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Even if Elon Musk steps down as CEO, Twitter is a mess

Even if Elon Musk chooses to step down as CEO of Twitter and no longer handles the day-to-day operations, he will likely be the owner. And that's a problem for those who seek social justice.

Elon Musk pauses as he speaks during a news conference at SpaceX's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas in February.
Elon Musk pauses as he speaks during a news conference at SpaceX's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas in February.Read moreJim Watson / MCT

Twitter has been a powerful tool in the fight for social justice and gender equality, and against anti-Blackness.

Now thanks to Tesla owner, SpaceX founder, and billionaire Elon Musk, Twitter is becoming a sundown town where racism is allowed to bubble and fester and social justice tweets are disparaged. In the weeks since Musk’s takeover of Twitter, the number of homophobic, racist, and antisemitic tweets has increased, more accounts are being hacked, and people of color have tweeted about their fear of online harassment, doxxing, and attacks by users emboldened by the platform’s new regime.

Musk is leading the bad behavior. He has enraged users with offensive tweets (“My pronouns are Prosecute Fauci”) and dog whistles to racist fringe group QAnon. He suspended journalists who wrote about him and instituted a policy forbidding users to link to content on other social media platforms. He then reversed all these policies, but it was too late. Advertisers are threatening to leave.

Musk recently posted a poll asking users if he should step down as CEO and 58% of users responded “yes.” Then he tweeted his intention to quit as soon as he found someone “foolish enough to take the job.” He announced plans to “run the software and server teams,” an indication that he will continue to influence the company’s decision-making.

I knew Twitter’s future as a continued space for activism was in peril when Musk took over and reinstated 62,000 suspended accounts, including former President Donald Trump’s.

Musk has proven he has no intent to allow Twitter to remain a space where the marginalized and people of color exchange ideas, spark conversation, and advocate freely. He disbanded the council that advised Twitter on trust and safety issues, making it even easier for cyberbullies to get away with abuse, and drove Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, out of the company. Removing guardrails that protect Black people, women, and the LGBTQ community from hate speech makes Twitter dangerous. And it raises questions whether concerned users can remain on a platform run by a man raised in apartheid-era South Africa who is dismissive of social justice efforts.

Musk might step down as CEO, but as the owner, he will have final the say.

Still, people have not left the site in droves. I’ve had my Twitter account hacked and been harassed by QAnon followers who call themselves Q disciples, but I haven’t quit. Black journalists, professors, and historians have spent more than a decade building followings. Our tweets kept the violent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and George Floyd in the public eye. Hashtags called attention to rape and sexual assault (#metoo), street harassment (#youokaysis), and domestic abuse (#whyIstayed), empowering women and erasing shame. White allies were made aware of institutional racism by engaging with Black people’s social feeds.

“We love this site. It’s been a huge part of our culture in the last few years” said Sarah Jackson, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and author of Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice. “It’s shown the world how Black folks are movers and shakers of culture and how we shape and influence politics, in real time,” Jackson said.

» READ MORE: Disabled Philadelphians fear Musk’s Twitter purchase will cost them a unique digital haven.

Black academics say they are taking a wait-and-see approach to staying on Twitter. The relaxed safety precautions combined with Musk turning the verified blue check into a pay-to-play option have left them skeptical. Black people, Jackson said, are reticent to share personal stories, the very thing that made Twitter threads #realtalk, like whether or not Ye, formally known as Kanye West, deserves a pass in the Black community.

“Twitter was never a truly safe space for people of color,” Jackson said. “It was getting better. Over the years the organization had done a lot to address issues of trust and safety and now so much has been rolled back,” she said.

Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of media studies at Temple University’s Klein College of media and author of Seen and Unseen: Technology, Social Media and the Fight for Racial Justice, says he has been harassed since he joined Twitter 13 years ago. But with more than 500K followers, his tweets have a wide viewership. “And that doesn’t count retweets,” Hill said. Twitter is problematic, he said, but so are other media outlets.

“As a Black person in America, do we have the luxury of not fully engaging in spaces that haven’t been good to us?” Hill asked. “There are limits and Elon Musk is testing those limits, but I don’t think it’s wise to be so hasty.”

If Twitter crashed and burned tomorrow, Black people would still find a way to communicate messages of freedom and equality, said David Brown, diversity adviser to the dean of the Klein College of Media Communications at Temple University. He’s right. Black people taught each otherto follow the North Star to freedom, sent warnings through hairstyles, and recited stories of liberation in pulpits, beauty parlors, and barbershops. And in every space we’ve made it work.

“Twitter wasn’t made for Black Twitter to exist,” said Brown. “That happened organically.”

Twitter isn’t the be-all end-all, said Andre Brock, social media professor at Georgia Tech University and author of Distributive Blackness: African American Cyber Cultures. Other sites like Mastodon, Hive Social, and Post may become just as engaging and effective.

“We brought Black lives to Twitter and kept it live,” Brock said. “Wherever we go, we are going to resist oppression, but we are also going to bring joy, Black joy. We bring our lives and we keep it live.”

But, Brock cautions, the same problems we see on Twitter can emerge on other sites, because we’re still participating in a town square where the rules of engagement are determined by the owner who can make it uncomfortable for us to stay — or terminate our lease — at any time.