If the racial discrimination lawsuit against Tesla is any indication, it makes sense that news of Elon Musk’s possible takeover of Twitter has unsettled many black users of the social media platform.
While the site has grown increasingly venomous over the years, it has also allowed black users to deepen kinship and elevate movements. Now, this community building could be in danger.
“There’s an innate sense of dread,” Meredith Clark, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, told CNN. “And I think it doesn’t just come from the announcement that Musk might buy Twitter.”
Clark explained that, for many black Americans, the past decade has been marked by social and political turmoil.
There was the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the 2016 election that installed in the White House a man who fought to condemn white supremacy and the contest of 2020 in which many Republican Party leaders suggested that black votes shouldn’t count, in addition to so many other things.
“The only reason that (Musk’s announcement) is sort of on the same wave as these other events is that it’s about an individual who has made a number of statements that relate to the Blacks,” Clark said. “He is a child of apartheid. He is in the midst of a discrimination lawsuit brought by black employees at his Tesla factories.
Clark didn’t mince words: “You have to care what it means not only for another billionaire to play with money in a way that affects something that represents connection and that you value, but for this billionaire, with a specific story, to be the person behind this planned purchase.
To understand what might be at stake, let’s pause for a moment to explore the community dimension of Twitter that Clark nodded to.
In the early 2010s, when Twitter, launched in 2006, was still relatively fresh, the site had a radically different feel. People were more likely to tweet about fairly mundane things: school gossip, lunch, the hit TV series “Scandal” by Shonda Rhimes. Twitter was a place where ordinary people could talk about ordinary things.
It was also a place where ordinary people could do extraordinary things, like fueling grassroots movements.
“When you think of the people who were helping to evolve hashtags like #TrayvonMartin or #BlackLivesMatter, while sometimes there were activists involved and eventually celebrities, very often the people who started those hashtags and helped make them evolve were everyday people who cared deeply about these issues and had experiences they collectively felt needed to be heard,” said Sarah J. Jackson, Presidential Associate Professor at the University’s Annenberg School of Communication. of Pennsylvania and co-author of “#HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice.” “And because of Twitter’s infrastructure, the platform wasn’t limited to people you knew.”
Consider Khary Penebaker. Thanks to Twitter, the Democratic National Committee member from Wisconsin was able to expand his advocacy for gun control from nearly a decade ago.
“I never would have been able to get my message out as widely as I did without Twitter,” Penebaker told CNN. “I’ve become really good friends with Cory Booker, and that’s a by-product of me reaching out to him via Twitter and having him listen to my story. When he ran for president (in 2020) , he included a policy in his platform that was specific to my story of how my mother shot and killed herself with a gun.
It’s worth pointing out that, in some ways, the above describes Black Twitter; as my CNN colleague Lisa France said in 2015, Black Twitter is “a group of individuals who come together to have conversations about everything from culture to race and identity.”
Or think of it like this: A big part of Twitter’s appeal in its early years was that it allowed people, especially black Americans and members of other marginalized groups who didn’t have the megaphone to a great media platform, to forge links – take up space.
But over the years, the platform has deteriorated, especially for those for whom it had long been a more obvious good.
“Something that we were hyper aware of when we were writing ‘#HashtagActivism’ was that the Twitter that we started studying in 2014 – every passing moment was a different Twitter,” Jackson said. “The more people who joined us – the more mainstream media journalists, politicians and businesses adopted Twitter – the more that changed.”
Over time, bots, trolls, and bad actors flooded the site.
“You couldn’t assume anymore that if someone replied to your tweet that they really wanted to engage in conversation or debate with you,” Jackson said.
Agent of Chaos
It’s Twitter’s steadily deteriorating state that makes news about Musk, one of the site’s most influential agitators, unsettling for many black users, who are baffled by how Musk seems to confuse “freedom of expression” with “sympathy for bigotry against marginalized groups”.
For some, the announcement was enough to send them off Twitter altogether.
“The moment I heard about the offer I was like, ‘I’m out.’ It was the easiest decision I’ve ever made on social media,” the writer said. Ijeoma Oluo to CNN “I don’t want to be part of a platform that would even accept something like this.”
Oluo explained that what makes Musk so upsetting to her is his behavior on Twitter.
“It’s not just how he responds to challenges or perceived insults. It’s also how he needs a foil, someone to fight with,” she said. “I felt like I became one of those people whose relevance to Twitter was a target. And I didn’t want to be part of the reason why some people go on Twitter – to harass black people, trans people and other marginalized people, especially when we try to exercise power to provide security.
“This collective power is something that terrifies many white men, especially white men who think the technology belongs to them,” Oluo continued. “And I really wish people cared half as much about how so many voices were pushed out of online spaces as they did about a billionaire’s desire for an internet meltdown.”
Jackson echoed some of Oluo’s sentiments.
“Musk has been candid on Twitter about what appears to be a distaste for progressive politics,” Jackson said. “And he is also known as this agent of chaos. Some people see him as someone who likes to “troll for fun”. So for me, the news raised concerns that someone who doesn’t seem to appreciate democratic values at least as I define them – in terms of people’s access and safety in the public sphere – might take control of the platform.
Still, Jackson remains on Twitter — for now, anyway.
“Staying is conditional,” she said. “There are a few wait-and-see questions. For example, is the site going to be run in a new way, both in terms of business ethics and in terms of things like how the algorithm works and how hate speech is or is not tolerated? »
Basically, while Twitter has been socially and politically valuable, especially to black Americans, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the site ceased to be the preferred platform for deliberation and expression. This is because these things can move elsewhere.
“I don’t know what this space is,” Jackson said. “But I trust people to understand, to innovate. So I think you have to be careful. This (Musk’s news) is a very good reason to feel appalled. But also, the platforms are not permanent. Technologies are not permanent. They are constantly changing.