Billionaire Elon Musk

Billionaire Elon Musk, Tesla boss, comes to the construction site of the Tesla Giga Factory earlier this year.

(Photo: Patrick Pleul/dpa-Zentralbild/ZB)

Online Hate Is Bigger Than Elon Musk

Why the digital public square needs public antitrust solutions.

Exactly one month after Elon Musk announced his acquisition of Twitter with a lame pun borrowed from Tumblr and Reddit, footage of the Christchurch mosque massacres resurfaced on the platform. It was yet another example of how Twitter backslid into chaos and hate under Musk. It also reopened wounds that I and other Muslims endured because Twitter and other platforms allowed this hate to spread in the first place. That is why I met the news that Twitter abruptly dissolved the Trust and Safety Council with a mix of sadness and relief.

Muslim Advocates was a member of the council, a non-binding advisory board for policy review and recommendations from worldwide experts. This mostly meant we got previews of much-hyped new features from Twitter that tinkered around the edges of the broader problem of online hate. Fundamentally, the council was a space of corporate pseudo-accountability. They offered us “access” and we were supposed to be content with our seat at the illusory table.

Engaging with tech platforms like Twitter about online hate has been an exercise in gaslighting: you complain about hateful content, the platform tells you the problem doesn’t exist and then you’re left wondering if it’s because they secretly agree with the hate or because the perpetrator is politically powerful—or both.

This inadequate process came to a screeching halt when Musk took charge. Almost all of our points of contact at Twitter disappeared, council meetings were canceled and we had to learn what was going on from hourly headlines about Musk.

All of this is to say that while the pre-Musk status quo was already harming Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities with its negligence on hate speech, post-Musk Twitter was somehow worse. Musk barreled in touting an incoherent free speech absolutist ideology that turned Twitter into a haven for grifters gleefully using hate speech to target marginalized communities. As “chief twit,” Musk spends much of his time responding to people who espouse white nationalist propaganda, tweet out white nationalist content and spread anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories. He also reinstated the accounts of anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists and even notorious neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin. Meanwhile, Musk’s Twitter banned the accounts of left-wing activists and others who merely offended him—apparently also in the name of free speech?

The weekend after Thanksgiving, when Twitter’s automated defenses failed and allowed footage of the Christchurch massacre to recirculate, I was transported back to 2019. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, my colleagues at Muslim Advocates had to simultaneously process their own human responses to the atrocity while rooting out footage of the attacks to flag for removal by the social media companies—essentially doing content moderation work that the platforms should have been doing themselves in the futile hope that our suffering wouldn’t be celebrated by bigots and inspire future copycats.
With or without Musk, Twitter and all social media wring profits from the targeting of our communities. Musk’s main change has been to stop even trying to mitigate these harms, and to actively validate the hatemongers he agrees with. I am sad that Musk’s dissolution of the Trust and Safety Council ends one admittedly half-hearted attempt to push back against hate. However, I am also relieved because though it was already exhausting to argue for my community’s humanity with Twitter, it feels inconceivable to do so with a class bully like Musk.

One thing I’ve learned from my years fighting online hate is that while Musk is deeply problematic, he is not the problem. Twitter is not the problem. Social media is not the problem. The problem is that megalomaniacal billionaires can take over our public squares, our support systems and our livelihoods on a whim and warp them to feed their endless hunger for power and adoration. Meanwhile, we exhaust ourselves trying to get them to value our lives more than their profits.

We all deserve more than to be the casualties of an egotistical, cringe-inducing billionaire’s mid-life crisis. We deserve more than an uneven playing field that consistently profits off of hate, yet purports to be a public square. We deserve to have the power to protect ourselves and the only way to do that is to take it from billionaires like Musk.

We’ve tried engaging with these social media billionaires and that has failed. To keep them in check, we need new solutions like antitrust law, which exists so that no one entity can exert unfettered control over entire aspects of our lives. Right now, we have a rare opportunity where lawmakers in both political parties at least claim to be open to antitrust solutions. We must seize it to finally empower and protect communities that have been victimized for far too long.

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