By Barrington M. Salmon | Trice Edney Wire
(TriceEdneyWire.com) – As soon as Jessica J. González and her colleagues at the media advocacy group, Free Press, heard rumblings that billionaire business magnate and Tesla founder Elon Musk wanted to acquire Twitter several months ago, they began sounding the alarm about the effects that such a move would have on a range of people.
During negotiations between Twitter leadership and Musk, an alarmed González warned that if the sale went through, Musk taking Twitter private would mean less accountability to the government and based on his actions in the past, the sale would present a clear and present danger if he allows hateful, racist, sexist and other language to go unchecked. In the past, Gonzalez said, Musk has been a vocal critic of efforts by companies like Twitter and Meta to moderate platform content and restrict the spread of hateful and threatening speech and disinformation.
So it came as no surprise to González that within hours of the sale being finalized last week, Twitter was bombarded with a barrage of racist, homophobic, anti-semitic and transphobic tweets from anonymous but emboldened trolls who also posted Nazi themes, putting in stark terms the belief that after Musk took over the social network, his promise of unrestricted free speech will power an upsurge of online hate.
According to The Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks cyber-social threats, use of the N-word on Twitter exploded by about 500 percent in the 12-hours after news of the finalization of the sale went public. Musk assumed control of Twitter, after paying $44 billion for it, citing free speech and promising to remove rules put in place by managers that he deems restrictive. Gonzalez and other worry that Musk will make one of the world’s most prominent social media sites and allow it to become a hotbed of radicalization in a space well-suited for extremism, lies and conspiracy theories to take root and blossom.
“His taking Twitter private will mean less accountability to government,” said González, Free Press’ co-CEO in an interview before the sale became final. “I worry about the intimidation, harassment and hate on these media platforms. He calls himself a ‘free-speech absolutist’ but he has attacked people online, asked China to censor his critics and used Tesla to sway the market – he’s a deeply flawed human with no commitment to civil and human rights.”
The Washington Post notes that Twitter is awash in racist, sexist and anti-gay and anti-lesbian slurs. For example: “Elon now controls twitter. Unleash the racial slurs. K—S AND N—–S,” said one account, slandering Jews and Blacks.
Another person said, “I can freely express how much I hate n—–s … now, thank you elon.”
The Washington Post cited the example of someone posting a single-word tweet, a single racial slur in capital letters which was retweeted more than 700 times and liked more than 5,000 times. The trio of reporters said the tweet was posted Thursday night and remained online more than 16 hours later. They also cited the example of an account, created this month, which sported a swastika as its profile picture and retweeted quotes from Musk as well as antisemitic memes.
Another post said, “Elon now controls twitter. Unleash the racial slurs,” the Post said.
González, co-CEO of Free Press and a founder of the Change the Terms coalition, said what, Musk, the richest person in the world wants isn’t always good for the rest of us.
“We should be alarmed and concerned that the wealthiest person on the planet is buying the town square of social media,” said Chuck Collins, an author and a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. “The difference between an entrepreneur and an oligarch is that an oligarch deploys their wealth to acquire media and capture political systems to advance their own wealth, power and influence.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Collins said, Musk has seen his wealth surge from $24 billion to about $266 billion now.
“How he wields this wealth and power is now a matter of broad public concern and policy,” said Collins. “We should consider important communication platforms like Twitter as effectively public utilities, with anti-trust interventions to discourage consolidation and regulation governing practices (as the EU’s Digital Services Act is attempting to do).”
Kerrien Suarez, president and CEO of Equity in the Center, said she doesn’t think anyone is surprised that Musk bought Twitter, but now that that has happened, each of us has to make a choice whether to remain on a site that is showing that it’s very harmful to African-Americans and other Black people, lesbians, gays and trans people and other marginalized communities.
“He’s been consistent in his desire for free speech and he has been a dog whistle for folks on far-right,” said Suarez, who has headed the organization since 2019. “Like Parler, free speech won’t be sanctioned.”
She said she not surprised but is deeply concerned about the surge of the use of the N word, homophobia and the host of other issues that have exploded in the days since the sale was finalized.
“They are celebrating the freedom to use hate speech. It is a safe space for hate speech,” said Suarez. “Using sector-validated organizational development and change management best practices to shift mindsets, tactics and systems that drive racial and ethnic diversity at all levels.”
She said Equity in the Center refuses to “be party to a space which celebrates bigoted, harmful hate speech and thus will no longer participate or be active on platform.
“It’s not a hard decision for us. We will close out account and speak out,” said Suarez. “We’ll share our reasons for leaving. Perhaps he’ll be sued. He’s taking it private so he’ll be free to do what he wants. Twitters users will have to decide if they leave or stay. But we will not be party to the proliferation of hate speech. It could be like Parler allowing certain types of speech and a being a place to organization and Jan 6-type event. Twitter will become and engine for hate, transphobia, sexism and racism.”