Column: With Elon Musk in charge, it’s the beginning of the end for #BlackTwitter
It’s all rather disturbing and yet somehow fitting in these doublespeak-steeped times.
Elon Musk, the founder of a company that California is suing for allegedly silencing thousands of Black employees who complained about racism, is buying a company that has given millions of Black people a megaphone-like voice to complain about racism.
And the California-hating billionaire insists he’s doing it all to protect free speech.
“Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said Monday, announcing that he had succeeded in taking over the San Francisco-based social media company for $44 billion.
Consider this the beginning of the end of #BlackTwitter.
Not of Black people on Twitter but of #BlackTwitter — the community of millions that figured out how to turn a nascent social media platform into an indispensable tool for real-world activism, political power and change.
And entertainment too. Where do you think the best memes and GIFs come from?
The social media company approved the billionaire and avid Twitter user’s $44-billion bid after 11 days of back and forth
#BlackTwitter gave us hashtags that turned into movements.
#BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe became rallying cries for hundreds of thousands of protesters after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. And for years before that, when fewer Americans were paying attention to the disproportionate number of Black women being killed by police, there was #SayHerName.
It was #OscarsSoWhite that led to pressure for changes at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And let’s not forget that #MeToo, which roiled the halls of power in corporations and government, was started by a Black woman.
There’s also #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackBoyJoy, both celebrations of the beauty of Blackness in a country that so often devalues it — and us.
On Monday, the mood on #BlackTwitter was neither magical nor joyful.
“There goes #BlackTwitter — new owners will call it CRT and ban it.”
“Um… #BlackTwitter we need to schedule a meeting ASAP! Where we meeting up when we leave Twitter?”
“So, where’s the back of Twitter? Asking for #BlackTwitter”
“It was nice getting to know you all. Especially everyone on #BlackTwitter. Now a white South African man owns it. Bye Y’all. #RIPTwitter”
Meredith D. Clark, an associate professor at Northeastern University in Boston who studies race, media and power and is working on a book about #BlackTwitter, wasn’t surprised.
“I think you will definitely see more people move off in larger waves,” she said. “I think there will still be a remnant left, but you know?”
The problems with the Twitter deal are multifold for Black people.
First, there’s Musk himself.
He’s the world’s richest person. Or, as Clark put it: “This is yet another example of how we’re falling prey to oligarchies. Men with billions of dollars who get to decide what our communications look like.”
He’s also a businessman with questionable ethics. Musk’s company Tesla is being sued by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. It’s the largest racial discrimination suit ever brought by the state and was filed on behalf of more than 4,000 former and current employees, all of whom are Black.
Some of those employees described their experiences to The Times. They alleged that they were often the targets of racist slurs by co-workers and supervisors and that Tesla segregated Black workers, gave them the hardest work at the Fremont, Calif., manufacturing plant and denied them promotions. And they say the company ignored their complaints about the treatment.
Given the long-standing diversity problems at tech companies, including at Twitter, this is troubling. Even more concerning is the climate on Twitter itself, which — despite the content moderation that happens now — is still full of racist trolls.
“With the knowledge that I have about Musk as a businessperson, and as someone who seeks to have great influence over culture, I’m concerned,” Clark said. “I’m concerned about some of the statements that he’s made in the past and how they reflect on his character and his mind-set.”
In their own words, former Tesla employees describe what they call a racist work environment that led California to file a civil rights lawsuit against the company.
The second problem is what Musk plans to do with Twitter.
He has repeatedly complained about the content moderation, even though it is applied sparingly and inconsistently. If he has his way, he could very likely get rid of it altogether.
Prominent white supremacists who got kicked off the platform for good reason could return — among them former President Trump, who, through his account, helped incite the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Perhaps more troubling, conspiracy theories could become easier to find and share and, therefore, grow in complexity and number of believers.
We’ve already seen the effects of disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and of QAnon, including the latest tall tales linking gender identity to pedophilia that are being echoed by reckless Republican politicians. What happens when those conspiracy theories, bolstered by more than a dash of white supremacy, escalate into violence? It happened once; it can surely happen again.
#BlackTwitter knows this.
On Monday, Musk tweeted: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter because that is what free speech means.”
#BlackTwitter also knows that, no, that’s not what free speech means, because Twitter is a company — soon to be privately held — and has no obligation under the 1st Amendment to allow racism, transphobia, homophobia or misogyny to percolate through its platform.
And so, rather than safeguarding the “bedrock of a functioning democracy,” as Musk describes free speech, he just destroyed it — because the people whose tweets were the most effective at that are leaving.
“I don’t think that you’re going see the same sort of replication of a Twitter-like climate or #BlackTwitter on another platform. I don’t think you’ll ever get that lightning in a bottle back,” Clark said. “But I do think that you will see Black people doing what we have always done. And that is bend communication and other technologies to our needs and our will. And find ways to thrive in those various areas of the internet.”
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