Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Elon Musk’s attempt to purchase Twitter appears to be floundering, but the backlash facing both the social media giant and the billionaire remains strong.
The financial markets have reeled in the wake of the purchase bid being announced on April 25. On the day the purchase offer was announced, Tesla was worth $998.02 per share and Twitter traded for $51.70 per share. As of June 9, Tesla had lost more than 27.9% of its value and Twitter’s overall value dropped by nearly a quarter.
In his letter offering to purchase the social media behemoth, Musk told Twitter’s board of directors, “I believe in [Twitter]’s potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.”
While the sentiments these words convey are admirable, Musk’s reputation as a keyboard warrior and his statements touching on free speech issues has many worried. A recent OnePulse survey states more than 55% of respondents believe Elon Musk has his own interests in mind and do not trust him to advocate for free speech following a takeover. Most, however, have no plans to leave the platform if Musk gains control.
HateLab, a global hub for data and insight into hate speech and crime, published findings that show hate crimes are often triggered by online speech. “This research shows that online hate victimization is part of a wider process of harm that can begin on social media and then migrate to the physical world,” the report states.
Professor Matthew Williams, chair in criminology at Cardiff University and the Director of HateLab, says their research demonstrates “a consistent link between Twitter hate speech” and “offences that happen offline.”
“Until recently, the seriousness of online hate speech has not been fully recognized,” Williams said. “These statistics prove that activities which unfold in the virtual world should not be ignored.”
Limits to unfettered free speech, which many nations have in place, are necessary. Even in the United States, where freedom of speech is revered, such freedom has limits. “You can’t eliminate hate. You can’t force people to stop being hateful, but platforms can have policies that protect minorities and marginalized people from that hate—especially when that hate goes beyond words to possible actions,” said Nina Nguyen, sex educator and founder of sexuality blog Fraulila. “Twitter’s policies have helped make the platform a slightly safer place for queer people, especially trans individuals who are the most marginalized minority in the LGBTQ+ community.”
Nguyen continues, “You cannot be free to send death threats or harass someone based on their identity, but it seems like people will have that freedom on Twitter if the sale goes through. If someone is openly attacking a marginalized community or a specific person, who’s going to put a limit to that? What if it’s thousands of people instead of just one?”
Even the most prolific of hate-mongers have hope under a Musk-run Twitter. In an interview with The Financial Times, Musk said, “I do think it was incorrect to ban Donald Trump. I think that was a mistake because it alienated a large part of the [United States] and it did not ultimately result in Donald Trump not having a voice.”
Frederic Lebeuf, founder of the street art blog Bombing Science, told Paste that he doesn’t think buying Twitter will stem the tide of sexual harassment and manipulation, adding, “Given the claims made by former employees that Musk’s company was misogynistic and transphobic, it doesn’t bode well for Twitter.”
Musk did not respond to a request for comment.
Even in places where safety feels like the norm, violence and abuse, often propelled by hate speech online, are no stranger to the LGBTQ+ community. Galop’s 2021 Hate Crime Report found that in the UK roughly two-thirds have experienced verbal abuse and physical or sexual violence.
One respondent shared that they and their trans child “were threatened, humiliated, and verbally abused by male drinkers outside a busy pub on the main street.” A full 60% of these Galop respondents said they have suffered online abuse.
These actions can go beyond verbal intimidation to long-lasting physical effects. Another respondent shared that they “still have to walk with crutches because there is no feeling in my right leg.” These attacks can lead to PTSD, depression, and suicide—among other negative outcomes.
For the safety of the public, Twitter should embrace Musk’s current purported ambivalence and let him retract his offer to purchase the social media platform.
James De Lise is a writer and an advocate for human rights, leveraging blended experiences in nonprofit management, marketing, and hospitality with an educational background in English, culinary arts, and law. Whenever James isn’t writing or promoting human rights, he can usually be found walking his dog, writing, or traveling—he might even, begrudgingly, go for a run.