Social Movement Organizers Fear Twitter Under Elon Musk
PHistorically, ro–Palestine activists have suffered smear attack targeting their study or employment places. David Collier noticed Hadi Nazarallah tweeting a video showing protestors confronting Israeli Ambassador Tzipihotovely at a speech in 2021. Collier, who has an extensive following and describes himself as an anti-semitism researcher and journalist, has targeted Palestinian supporters and confounded anti-semitism with criticisms of Israel in the past. Collier, who refers to Nasrallah as an “extremist,” began sharing personal images from Nasrallah’s Facebook account. Nasrallah reported these tweets and in response, Twitter locked Collier out of his account until he deleted the tweets that violated Twitter’s rules on sharing private media.
“Twitter is vital for Palestinian activists as it allows them to speak about their oppression in their own words, with a less likely chance of being censored like on other social media platforms,” says Farah Koutteineh, the Head of Public Relations at the Palestinian Return Centre, which focuses on the issue of Palestinian refugees.
Twitter is a key player in global social justice movements, including the Arab Spring and the 2020 racial injustice uprisings. Twitter’s enforcement of its community guidelines sets an example for content moderation across all platforms. Activists have noted Twitter’s enforcement of community guidelines, which generally keep them safer from harassment than they feel on other platforms. Users who break the terms of Twitter’s policies have been banned by it. This is a step beyond other social media platforms. Donald Trump, who incited violence during the attack on the Capitol Jan. 6, 2021 was famously banned from Twitter. Now that Elon Musk has a deal to buy the platform, organizers who use it—especially those from marginalized groups—are unsure what to expect. Musk was vocal in his criticism of both the guidelines, and those who implement them by Twitter executives. vowedFreedom of speech. In a TED interview in April, he said he’s more in favor of temporary punishments for violations rather than permanent bans.
Roy Yellin, the public outreach manager of B’tselem, says that Twitter and social media coverage have shifted understandings of Israeli attacks in Gaza by “reversing the narrative that accompanied previous Israeli operations that Hamas was shooting rockets and Israel was retaliating to that” and instead reflecting the stance of human rights organizations that accuse Israel of apartheid.
Palestinian and Israeli activists protest weekly in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem against the February 18th 2022 eviction of Palestinian families for Jewish settlers
Ilia Yefimovich—picture alliance/Getty Images
Tinovimbanashe Gwenyaya is a South African trade unionist who has seen firsthand the impact of Twitter. While the union workers went on strike, and launched a boycott against it, they used Twitter to spread awareness to South African customers. Meanwhile the company employed replacement workers. He was a South African student who organized protests against Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe regime. Twitter also helped to spread information about these marches. “Twitter has played an important role in mobilizing people in historic ways,” says Gwenyaya, “where the marginalized can express their opinions freely against oppression, exploitation, dictatorships, regimes that seek to suppress free speech.” Gwenyaya argues that Musk’s “right-wing understanding of free speech” places that at risk.
Although many groups have found the platform useful and safe enough for organizing, they’ve still experienced harassment on it. Koutteineh fears the racist and Islamophobic harassment, death threats and defamation campaigns activists already face on the platform will increase under Musk’s leadership.
Labor activists, who have also faced harassment and defamation campaigns online when they organize, echo these concerns, pointing to Musk’s anti-union actions at his other company, Tesla, that earned him censure from the National Labor Relations Board. “How will Elon Musk respond to tweets against Tesla’s working conditions or environmental pollution? Will he tolerate tweets criticizing him?” says Gahyun Lee who was the first woman president of the Arbeit workers union in South Korea working with minimum wage and part-time workers. Musk is known for his reticence to criticize anyone, inside or outside Tesla. But he has never been accused of doing so. tweetedHe said that he hopes Twitter will continue to be a place for his criticisms.
“Twitter under Elon Musk would make an already deadly Twitter even more lethal for our communities and democracies across South Asia,” says Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, which organizes with South Asian religious and cultural minorities for an end to caste apartheid. Online vitriol against caste-oppressed and religious minorities of India is intense. This includes trolling, harassment, disinformation and threats to rape and violence towards their families and friends. She says. Twitter has not responded to our request for comment.
Musk is clarifiedHis commitment to freedom of speech is related to what governments define as capturing the will of people. India, however, also shows the limits of such an approach. A Hindu nationalist government allows hate speech and violence to spread quickly both online and offline. “This kind of complete trust of government is ridiculous,” says Yellin, of B’tselem, “We know governments can be the best protectors of human rights and the most dangerous violators of human rights.”
Musk also suggested eliminating anonymity from profiles. Anonymous accounts played an important role in the coordination of public actions across the United States, including during the Black Lives Matter protests. “What an enforced real-name policy means is that Twitter will not facilitate the organizing efforts of those in struggle against racialized police violence,” says Sarah Hamid, Campaign Lead at the Carceral Tech Resistance Network which supports abolitionist organizing campaigns.
Black Lives Matter activists and other supporters march over the Brooklyn Bridge in honor of George Floyd’s one-year anniversary on May 25, 2021.
Spencer Platt—Getty Images
Although Twitter allows communities to connect and unify during protests, it also has its risks. As networks are built on a public website, they are subject to the surveillance of companies like Dataminr who have been accused of racially profiling individuals when identifying potential “gang members” or “threats” for local police departments. Dataminr has not responded to requests for comment.
Katrina was a Black Liberation Collective member from Vermont. Although she declined to reveal her last name, it is clear that Musk won’t be averse to the possibility of grassroots organizers like her. “Ultimately he’ll implement whatever he wants to do in a way that will serve him, and as a poor, disabled Black fat woman, there’s a recognition I have that it could be anything in any given moment.”
The uncertainty around Twitter’s future has created an opportunity for organizers to reassess their relationship with the platform. Movements for social justice are older than social media. And successful organizers have a deep creative side. “This work is cobbled together from hundreds of experiments, and our tactics have to evolve and shift continuously,” says Hamid, “Our work doesn’t stop because of Elon Musk’s Twitter — we just move on and find other ways to activate, coordinate, and mobilize.”
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