Elon Musk’s Twitter show may push marginalized voices off the podium: the experts

Adina Press, The Canadian Press

Date: Saturday, April 30, 2022 6:53 AM EST

Last updated Saturday, April 30, 2022 6:53AM EST

Unease is spreading in some pockets of Twitter over concerns that Elon Musk’s pending takeover may amplify toxic elements on the platform and drown out marginalized voices.

Musk’s $44 billion bid for Twitter has sparked speculation that the tech mogul’s promises to promote “freedom of expression” on the social network could translate into a hands-off approach to harassment.

This prospect is particularly worrying for members of marginalized groups who have found a community on Twitter despite being targets of online abuse.

Some experts and Twitter users say they are waiting to see if Musk will succeed in pushing the deal through regulatory hurdles that could frustrate his plans.

But there are already signs that the influence of the Tesla CEO may change the formation of the social network. A Twitter Canada spokesperson said in an email that the social media giant is looking into “fluctuations in follower numbers,” with more accounts created and also deactivated in recent days.

These early signs suggest that Musk’s “absolute freedom of speech” philosophy can practically stifle the rhetoric of Twitter’s most vulnerable users, said Jegres Hudson, head of Canadian research in digital communications in the public interest.

“After experiencing online abuse, people will stop posting themselves, because they don’t want to invite that kind of abuse,” said Hudson, an assistant professor at Royal Roads University. “This is actually the opposite of what Musk wants, which is for people to speak freely about their opinions.”

Her research indicates that when social networks fail to moderate harmful content, harassed users are more likely to reduce their interaction or even delete their accounts.

This has a clear impact on members of marginalized groups, Hudson said, who are more likely to be harassed based on their identity. She said the abuse they receive tends to be more visible and extreme. For example, women are often subjected to sexual harassment, such as the threat of rape.

Toronto cultural writer Roslyn Talosan said she experienced this type of abuse when an impromptu tweet calling on a white woman to write a cookbook about Asian cuisine became the subject of a harassment campaign.

Her Twitter account is flooded with racist and misogynistic slurs. Tallosan, a trauma survivor, said the psychological toll was so great that she couldn’t leave the house and was afraid to leave the house.

Talossan said Twitter’s security tools have done little to stem the tide of hate, and she’s worried that Musk will erode the few protections users have.

“It is not the legitimate freedom of expression that is being restricted on Twitter,” she said. “It’s about people wanting to be able to bully people without any consequences.”

Talusan said she was “too stubborn” to ditch Twitter, but some of her friends decided to back out of the site or sign out permanently.

“I feel like people are going to be more reluctant to stay on Twitter,” she said. “Suppressing these views in this way would certainly be problematic.”

Taking a permissive stance on offensive content could also be bad for Twitter’s business, said David Superman, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto, because no advertiser wants to be associated with harmful online culture.

He said there could also be legal ramifications for hosting harassment, hate speech, incitement to violence and defamation.

John Findlay, a Toronto-based content marketer, hopes financial imperatives will prompt Musk to temper his approach to social media moderation.

She sees much of the Internet’s concern about Musk’s potential tenure as “disturbing” given that the deal won’t expire until later this year, and it remains to be seen if his grand plans for the social network come to fruition.

But even Findlay can’t help but drift into a musk obsession as each new tweet threatens to overturn a platform that has been not only a professional resource, but a community forum as part of #BlackTwitter.

“If you cut out all the noise, it really comes down to … who is going to police what is said in the town square,” she said. “That’s the beauty and the horror of social media. It changes all the time.”

Junia Joplin, a transgender patron in Toronto, said Twitter is the first place she can publicly be her true self, even if it’s behind the veil of an anonymous account. Since then, the platform’s transgender community has been a vital resource, offering guidance, friendship, and even financial assistance when she was fired from her job after going out.

But if Musk opens the door to harassment wide open, Joplin said she fears transgender people and other marginalized groups will lose a support system that could have real-life consequences.

“It’s a platform they can use to raise money for basic living expenses and necessary medical procedures, to help them escape abusive situations or just to connect with someone who tells them, ‘Hey, you’re not alone,'” she said.

“This could really be a lifeline. So we don’t know it’s going to go away, but some signs that it might be, and that’s sad and scary.”

This report was first published by The Canadian Press on April 30, 2022.

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