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Twitter's addicted to transphobia. Elon Musk will feed the beast

Twitter's addicted to transphobia. Elon Musk will feed the beast

Jamie Wareham
Jamie Wareham
Jamie Wareham, he/him, gay,queer,disabled I started QueerAF to fund queer media careers. Will you join our movement?

It's now four years since Twitter 'banned' transphobia - I think we can all agree on how much of a success that was.

The platform's bold claims that it had banned misgendering and deadnaming were widely discussed in headlines across the media.

"We prohibit targeting individuals with repeated slurs, tropes or other content that intends to dehumanize, degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes about a protected category. This includes targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals." - Excerpt from Twitter's terms of service, as updated in 2018.

And yet, four years on, the platform is rifer than ever with anti-trans rhetoric.

Transgender accounts are blocked for simply sharing headlines, while hate spreads unchecked.

And now the billionaire Elon Musk has got his hands on the platform. He's bought it thanks to some generous loans from the very banks he's buying it off of - Bywire News

Pending regulatory approval, he'll soon own it outright and plans to convert it from a public company with shares, to private and consolidate his control.

Musk's transphobic attitude towards 'free speech'

Musk is a free speech absolutist – until he's not.

Indeed, there are innumerable examples of the billionaire stifling speech that negatively impacts his economic interests - Popular Information

"Musk's history underscores the risks of giving near-complete control of one of the world's most powerful communication networks to one extremely rich individual." - Popular Information

He regularly uses the platform to share anti-trans rhetoric, from mocking pronouns to sharing transphobic memes.

Musk says he's come in to protect democracy and foster a "public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive."

But he is going to do this by ripping up the platform's moderation guidelines and open-sourcing moderation and suggestion algorithms instead - Business Insider

Let's just reflect on that. Musk, who regularly shares transphobia, is going to rip up Twitter's (admittedly undelivered) 'transphobia ban' - to make it more inclusive.

He also has plans to require identification and end anonymity, which will create all kinds of barriers for trans and queer people. Just like we've seen with the UK's Online Safety Bill and Facebook's 'real name policy'.

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The broader context: Twitter's plebiscitary nature

Twitter is a little like a constant referendum (otherwise known as a plebiscite) on life, or so I argued in my undergraduate dissertation. On the platform, we constantly debate and use trends to seemingly decide which popular opinion wins.

The trouble with democracy and referendums is they are fragile and susceptible to manipulation.

Social media algorithms can - and have been - manipulated to amplify populist rhetoric only held by a few. And now they can reach more people than ever before. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed how this all played its part in electing Trump and securing Brexit.

When Elon Musk announced his Twitter takeover this week, 200,000 Katy Perry followers deactivated their accounts, while Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right conspiracy theorist, gained 90,000 followers. This was all confirmed by Twitter to be organic changes in user behaviour, not errors or bot activity. - NBC

What does this tell us? Apolitical users fled in droves, while right-wing users joined.

Some commentators are suggesting that Musk has bought the platform primarily to secure his future manipulating markets by tweeting, as he does regularly with cryptocurrencies.

So that's the latest twist in Twitter's long-steeped debate about hate speech published by its users. Except now, thanks to the likes of Musk, this is generously called a 'free speech' debate.

Though no one can agree on the perfect model for the platform, giving up on moderation and allowing anything is a lazy and counterproductive option. If Twitter becomes so difficult to be on that everyone leaves, Musk's supposed ideal of 'free and high-minded' conversation ends.

It’s the tolerance paradox, to which all democratic and plebiscitary spaces are vulnerable. When a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant.

Dropping moderation will throw marginalised communities under a bus, take away our safe haven and drive us off the platform. It’s already begun.

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I once won the fight in the 'identity politics' debate.

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