From the Washington Post opinion section:
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.
By Pranshu Verma
Pranshu Verma is a reporter on The Washington Post’s technology team. Before joining The Post in 2022, he covered technology at the Boston Globe. Before that, he was a reporting fellow at the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
May 6, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EDT
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. …
It’s noteworthy how often people with names like Pranshu Verma are contemptuous of Anglo-American traditions such as free speech.
South Asians in the U.S. are often compared to Jews, another articulate group. But, in contrast, Jewish-Americans born a century ago tended to be free speech fundamentalists, as reflected in their hyper Anglo-American first names: e.g., Milton (as in Milton Friedman) is borrowed from the great poet John Milton, who more or less invented the “marketplace of ideas” argument in his Areopagitica. (Jewish-American first names tended to be borrowed from Anglo-American writers and actors, such as Sidney—Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney—and Irving—American short story writer Washington Irving and English actor Sir Henry Irving, who was famous for the dignity with which he invested Shylock.)
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.”
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. …
Donovan: … 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.
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.
Calling her out could have a chilling effect on her censorship policies for which she gets paid $16 million per year!
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.
Gamergate in 2014 was due to white guys (and others with white guy senses’ of justice) finally getting peeved over corruption in the video game reviewing industry.
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.
“Harassed” = publicly losing arguments because your data and logic are stupider than those of Internet randos.