OPINION

What happens to social justice and culture on Twitter with Elon Musk at the helm?

There are fears Elon Musk's Twitter acquisition could alter the fabric that helped make the social media platform popular. Picture: Shutterstock
There are fears Elon Musk's Twitter acquisition could alter the fabric that helped make the social media platform popular. Picture: Shutterstock

Now that Elon Musk has bought Twitter for $44 billion and plans to take the most influential social media company private, what is the Twitterverse to do?

The hashtags #goodbyetwitter and #RIPTwitter suggest a mass exodus is on the horizon. How can we - the influencers, the agitators, the activists, the justice seekers - remain loyal users of a social media platform with a robber baron at the helm, whose ideas of unregulated free speech might mean an end of democracy?

Goodbye, terms of service. Welcome back, hate speech.

Can we ignore that the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is suing Tesla, Musk's electric car company, on behalf of more than 4000 current and former Black workers in the largest racial discrimination suit ever brought by the state of California?

The knee-jerk reaction to flee is as understandable as it is tweetable. I considered it myself for a minute. But scholars and dedicated Twitter users say it's unlikely. Even with its bots, trolls and algorithm issues, Twitter is where celebrities, journalists, politicians and the common user come to engage, and that's too valuable to discard.

Twitter changed our culture. It shined a brighter light on the unthinkable like police brutality (#BlackLivesMatter) and sexual harassment (#MeToo). It also put a spotlight on stories news media routinely overlook. When thousands of people tweeted #oscarssowhite in 2016, the morning shows had to pay attention, and the Academy Awards was forced to make changes. Twitter helped us connect through the pandemic when we were separated from friends and family. To many it was, and still is, a safe space.

Whether we were watching Scandal, dissing actress Paula Patton's fried chicken or calling out hypocrites with a quote tweet and "This you?", Twitter is where we come to find humour, complain and seek solutions. It's a community of communities. And we aren't ready to give that up, at least not yet.

"Twitter is not a 'good social justice company' that has now been bought by a bad guy, and we know that," said Sarah J. Jackson, an associate communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication and author of Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice. "It's the users who made Twitter a place where activism could happen. It's the users who took the hashtag and connected it with each other to build a platform for social justice issues. It's too early to know what Elon Musk is going to do."

Chances are he's going to do something. Musk, who has 83 million Twitter followers, has been complaining for some time about the way Twitter moderates what it deems hate speech and misinformation. These business practices, he claims, are a threat to free speech. The problem is unregulated speech - flouting mask mandates, scheming to overthrow the government, racist and sexist comments toward people of colour and women and disregarding systemic racism - is a threat to the right to pursue happiness and joy and live in peace.

Twitter's board of directors enacted a "poison pill" last week designed to stop Musk from gobbling up shares. But, to put it plainly, Musk was able to offer shareholders so much money that Twitter's board of directors was forced to capitulate, explained Kevin Kaiser, a professor of finance at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. If the board didn't agree to sell, its shareholders could sue them for not holding its fiduciary promise to make shareholders as much money as possible.

A media company in the hands of a man with that much money and power is chilling.

But for users with devoted audiences, giving up the cyber fiefdoms they have taken more than a decade to build is just as unsettling.

Feminista Jones, a Philly-based author and scholar with more than 170,000 followers who popularised the hashtag #youoksis, which called attention to street harassment, texted me she's not leaving Twitter and doubts others will, either.

"Twitter isn't going anywhere and no one is leaving and if they do take short stints, they'll come right back soon because everyone else will be there," texted Jones, the author of Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Women Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets.

Media entrepreneur Ernest Owens isn't planning to leave - yet.

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"I've had some of the biggest moments in my career on Twitter," said Owens, who engages daily with his 32,000 followers. "It has given people a way to amplify our voices, express ourselves and express different ideas." But, he added, it may be time to start investigating other ways to get his message out with the same consistency.

That is where it gets tricky, said André Brock, an associate professor at the school of literature, media and communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Twitter's technology allows us to have multiple conversations at a time, thread conversations and quote tweets. (Musk says he plans to make that better by adding an edit button and to be more transparent about the algorithms). That is what makes Twitter such a force within the culture, Brock said in a tweet thread.

"Collectively we can be heard," Brock said to me. "I'm not willing to give that up without a fight."

If the agitators and influencers leave Twitter en masse, the dissemination of information may be slowed, but it's not doomed, said Meredith D. Clark, an associate professor at the school of journalism and department of communication studies at Northeastern University.

"Twitter has been an essential tool in getting crowdsourced, eyewitness videos, pictures and accounts and assaults against Black people out in ways that wasn't being reported in the mainstream video, and now it is," Clark said. The relationship between what happens on social networking platforms and how it is discussed in the media is essential and if one part of that breaks down we would have problems, so we have to know what we will be prepared to do if that happens."

The answer, Clark said, is to remember Twitter is a platform, just like telegrams, newspapers, radio, television and the internet. Black and other marginalised people have always used these mediums to get their word out, and that is what makes the culture and community, not the technology.

"With or without Twitter, we have to maintain a certain vigilance in the way that we live and navigate our world, period," Clark said. "The questions remain: How do I keep myself safe? How do I keep my community safe? How do we go on?"

With every change in the media landscape, Black and marginalised people have embraced it in our own way to tell our own stories, Clark said.

We have done it in the past and we will certainly do it again.

  • Elizabeth Wellington is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This story What happens to social justice and culture on Twitter with Elon Musk at the helm? first appeared on The Canberra Times.