...on what goes on on Twitter (that was already out there for someone barely knowledgable about Twitter (like me) to have EASILY been aware of
(like I said: I'm in the Twilight Zone if folks think telling me people can just "easily avoid" harassment on Twitter - from all I've already heard about it)
Sure, it won't get WORSE WITH ELON..yeah, right
Let’s Be Clear About What It’s Like to Be Harassed on Twitter
April 27, 2022
Credit...Mario Tama/Getty Images
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By Elizabeth Spiers
Ms. Spiers is a writer and digital media strategist. She was the editor in chief of The New York Observer and the founding editor of Gawker.
The Tesla co-founder and chief executive Elon Musk is set to shortly become the new owner of a slightly used social media platform with more than 217 million daily users. He has said very little about how he plans to make the business work, but one thing is clear: He is really, really preoccupied with how we talk on the platform and appears intent on rolling back some of its moderation policies in order to allow all legal speech on Twitter.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Mr. Musk said in his announcement of the deal. He professes to have a healthy tolerance of criticism. “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means,” he tweeted.
But the statements of free speech absolutists like Mr. Musk conflates harassment with criticism. I’ve been on the receiving end of both in my two decades of writing columns about media, finance, culture and politics — and there is a material difference between the two.
To wit: A couple of weeks ago, a former colleague of Mr. Musk’s at PayPal, Keith Rabois, called me dumb on Twitter after I suggested that eliminating moderation policies would be bad for Twitter’s business. This is not a particularly sophisticated criticism, but neither is it harassment.
However, I’ve also received rape threats,
anonymous letters to my home address,
threatening comments about my family
and all manner of misogynistic pejoratives that are not printable in this newspaper for my stated positions on everything from abortion to hiring practices at start-ups to who the next James Bond should be. I don’t even have to write anything particularly provocative for this to happen; I once got a violent threat for a column I wrote about why I disagree with the way the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the Consumer Price Index.
These are not uncommon experiences for women and minorities who speak in public, on Twitter and beyond, and I’ve suffered far less harassment than others. It happens all the time. Twitter’s current moderation policies can’t completely prevent it, but they are designed to mitigate it. Twitter requires its users to comply with a terms of service agreement that bans certain types of speech — harassment, in particular. It also has moderation policies in place to combat disinformation. The value of these measures isn’t always apparent to powerful people such as Mr. Musk because if you’re a white man on the internet, you’re far less likely to get a rape threat, and you’re also heavily insulated from the possibility of real-world violence.
Mr. Musk insists that the company’s policies are too restrictive. But this is not about free speech in the sense that the First Amendment is — ensuring that the state can’t censor its citizens. What Mr. Musk seems to seek is a kind of infinite license to say almost anything, anywhere. It’s an absolutist definition of free speech that says corporations are obligated to let things that may be harmful to their users or bad for their businesses remain on their platforms because any limitation on speech is de facto censorship and censorship of any kind is worse than the consequences of hate speech, harassment and disinformation.
Of course, getting rid of policies that restrict hate speech will most likely affect women and minorities much more than it does white men like Mr. Musk, and unlike him, most people on the receiving end of threats and harassment can’t afford personal security. Twitter’s rules already allow for a broad range of abuse, much of which falls into a kind of gray area between personal insult and harassment.
What exactly does he believe can’t be said on the platform right now? It certainly doesn’t take long to find discredited race science, arguments that women are intellectually inferior, antisemitism, defenses of white supremacism and transphobic comments that remain on the platform even under current policy. It is easy to assume that the banned speech that Mr. Musk is standing up for is worse even than that. As the comedian Michael Che put it on “Saturday Night Live,” the $44 billion deal shows “how badly white guys want to use the N-word.”
All of this is a moral and ethical case for keeping moderation policies in place, but what’s more baffling about Mr. Musk’s crusade is it’s hard to see how eliminating them would be good for the business. Right now, Twitter’s demographics skew male. If Twitter wants to further scale up its business and increase profitability, which is ostensibly its goal, it needs to expand its reach. Making the platform a hostile environment for women and minorities isn’t conducive to expansion, unless you believe your most valuable audience is white men who skew conservative and that they exist in ever larger numbers — and demographic trends indicate that they do not.
If anything, Twitter’s history indicates that when you make the platform more hospitable to a range of people, the user base grows. When the biggest Twitter troll of all, former President Donald Trump, was removed from the platform in January of 2021, research suggested that the percentage of adults on social media who said they used Twitter increased by 21 percent. (Mr. Trump has said that he has no plans to rejoin Twitter, but this column is not long enough to catalog all of the things he has said he would not do that he later did anyway, so some skepticism is in order.) If the former president is invited back, it’s entirely plausible that some of the newer post-Trump users would leave.
Mr. Musk has said he is not buying Twitter to make money, but as a successful entrepreneur, he presumably wants to make the company, which has long struggled with profitability, a success. The company’s revenue is currently very advertising-dependent, and in my experience as a former media entrepreneur and newspaper editor in chief, advertisers generally don’t like to promote their brands alongside provocative content; even everyday political news is sometimes too much. If Mr. Musk allows Twitter to become a cesspool of hate speech and disinformation, he’ll test the risk averseness of the platform’s advertisers, and it’s likely that he’ll find himself with fewer brands that are willing to take the risk of appearing in people’s polluted feeds.
There’s also, of course, the risk — both moral and to the business — that allowing more harassment and disinformation on the platform will result in real-world physical harm. The 2016 Pizzagate conspiracy theory, a precursor to QAnon, spread largely over social media and resulted in a man firing an AR-15 rifle in a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. When people feel entitled to harm others because hateful speech is normalized online, it increases the ease with which conspiracy theories metastasize into acts of violence. A platform that spreads that kind of speech and takes a laissez-faire approach to disinformation doesn’t just create an unpleasant experience for users; it can get someone killed.
It’s entirely possible that Mr. Musk hasn’t thought about these things very thoroughly. His public bid for Twitter began only a few weeks ago, and since then his stated intentions have changed repeatedly, accompanied by a late and misleading securities filing and contradictory statements. He enjoys online trolling, and this may have started as a joke, which was then taken so seriously by the market, Twitter shareholders and the public that Mr. Musk himself began to consider it.
If that’s what happened, he may be the dog that caught the car. Tesla stock fell in the wake of the purchase announcement, potentially a reflection of shareholder sentiment that Mr. Musk may not be able to effectively run yet another company in addition to the four (Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink and the Boring Company) he already leads.
Sophisticated moderation policies are difficult to develop and enforce, and Twitter has already spent years tinkering and trying to come up with something that works. The current terms of service are not perfect, but if Mr. Musk chooses to partly or fully dismantle them, he may experience Twitter in a new way himself: The aspects of the platform that are weaponized against women and minorities may not be so friendly to him, either. And if the company can’t expand its user base, his worst critics may be the only growth area of Twitter.