A sense of unease is spreading in some parts of Twitter over fears that Elon Musk’s upcoming acquisition could amplify toxic elements on the platform and drown out marginalized voices.

Musk’s $44 billion bid to buy Twitter has sparked speculation that the tech mogul’s promises to promote “free speech” on social media could lead to a no-touch approach to harassment.

This prospect is particularly troubling for members of marginalized groups who have found community on Twitter despite being victims of online abuse.

Some pundits and Twitter users say they’re waiting to see if Musk can get the deal through regulatory hurdles that could thwart his plans.

But there are already signs that the Tesla CEO’s influence could change the make-up of the social network. A spokesman for Twitter Canada said in an email that the social media giant is investigating “fluctuations in the number of followers,” with more accounts being created and also deactivated in recent days.

Jaigris Hodson, Canada’s Public Interest Research Chair in Digital Communications, said these early signs suggest Musk’s self-proclaimed “absolute freedom of speech” philosophy could, in practice, choke the speech of Twitter’s most vulnerable users.

“After being abused online, people will stop posting themselves because they don’t want to invite that kind of abuse,” said Hodson, associate professor at Royal Roads University. “That’s actually the opposite of what Musk wants, which is for people to be free to speak their minds.”

Her research shows that when social networks don’t moderate harmful content, users who experience harassment are likely to reduce their engagement or even delete their accounts.

This has a clear impact on members of marginalized groups, who are more likely to be harassed because of their identity, Hodson said. The abuse they receive also tends to be more explicit and extreme, she said. For example, women often experience sexualized harassment such as threats of rape.

Toronto-based culture writer Roslyn Talusan said she suffered this type of targeted abuse when a casual tweet calling on a white woman to write an Asian cuisine cookbook became the subject of a harassment campaign.

Her Twitter feed was inundated with racist, misogynist and ableist slurs. Talusan, a trauma survivor, said the psychological toll is so immense that she is unable to leave the house and is frightened.

Twitter’s security tools have done little to stem the tide of hate, Talusan said, and she’s concerned that Musk could undermine what little protections users have.

“It’s not legitimate freedom of speech that’s being restricted on Twitter,” she said. “It’s that people want to be able to bully others without consequences.”

Talusan said she was too “stubborn” to leave Twitter, but some of her friends have decided to step down from the page or opt out for good.

“I have a feeling people will be reluctant to stay on Twitter,” she said. “Having those perspectives suppressed in this way is definitely going to be problematic.”

A lenient attitude toward objectionable content could also be bad for Twitter’s business, since no advertiser wants to be associated with harmful online culture, said David Soberman, a University of Toronto marketing professor.

There could also be legal implications for hosting harassment, hate speech, incitement to violence and defamation, he said.

June Findlay, a Toronto-based content marketer, hopes financial constraints will push Musk to tone down his approach to social media moderation.

She sees much of the online concern about Musk’s potential rule as “alarming” given that the deal isn’t scheduled to close until later this year and it remains to be seen whether his big plans for the social network will materialize.

But even Findlay can’t help but get swept up in Musk mania, as each new tweet threatens to upend the platform, which has been not only a professional resource but also a community forum as part of #BlackTwitter .

“When you cut out all the noise, it’s really about … who’s monitoring what’s being said in the town square,” she said. “That’s the beauty and horror of social media. It’s always changing.”

Junia Joplin, a transgender pastor in Toronto, said Twitter is the first place she can publicly be her true self, even when behind the veil of an anonymous account. Since then, the platform’s transgender community has been a vital resource, offering her advice, friendship and even financial help when she was fired from her job after coming out.

But if Musk opens the floodgates of harassment, Joplin said she worries that transgender people and other marginalized groups could lose a support system that can have real-life consequences.

“It’s a platform they can use to raise money for living expenses and medically necessary procedures, to help them escape from abusive situations, or just to connect with someone who tells them, hey, you’re not alone.” , she said.

“It can really be a lifeline. So we don’t know it’s going away, but there are some signs that it is, and that’s a sad and scary thing.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 30, 2022.

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