How Elon Musk's Twitter takeover has led to a surge in online hate speech

Since the acquisition of Twitter in 2022, minority groups have faced increased levels of abuse online.

Hand holding a phone with Twitter on the screen.
Image: Pexels

In October of 2022, Elon Musk fulfilled the prophecy of his acquisition of Twitter, entering the company’s headquarters wielding a sink and a promise to become a “free speech absolutist”. Joe Drennan looks at the social media platform’s freefall since and its stark rise in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.

Buying up Twitter may have cost tech giant Musk a pretty penny – $44 billion to be precise – but it also had a severe cost for the company’s employees, thousands of whom were promptly laid off following the takeover. It’s also costing the folk who use the platform, in particular, minority groups. Twitter has seen an overhaul in what is deemed to be inappropriate content, which has led to a surge in hate speech over the last few months.

After probably the most contentious company takeover in public memory, Twitter has been facing a near-complete breakdown. Long-time users have vowed to move to other social media platforms if the site doesn’t return to its original form. Even though this may seem an empty threat to Twitter executives, there is something to be said about strength in numbers.

Also, there is a precedent already set. It was reported in 2019 that Tumblr lost nearly 30% of page views after it banned pornography. One would hope that the public cares more about creating safe spaces for minority groups than it does about pornography. If they do – Twitter is in dire straits.

Evidence for the surge in hate speech after Elon Musk’s acquisition comes from the US-based Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). Recently, the organisation released the results of an investigation into the use of hateful language on the site.

Among the findings was a three-fold increase in the use of the n-word, as well as a 58% increase in f-slur usage and a 62% increase in the use of the t-slur. The CCDH also examined the derogatory use of “grooming”, which has been used in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric to compare queer people to child abusers.

One such example of people who are suddenly emboldened to publicly spew anti-LGBTQ+ hate is former UFC fighter Jake Shields. In a matter of days following Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, he tweeted a photo of a drag queen smiling at a child, captioning it: “This is a groomer. I was suspended for this exact tweet a month ago so we will see if Twitter is now free.”

Libs of TikTok is a far-right, anti-LGBTQ+ Twitter account owned by Chaya Raichick. The account wrote “GROOMER” 13 times on the platform, something that, before Musk’s acquisition, would have caused the account to be suspended.

As a case study, the CCDH examined Twitter posts in the days following the Colorado Springs shooting, where five people lost their lives to senseless violence against our community. The use of the “grooming” expression was viewed tens of millions of times following the attack.

According to a 2019 report by anti-bullying organisation Ditch the Label, it confirmed that LGBTQ+ people already face higher rates of online harassment. Of over 10 million online posts analysed for the report, 1.5 million were transphobic, accounting for 15% of the sample size.

Matt Walsh, a conservative podcaster, tweeted shortly after the Twitter takeover, calling for his 1.2 million followers to target trans people. He wrote: “We have made huge strides against the trans agenda. In just a year we’ve recovered many years’ worth of ground conservatives had previously surrendered.

“The liberation of Twitter couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Now we can ramp up our efforts even more. Laws are changing and public opinion is changing. We have done all of this intentionally. It was all part of the plan we laid out and executed.”

In a statement released in October by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the organisation raised the issue of Musk’s takeover with cause for immediate concern, writing that “Despite his claim that he wanted to buy Twitter to ‘help humanity,’ Elon Musk has a record of posting and defending harmful anti-LGBTQ+ content as well as content that harms other marginalised communities.

“GLAAD remains deeply concerned about the safety of LGBTQ+ people on Twitter and we join other organisations that are now questioning Twitter’s future policies and actions against extremist content.”

Elon Musk’s history of posting anti-LGBTQ+ content was exemplified when he reshared a misinformed story about Paul Pelosi. The husband of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi was attacked in their San Francisco home earlier this year.

The story, reposted from a site known for its misinformation, speculated that Paul Pelosi had been drunk and in a fight with a male prostitute. At the time, Musk wrote that, “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye”.

GLAAD continued the statement by writing, “Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter will make it an even more hate-filled cesspool, leading to irreparable real-world harm. Musk’s plans will leave the platform more vulnerable to security threats, rampant disinformation, and extremism just ahead of the midterm elections.

“Elon Musk has a thirst for chaos and utter disregard for anyone other than himself and should not own Twitter.”

The organisation concluded by stating that “Elon Musk owning one of the world’s most powerful communication platforms is dangerous for us all.”

Fears for the site’s future have only worsened since Musk vowed that “anyone suspended for minor and dubious reasons will be freed from Twitter jail”, replying to a tweet from author Jordan Peterson, who was suspended from the platform for deadnaming and misgendering Elliott Page. This would only lead one to believe that transphobic rhetoric will soon have a home again on Twitter.

These fears were again realised when he officially reinstated the account of former US President Donald Trump, who was banned for inciting violence after the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021. Trump’s anti-trans stance is well documented through his policy, social media posts and his attacks against the community for “teaching transgender to kids”.

The aforementioned idea of a Twitter mass exodus is already coming into effect, with celebrities cutting ties with the platform as the controversy surrounding the acquisition prevails. Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, tweeted, “Not hanging around for whatever Elon has planned. Bye.” Oscar and Emmy award winner Whoopi Goldberg has also followed suit, announcing on The View that at the moment, she’s “done with Twitter”.

At the time of publication, Goldberg’s Twitter account remains deactivated. Model Gigi Hadid has also deactivated her account, writing on Instagram that Twitter was “becoming more and more of a cesspool of hate and bigotry,” adding that she “can’t say it’s a safe place for anyone, it’s not a social platform that will do more good than harm”.

During research for this article, the report found one particular reply to a tweet from Elon Musk, which was a cartoon depicting a Tesla vehicle in the shape of Twitter’s logo, engulfed in smoke and flames. Returning to the idea of Musk’s hopes to fulfil his prophecy to become a “free-speech absolutist,” combined with top advertisers slowly ebbing away from their relationships with the site, it seems that this cartoon reply is the most plausible fate for the once-beloved platform.

This story originally appeared in GCN’s December 2022 issue 375. Read the full issue here.

© 2023 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 375 (December 16, 2022). Click here to read it now.

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Looking Forward

Issue 375 December 16, 2022

Ailbhe Smyth Look Forward on the cover of GCN's December/January issue.
December 16, 2022

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 375 (December 16, 2022).

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