The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elon Musk wants ‘free speech’ on Twitter. But for whom?

With Musk’s looming takeover, the future of Twitter’s content moderation is uncertain. Experts say women and people of color could suffer the most.

Elon Musk's Twitter profile on a smartphone. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
7 min

Elon Musk’s successful bid to buy Twitter and turn it into a free-speech hub has roiled company staff, polarized its user base and become a flash point in the broader culture war on what people should be allowed to say in public spaces.

Conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called the business magnate’s upcoming purchase “the biggest development for free speech in decades.” Liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), predicted an “explosion of hate crimes” because “some billionaire with an ego” wants to control Twitter.

Twitter is a rare platform allowing ordinary people to directly challenge those in power, mobilizing protests and amplifying dissent. At the same time, it has grappled with hateful speech for over a decade, often targeting women and people of color. Now, with Musk’s looming takeover, the future of the moderation systems the company has painstakingly engineered for decades is uncertain, leaving many to wonder what the platform will look like and who could suffer the most.

To learn more, The Washington Post talked with Michael Kleinman, the director of Amnesty International’s Silicon Valley Initiative and an expert on Twitter harassment, along with Joan Donovan, the research director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and a disinformation scholar.

“The more that people are harassed, the less likely they are to speak out,” Kleinman said. “What I fear is the voices that we most need to hear, the voices most impacted by structural inequalities or racism, it’s those voices that will be silenced.”

Twitter workers face a reality they’ve long feared: Elon Musk as owner

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

If Elon Musk gets his way, what do you think Twitter will be like?

Kleinman: The short answer is we don’t know. Trying to predict what Elon Musk is going to do is a dangerous game. That said, based on his comments to date, we are incredibly concerned that Twitter as a company will start paying a lot less attention to issues of hateful, abusive and violent speech on the platform. Twitter already has a tremendous problem with the scale of hateful and abusive and violent speech on the platform, especially speech directed at women and Black and Brown communities.

Twitter has made limited progress in the last few years, and in particular the last year and a half. But if you don’t have senior leadership who’s focused on this, or even worse, if you have senior leadership who are openly contemptuous of the need for this kind of content moderation, then we’re incredibly concerned that we will see the limited progress that has been made further erode.

Donovan: If we’re looking at it through the prism of what Elon Musk has said recently, then he’s not interested in making Twitter profitable. He’s mostly interested in it because he claims it’s the digital public square of the 21st century. The problem with that kind of rhetoric is that a public square is governed by the state. They have many, many rules in the public square.

Why Elon Musk is so polarizing

But that goes against Musk’s claim that he is a free speech maximalist, which essentially means that he’s going to implement rules that say the only kind of speech that is banned from Twitter is speech that goes against the law. But online, most things are permitted. We don’t have any strong cyber stalking laws. We don’t have any strong cyber harassment laws.

So, to figure out what speech is illegal would mean that someone would have to be arrested and caught. I don’t think the rules that he’s setting up or is imagining would be put in place are ones that are conducive to a very healthy public discourse.

Who will get harassed on Twitter the most?

Kleinman: In 2018, we did a study of 778 women who use the platform — activists, journalists, and politicians in the U.S. and UK. What we found, looking at 1.1 million tweets that mentioned this panel of 778 women that we studied, was that 7.1 percent of tweets sent to the women in the study were problematic or abusive. Women of color — Black, Asian, Latinx, mixed-race women — were 34 percent more likely to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets than White women. And finally, Black women are disproportionately targeted, being 84 percent more likely than White women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets. It’s exactly this population that I think stands to bear the brunt of any changes that Elon Musk makes.

With moderation so political now, will Twitter do less of it?

Donovan: Undoubtedly, it already has started. So one of the most important people in the story of Twitter’s shift to Musk is Vijaya Gadde. Musk very quickly called her out using Twitter. She was one of the decision-makers that made the important decisions about the New York Post article about the Hunter Biden laptop being removed, as well as Donald Trump’s account.

Elon Musk boosts criticism of Twitter executives, prompting online attacks

So him, calling her out publicly on the platform, has an enormous chilling effect across the entire organization, where other employees are less likely to speak up or less likely to want to advocate for these content moderation policies knowing that if they do catch the eye of Musk, they could be in the public crosshairs.

Gamergate was a seminal moment for Twitter and online harassment. What’s the impact of that been like?

Donovan: So, with Gamergate, you have a bunch of people using Twitter to express their politics in a cultural war which is: Should women and feminists be gaming at all. What harassers were able to do with Twitter was to create networks of fake accounts that would then harass and impersonate other people, which caused a lot more confusion. This triggered a response from Facebook where they did bring in women who are being harassed to try to learn more about cyber harassment and cyberbullying on their platforms.

This to me was the genesis of the idea that persists today that these platforms are somehow left- or liberal-leaning because they were concerned about women’s experience in technology. And this angered a lot of young men, especially men in gaming. Men who posted on Internet message boards that believed that they own the Internet. They didn’t think that harassment was harassment, they thought it was an abridgment of their free speech.

And you can see it in the meme style of Elon Musk which is to say that he tends to reshare memes from certain Reddit communities like r/conspiracy and r/memes. And it’s those kinds of signals in the culture war that really emboldened people who follow Elon Musk to imagine that Twitter is now their playground again.

What’s the impact of getting harassed on Twitter?

Kleinman: Twitter is one of the very few places in the world where anyone can speak and have a global audience. The more that people are harassed, the less likely they are to speak out, especially on issues that could be construed as controversial, or on issues where they run the risk of facing this kind of massive blowback. So then, what you’ll see is that the global debate no longer has contributions from a diverse set of communities and voices. And what I fear is the voices that we most need to hear, the voices most impacted by structural inequalities or racism, it’s those voices that will be silenced.