In anticipation of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, and his somewhat confusing, often simplistic, and generally unhelpful twitting about his plans to make it more amenable to free speech as that’s understood in the constitutional sense, some people have announced their intention to leave twitter in protest. Chances are, the people claiming to leave won’t be missed by many outside their tribe, as they offer their celebrity in general support of the orthodoxy and bring little of thought or interest to the mix.
This was true when fleeing Twitter was the right wingers’ reaction to their darlings being silenced. This is true now as left wingers protest the potential of free speech. Granted, few actually leave, but many make bold proclamations to let their fans know how virtuous they are.
The latest Twitter panic brings up an old issue, one that’s been floating around the interwebs since the good old Cyber Civil Rights days. The issue is that when women and minorities exercise their right to express their views on the internet, they are subject to extreme abuse and threats such that they feel constrained to silence themselves. The exercise of speech by bad actors defeats the exercise of speech by good actors.
In response to Muskgate, New York Times race columnist Charles Blow talks of why he might “pull back” from Twitter.
For people like me, that meant half my time on Twitter on any given day could be spent blocking and muting accounts. It’s not because I’m fragile or averse to opposing views, but rather that much of what I was seeing clearly crossed over into hostility and sometimes harassment. I can’t even count the number of racial slurs that have been directed at me, or attacks on my sexuality, or allusions to my family. And, of course, there is the occasional threat of violence.
It’s unclear what he means by “people like me.” New York Times columnists? Provocative writers? Woke extremists? Black men? But Blow’s “lived experience,” which anyone else would just call “experience,” is that he’s particularly targeted for “hostility and sometimes harassment,” two words of sufficiently vague meaning as to sound pretty awful while being uninformative. Then there is a somewhat clearer claim of racial slurs “or attacks on my sexuality” and the “occasional threat of violence.”
The thing is that this is pretty much everyone’s experience on Twitter with any significant following who twits anything even slightly controversial. From racial slurs to threats of violence, this is a reflection of humanity, not anyone’s special experience. People are mean, angry, offensive, outrageous jerks. What else is new? But then, maybe I can shrug it off because I’m a white man, which, in social justice jargon, makes me “privileged.” What about those who lack my “privilege”?
For Black female journalists, it’s even worse. A study of 778 female journalists and politicians issued a few years ago by Amnesty International found that they received “abusive” or “problematic” tweets once every 30 seconds, and that “Black women were disproportionately targeted, being 84 percent more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets.”
A study by Amnesty international starts with a red flag raised, but gets worse when one sees that part Blow left out. This was a crowdsourced “study,” meaning inviting victims to assert their victimhood for “problematic” twits. To no one’s surprise, the output validated the input.
But believing that his suffering on Twitter is different, and worse, than other’s has made Blow reconsider his continued use of the platform.
Lately, I have been thinking of pulling back from Twitter, as well. And I’m not the only one. Other journalists have been trying to find their own ways of pulling back from the site. In 2020, the Poynter Institute wrote that “a growing group of journalists has cut back on Twitter, or abandoned it entirely.” The Institute described one of those journalists as being “motivated by a long-simmering sense that it wasn’t compatible with his emotional and intellectual well-being.
Notably, he doesn’t quite say he will quit Twitter. His position is about as equivocal as it gets, which allows Blow to grieve its offense without acting upon it. Fair enough. He’s allowed to hate the bad of Twitter without committing to leaving. After all, where would he go for the validation fix, TruthSocial?
This feels better to me, more settled, more considered. I no longer feel so strongly the tug of addiction that social media generates. I am slowly returning to me, the person, and away from the persona.
When law prof Danielle Citron started the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, now with Mary Anne Franks as its president, a symposium was held during which Orin Kerr made an astute observation.
[I]sn’t Danielle’s article trying to use rhetoric against rhetoric? It seems to be that one side of this debate makes its case (rightly or wrongly) using the rhetoric of free speech. Danielle’s article tries to make its case (rightly or wrongly) by countering this rhetoric using the rhetoric of civil rights. Or to put it another way, one side of this debate sees free speech under assault; the other side sees civil rights as under assault. Or so it seems to me.
It’s unlikely that Blow, or say black women like Joy Reid or Nikole Hannah-Jones, are going to be aware of attacks from their adoring fans on the left, and so they only perceive the attacks as coming from the right side of Twitter. Others have a different experience, particularly those of us who align with neither extremes and are thus politically homeless in these polarized times.
If Blow wants to “pull back” from Twitter for his emotional well-being, that’s his right. As for his intellectual well-being, that’s a bit more dubious for a journalist, given that he might want to have a sense of how humanity, beyond his comfort zone, is doing. He has every right to participate in social media on the same terms, blue check aside, as anyone else. If he shares the purpose of Citron and Franks, that they get to speak and be as controversial as they like and you get to shut up and take it, then he’s probably right to “pull back.” Or so it seems to me.