One man owning Twitter will make things much worse for marginalized people on the world’s “town square.”
The world’s richest man, and a highly mercurial (at best) white man at that, now owns Twitter—one of the most influential global social media platforms. This is not just another social media company: It is a platform that has facilitated revolutions, provided real-time coverage of war from participants and victims, and sparked movements like #MeToo. And now the world’s “town square” is going to be controlled by a single wealthy—and opinionated—man.
Musk has said he wants to restore “free speech” to Twitter, characterizing recent efforts to moderate content, reduce hate speech and limit the spread of especially dangerous misinformation as an escalation towards censorship.
To be clear: Twitter waited far too long before beginning to tackle misinformation, or bar criminal or abusive behavior. We have seen over the past decade the danger to democracy that entirely unfiltered, unmoderated and unrestricted social media platforms can present—especially on large global platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Someone like Musk is not going to improve our digital lives.
What does restoring “free speech” to Twitter mean to Musk exactly? Free reign for someone like Donald Trump to peddle false claims about “stolen elections”? For Russian state employees to spread misinformation about its war on Ukraine? Or maybe for harassment of journalists who criticize Musk?
Already, women and other marginalized people face widespread abuse and harassment online, with very little recourse against people who target them. Roughly four in ten Americans and 58 percent of women have experienced online harassment or abuse, such as cyberstalking, explicit messages and images, and online abuse. Musk’s “free speech” mantra—and his frequent misogynistic and transphobic attitude—is the opposite of the type of leadership that mainstream social media platforms need right now.
Free speech is not permission to harass or abuse. It’s not permission to spread harmful fake news. Sadly, a growing subset of society believes that’s all fair game, a necessary consequence of protecting the holy grail of free speech. Musk is certainly giving the impression he’s a part of that. How could Musk possibly be responsible enough to control a platform like Twitter with such inextricably far-reaching effects on our society? How could he possibly be motivated to solve the urgent problems so many millions of people are facing as a result of toxic social media if he doesn’t even consider them valid?
Social media companies are different than other types of companies in how they shape public discourse and our digital lives in ways that spill over into our real lives. As such, they have an important responsibility to ensure that their platforms are being used responsibly. Who is most likely to be able to effectively deal with highly charged and often nuanced issues like the spread of misinformation? Who can ensure that these spaces are safe and not being abused? Probably not a billionaire man with a track record of making “tit” jokes or saying things like “pronouns suck.”
I’m the founder of a new social networking app, but I’ll also be the first to say that there is no other Twitter, no replacement, no competing platform that can offer a safer, moderated alternative. For all of its current ills, Twitter provides a global and democratized “town square” functionality—which is vital in times like now, when the world is faced by a plethora of global problems.
While social media platforms like mine are beginning to serve more specific communities, there will always be a need for the mass communication Twitter provides. In that, I guess I do agree with Musk on something. We saw its power in the Arab Spring; we have seen it recently in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, in the #MeToo movement, and we see it in key election debates that reach so many people because of Twitter specifically. These are issues that no single person should be able to control, and yet here we are.
I was unsure whether to even put this out in the world, because I don’t want to face harassment just for criticizing one man. But ultimately, I feel like we all need to speak out now, because, yes, things can actually get worse. And we desperately need things to get better.