Respect Equality

LGBTQ+ Twitter users contemplate exit amid Elon Musk takeover

The Tesla CEO has in the past used his Twitter account to misgender other users and mock transgender people.
The Twitter application is seen on a digital device, Monday, April 25, 2022, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Story at a glance

  • LGBTQ+ Twitter users on Monday said they were considering leaving the platform over concerns that its new owner Elon Musk would re-platform accounts suspended for violating Twitter rules against hate speech.

  • Activists said they worry the site will become an unmoderated “free-for-all” under Musk, who has described himself as a “free speech absolutist.”

  •  Musk purchased Twitter on Monday for $44 billion.

Several LGBTQ+ Twitter users on Monday suggested they would be deactivating their accounts and leaving the platform that sold for $44 billion to tech billionaire Elon Musk. Musk has previously used his own Twitter account to misgender users and post content that was accused of being transphobic.

The Tesla CEO’s open disdain for what he has called big tech censorship has prompted some LGBTQ+ users to consider leaving Twitter in fear that a Musk takeover would mean re-platforming accounts like the Babylon Bee or Charlie Kirk that were suspended for violating Twitter rules against hate speech. 

It’s a concern shared not only by users, but media watchdogs. 

“The sale of Twitter to Elon Musk would be a victory for disinformation and the people who peddle it. Musk could unleash a wave of toxicity and harassment and undo Twitter’s efforts to increase quality engagement and make its platform safer for users,” staff for Media Matters, a left-leaning media non profit, wrote Monday.

Erin Reed, a prominent LGBTQ+ activist with a Twitter following nearing 44,000, said the platform has been instrumental in communicating and organizing with other advocates and interacting directly with legislators.

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But Reed, who mostly uses her account to sound the alarm on anti-LGBTQ+ legislation moving across the country, told Changing America that she and others are considering at least a partial departure from the platform over negative comments made by Musk about LGBTQ+ people, particularly transgender and nonbinary people.

“There will be at least some migration off the platform,” she said.

Musk in 2020 took to Twitter to share his opinion on personal pronouns, writing from his account that “pronouns suck.” Later that year, Musk said social media accounts displaying personal pronouns were “an esthetic nightmare,” and the Human Rights Campaign demanded an apology after he posted a meme deriding users who put their pronouns in their social media bios.

In March, Musk tweeted a meme mocking transgender people shortly after news broke of his ex-partner Grimes’ rumored relationship with whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who is a transgender woman.

Musk has also called himself a “free speech absolutist” and tweeted last week before the deal went through that he sought to make Twitter a friendlier place for free expression, in part by being “very cautious” about permanent bans and content restrictions. Private companies under the First Amendment are permitted to set their own rules or restrictions on speech.

A major concern is that the platform under Musk may become so unmoderated that it sinks to the level of sites like 4chan and Parler, whose “no rules” mantras have made them synonymous with the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation, Reed said.

“We’ve seen in other cases absolute free speech platforms often fail because of the fact that it chases everybody else away,” Reed said. “If Twitter goes down that route, I can see it doing the exact same thing.”

But some say Twitter’s enforcement of its rules has already gone downhill, even without Musk.

Chrissy Stroop, a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches and a columnist for openDemocracy, said Twitter has been an invaluable tool in forging professional connections and finding work as a freelance writer. But recently, the social media network’s lukewarm response to her reports of bullying have made her consider leaving the platform.

Under Musk, Stroop, who is transgender, said the situation isn’t likely to improve, particularly because of Musk’s “tech bro” understanding of free speech.

“It’s a very naive understanding of free speech,” she said. “It’s the kind of free speech that lets bullies reign supreme.”

Stroop said if Musk reigns back Twitter’s current guidelines and moderations, it is likely to have deleterious effects on not only LGBTQ+ users, but also on users of other marginalized groups.

“You’re going to have Twitter becoming a place that’s more of an incubator for not just online bullying and trolling, but probably also an incubator of stochastic violence and political violence, particularly right wing violence,” she said. “People will be unsafe not just from being misgendered or called names, but from things like doxxing.”

In the short-term, other popular social media sites like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat may see a bump in engagement as more users turn their backs on Twitter, Alejandra Caraballo, a transgender attorney and researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, told Changing America.

But those platforms are not perfect analogs to Twitter because they rely mostly on visual content. Some users may become more active on Facebook, which has been fighting its own free speech battles.

Caraballo said, at least for now, there isn’t a viable alternative to Twitter. That isn’t likely to change in the near term, she said, and sites that have sought to compete with Twitter, like former President Trump’s Truth Social, have not fared well with mainstream social media users.

“You can’t run a site that runs on hate speech,” she said. “But you also need to be able to attract a broad cross section of society.”

If Twitter under Musk becomes more hostile for some groups, there’s a real possibility of declining user growth, Caraballo said, which would eventually render the site irrelevant. But without a viable replacement, she isn’t certain a mass exodus of Twitter users would actually happen.

“There really is no viable alternative in terms of quick information around legislation, anti-LGBTQ efforts or organizing among political groups,” she said. Without Twitter, things like political organization as we know it may be hampered “for months, if not years,” she said.

A Twitterless world for LGBTQ+ people would also take away a critical lifeline for community building and support.

“Since social media platforms have existed, LGBTQ+ people have used them as tools to create community, support one another, and find hope in a world sometimes hostile to us,” Ty Cobb, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives and Research at the Human Rights Campaign, told Changing America Monday in an email. “Moderation isn’t censorship. It simply fosters a respectful and meaningful atmosphere in which people can connect.”

If a Musk takeover brings less moderation to Twitter, it will surely bring more harassment directed toward LGBTQ+ people — particularly transgender people — along with it, Cobb said.

“The prospect of any social media platform turning into a free-for-all is alarming,” he said.

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