave Twitter For Good
Last week, Musk announced that the words “cis” and “cisgender” would be considered slurs on the platform. Cisgender is a medical term for “not transgender.” The “cis” just means “the same.” I’m a cisgender gay male. I don’t call myself cisgender regularly, but technically it’s accurate. It isn’t a slur.
Musk has, ironically, turned Twitter into the “free-for-all hellscape” he warned of; where transphobia is allowed, trans-inclusion is banned, and division and hate are cultivated, amplified, and weaponized. I have deactivated all but my primary account, which I have ceased using, but left active to prevent a copycat account being created.
The decision to leave the platform is an individual one, and I understand that many rely on Twitter in some way; many are frustrated with feeling “trapped” on the platform, which for some has become their primary way of keeping in touch or informed. This column is not meant to demonize those who choose to remain. Leaving was a hard thing for me to do that took months to decide.
My remaining account displays the following final statement as its bio:
“Due to rampant disinformation and xenophobia, Twitter is no longer a platform that anybody should use. If you’re reading this, please leave Twitter.”