Elon Musk’s Twitter could make liberal activists miserable. Here’s why.

Elon Musk is not your typical billionaire CEO of a social media company. Unlike former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Musk doesn’t hide his opinions. The franchise would be refreshing if Musk weren’t so happy to offend and provoke.

Often his favorite targets are, as he nastily describes them, “woke” activists who champion progressive social justice causes. Just days after Twitter’s board accepted Musk’s offer to buy the social media company for $44 billion, he tweeted a graph showing liberals had become more extreme over time compared to centrists and conservatives. In fact, research suggests the opposite is true. As many have argued on Twitter, Congressional Republicans have gone farther right than their fellow Democrats have gone left, a point that was of course hotly debated.

Graphics like these make for an easy social media dunk. They illuminate the part of people’s brains primed by anger and tribalism without engaging in critical thinking. But Musk is not your average troll. He will soon control one of the most influential social media companies on the planet. Knowing full well that some progressive users are worried about the changes his leadership will bring, he decided to tweet an inflammatory graphic that mocks them. Musk sometimes says he don’t like the “extreme right” eitherbut his tweets this week made clear that he doesn’t care much about progressives or the Democratic Party.

What are the progressive activists on Twitter, who have used the platform to go viral on campaigns like Me Too and Black Lives Matter, supposedly barbed Musk musks? The mainstream media view is that these concerned users are overreacting. They argue that Musk’s plans to bring more “free speech” to Twitter are too vague to be threatening. But that uncertainty is exactly what worries users when, in the meantime, Musk’s political views are pretty clear. And although Musk runs innovative companies, those workplaces have been described as plagued by racism and sexism. This does not bode well for those who have been harassed, bullied or doxxed by other users who hurl insults at them based on their sex and gender identity, sexual orientation, race, gender. ethnic origin or disability. If content moderation, trust and safety fall victim to Musk’s maximalist but vague definitions of free speech, Twitter could become an even more hellish public square than it is now.

Dr. Sarah J. Jackson, Ph.D., co-director of the Media, Inequality & Change Center at the University of Pennsylvania, is a active Twitter user with over 17,000 subscribers and no plans to leave the platform yet. Jackson studies how activism takes place online and says his main concern is that some of the richest men in the world control the digital spaces and technologies that average people appropriate to achieve their own goals, which can ultimately conflict with owners’ values. Progressives use the platform to champion their causes, which Musk seems to oppose to many. But unlike his Silicon Valley peers, Musk can’t even claim to be a neutral arbiter when weighing competing political beliefs given his recent statements.

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Like others, Jackson worries that Musk misunderstands free speech as enshrined in law. Unlike the government, private companies have no obligation to protect free speech and can reasonably restrict speech they deem objectionable.

Jackson, co-author of #HashtagActivism: Racial and Gender Justice Networks, says she’s looking for some signs that it might be time to quit Twitter. One is how Musk applies his vision of free speech to the platform, but it’s also important how the company under his leadership handles bots, anonymity, diversity and inclusion. , and what content the algorithms favor.

While many bots serve a useful purpose on the site, such as providing translation and closed captions, many others are deployed by bad actors interested in creating mistrust among users. Jackson says Twitter’s use of machine learning to identify bad actors and bots may not be perfect, but such efforts provide reassurance to wary progressive users who fear being the target of personal attacks. If the company’s bot policies abandoned that work to maximize free speech, Jackson says some users could be “inundated with hate and trolling.”

Although anonymity allows users to protect their identities while harassing others, Jackson isn’t convinced that the solution is to require people to identify themselves publicly. If Twitter demands it because Musk says he wants to “authenticate all humans” on the platform, Jackson fears it will silence activists who would otherwise become the target of doxxing by bad actors or being followed by people. law enforcement, a type of surveillance that Black Lives Matter protesters already experienced. There is no easy answer to this problem as anonymity also allows conservative activists to attack their opponents, but Jackson thinks Twitter’s policy on this issue could be crucial.

During the last years, Twitter has publicly committed to cultivating diversity and inclusion, a gesture that some activists who have experienced racism on the platform have found significant. If Musk discontinued or significantly undermined those programs, Jackson says she would reconsider staying.

Jackson will also observe how the algorithms themselves, which Musk says he wants to make open source, favor certain types of content. Twitter’s own research suggests that the algorithms favor content from the “mainstream political right”. If these views are further amplified, along with misinformation and disinformation, Jackson says that alone could make activist users feel like this was “no longer a space for them.”

If progressive users are deeply skeptical of Musk, Jackson says that reflects his behavior — and the expected terms of his leadership. Assuming Twitter goes private, Musk won’t be restricted by shareholders, a key reason many CEOs are so circumspect.

“Elon Musk is the opposite of that,” Jackson says. “He goes on Twitter and makes fun of people he disagrees with politically. It’s much harder for anyone to believe a facade that those people who have power in those media companies don’t have an agenda either. »

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