a post-musk twitter
It would be nice if Elon Musk would get the hell off my timeline. I much preferred it when he was all about ugly, self-immolating, crash-prone cars and missions to space than when he aired his plans to destroy Twitter and dipped his toe into geopolitics at a level that my high school debate team would have eviscerated (don’t feel badly, Elon, we were very good). But now, in addition to the odious former, we have been plagued with the loathsome latter, too.
A few weeks ago, when Musk began tweeting about Ukraine, attempting to put an end to Putin’s aggression through an eyebrow-raising, unscientific Twitter poll, I wrote up a newsletter draft crafted as a memo to him. If he was going to stick his nose where it didn’t belong, I figured he should at least read some reputable information that might challenge his propaganda-inspired views. Two weeks and many more uninformed interventions later, the memo could be one word: “don’t.”
Beyond attempting to strongarm sovereign nations into giving up their territory, Musk is also playing at being expert in social media platform management and may own Twitter by the end of the month. He has said he’ll let Donald Trump back on the platform, plans to roll back content moderation efforts, and according to Washington Post reporting, intends to cut 75% of Twitter’s workforce, a move that would leave the platform decimated, if it survived at all. Twitter insiders both former and present assert that such drastic cuts would affect Twitter’s very ability to function, let alone continue to uphold any sort of duty of care to users around its terms of service. Edwin Chen, “a data scientist formerly in charge of Twitter’s spam and health metrics,” told the Post:
“It would be a cascading effect where you’d have services going down and the people remaining not having the institutional knowledge to get them back up, and being completely demoralized and wanting to leave themselves.”
And so I must ask myself: should the purchase go through, what will I, as a Twitter user, do?
It is not, by any means, a simple choice. Twitter has been the platform I’ve relied on to get my work out there. Tweets have led to commissions, relationships with editors, and cooperation with colleagues. Twitter was where I first noticed my publisher and thought, “my book would be a good fit for his list.” And despite the bullshit that Twitter engenders, it has also been a place where I’ve found wonderful friends, many of whom I’ve never even met offline. Without them, as I write in my latest book, I’d be pretty lost when the shit hits the fan:
“Years after I first followed [the women in my online support network], we regularly message, amplify each other’s work, and if need be, make ourselves available to listen, to act as virtual shoulders to cry on, to celebrate, to hold space for each other’s hurt, and to collectively rage.”
Beyond that, Twitter owns Revue, where I very deliberately moved my newsletter after becoming frustrated with Substack’s hands-off content moderation approach that not only amplifies, but monetizes hate. And despite attempting to grow my audience on other platforms like Instagram and TikTok, Twitter is where I really find my stride. Leaving Twitter would mean leaving all of that, in essence foregoing a big chunk of career opportunities, while trying to find an audience on other platforms that just aren’t as good a fit for the type of content I produce or the way I like to engage online.
Then there’s the matter of the abuse. Twitter is the mainstream platform that has arguably taken the most strides against online hate; it prohibits deadnaming on the platform, takes action against doxxing, and has recently introduced a number of features that give users more control over how much abusive garbage they see in their mentions and on their timelines. But Twitter still doesn’t go far enough.
In my recent abuse experience, while action was sometimes taken against mild to egregious hate speech violations from smaller accounts, there were few if any instances of action against any verified account or account with over a thousand followers, even on posts that were blatantly violative. Even while Alex Jones engaged in stochastic terrorism and the QAnon conspiracy led to offline violence, it took Twitter years to ban them from the platform. LibsOfTikTok, the account that has incited bomb threats at children’s hospitals, has still only gotten locked a handful of times. Rolling back these content moderation decisions and user affordances—all too little, too late—will make the platform impossible for anyone who has or will ever experience abuse.
So where does that leave me and @wiczipedia, an account that has been my online home since 2011? It’s an impossibly difficult decision. Twitter is the best of a very bad landscape for women and minority voices online. It doesn’t do nearly enough, but I am not sure doing even less would be bearable. What’s more, Musk’s offer to buy Twitter has already emboldened some of the worst misogynist trolls out there. After the purchase goes through, they will likely feel more protected to make violent threats, to brigade, to harass. An already unpleasant place—and that’s putting it diplomatically—will become more toxic. Leaving, however, would be letting the people who hate me and everything I stand for win. While withstanding abuse is exhausting, rolling over and ceding the space I’ve worked hard to build would be sickening.
For the foreseeable future, I will stay. I will keep speaking truth to power, and have plans to hold social media platforms—Twitter included—to account for the obligations they have to their users (see below). I can’t do it alone, though. With no viable alternative to the public square that Twitter provides, a mass exodus from the platform would be a death knell to reasoned, respectful debate. So I hope you’ll keep me company...at least until the newest Musk experiment starts to self-immolate, too.
Read about The Hypatia Project, the initiative on gendered abuse and disinformation I’m leading in my new role as Vice President at the Centre for Information Resilience.
I spoke with the Reuters Institute about my own experiences of online abuse; unfortunately my experiences may become even more common under Musk.
Follow my work on Instagram. After the abuse I received this spring, I’ve had to start a new profile and separate the personal from the professional; please check out my work and laugh at my Extremely Millennial attempts at making Reels. It’s hard to start a profile from scratch, so your presence will be noted and appreciated!