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Leaving Twitter now says more about you than Elon Musk

OPINION: The platform was already a haven for abuse. What could be taken away is structural privilege, not safety

Sunny Singh
8 November 2022, 5.15pm

Elon Musk, pictured in April 2022 at the US Air Force Academy

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Trevor Cokley/US Air Force

Since Elon Musk’s conclusion of his acquisition of Twitter, my Global North timeline has been in a collective meltdown, with loud claims – primarily by white, left-leaning accounts – that Twitter is finished and they are leaving.

My timeline is also split, once again, almost entirely on racial and geographical lines: few voices from the Global South seem to be seeking other platforms. The same remains true for most Black, indigenous and people of colour in the Global North, who are concerned that the platform will grow worse for us but plan to stay on.

I recognise this divide well, not only from lived reality but long digital experience: just as my experience of the material world is impacted by considerations of class, gender, race and more, so is my digital experience. Twitter has never been safe for minoritised people and, as a woman of colour, my experience of the platform has always been vitiated by an overarching sense of violence: gendered, racialised and sexualised abuse has always been commonplace there. As I have written before, simply being online as a visible minority has long been seen as an invitation for abuse.

Moreover, as writer and theorist Flavia Dzodan notes, the ‘theatre of cruelty’ remains at heart of Twitter’s model, where abuse and violence against those who are historically marginalised is not only constantly, repeatedly, incessantly enacted but also presented as entertainment for audiences who have grown increasingly desensitised to this collective sadism and its effects. Over the past decade, this has developed into a near perfect feedback loop: celebrities, journalists and politicians enact, lead and encourage abuse of marginalised peoples in either legacy or social media, and the abuse is then replicated and boosted on the other.

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Another problem is the stratified and opaque reporting process. While I am worried that Musk’s acquisition means that the abuse will worsen, I am also aware that the platform has a less-than-stellar track record. For Twitter, this has long translated into inaction, if not active collusion, when powerful figures and organisations in the Global North target minoritised people, or indeed when Global South regimes target critics at home and abroad. And across the globe, this has meant treating extremist, racialised, gendered and sexualised violence and abuse with endless tolerance.

In practice this means that, although I report violent threats and abuse on a daily basis, I can’t remember a single occasion where any action has been taken against any user. Like many of my marginalised colleagues, my only recourse for not seeing grotesquely violent abuse is maintaining a rigorous blocking practice.

In such circumstances, my experience of Twitter – like that of many of my colleagues – has always been fraught. We are more likely to receive more extreme and frequent abuse. We are also unlikely to receive the much vaunted blue ticks, another of Twitter’s arbitrary and opaque aspects. Introduced in 2009 after complaints from celebrities, blue ticks have long served as markers of race, gender, class and other vectors of structural privilege.

It is no surprise that verified status is a focus of Musk’s grandstanding. Since its inception, the platform has used the function as a marker of status, and the new organisational regime threatens to dilute if not entirely undo this. No surprise, then, that blue-tick accounts have been loudest in their complaints and declarations of their intent to quit the platform.

Soon after Twitter’s birth, scholar Danah Boyd used the term ‘digital white flight’ to explain the shift of user base from MySpace to Facebook. She cited a white teenage girl’s description of MySpace as ‘ghetto’. Since at least 2014, similar terms have been used for Twitter, especially in legacy press, and most often by powerful people unaccustomed to having their worldviews challenged.

The current digital white flight – or at least its threats – kicked off by Musk’s tragicomic saga of the acquisition and ongoing torching of Twitter is very familiar, not only in its motivations but its dynamics. Like real-world white flight, it is motivated not by existential or substantial fears, but a perceived threat to comforts of structural privilege. Most importantly, it is premised on a single privileged assumption: that there are, somewhere, safe and comfortable spaces of existence.

Marginalised people inhabit Twitter despite its design and intent, not because of it. Musk’s takeover means that communities we have built are at risk.

But this is not a new experience in the real world or digital spaces. Twitter has merely been another tool for building and rebuilding our communities. When Twitter entirely ceases to work for us, we will move on to rebuild our communities again. Because those communities – like ourselves – exist, survive and thrive despite, and not because of, the structures of violence that are our world.

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