What does Elon Musk’s Twitter buyout mean for Black Twitter?

April 26, 2022, 9:16 PM UTC

When I first joined Twitter back in August 2007, I decided that I would use it as a platform for friendliness. I’ve mostly stuck with that, and it’s served me well. Over time, I’ve made connections that I couldn’t make anywhere else and have joined (observed, mostly) conversations happening in real-time with people who understood things I know nothing about.

#BlackTwitter was a big part of that experience for me, and I would argue, the world.

The joyful and committed distributed “community” of African Americans now known as #BlackTwitter understood the promise of the platform early, despite racist headwinds. Over time, rich conversations were stoked and amplified, which propelled themes of race, racism, justice, representation, and self-affirmation into mainstream action—along with the amazing people, often women, who created them.

These Twitter conversations are now part of real-world history: #ICantBreathe, #BlackLivesMatter, #YouOKSis, #BlackGirlMagic, #OscarsSoWhite. Hey, if you’re a Bridgerton fan, you can thank the truly committed flock of fans that helped producer Shonda Rhimes ascend so quickly.

But lots of things have gone wrong for folks on Twitter, particularly for Black and brown people of all genders, but also LGBTQ, AAPI, Muslim, and Jewish users—you get where I’m going with this—who wanted to use the platform to engage, make friends, and make change.

“The nastiness is extraordinary” on Twitter, former Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger told the New York Times in 2019, explaining why the company stepped away from buying the platform back in 2016. “Like a lot of these platforms, they have the ability to do a lot of good in our world. They also have an ability to do a lot of bad. I didn’t want to take that on.”

But Elon Musk does.

The world’s richest man, a man who runs a company being sued for allegedly silencing thousands of Black employees decrying racism in his workplace, is buying a company that has allowed millions of Black people a platform to decry racism around the world.

But not unscathed.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies emotion, morality, and politics. In his latest article, Why The Last Ten Years Have Been Uniquely Stupid, he chronicles how platform tweaks designed to generate more engagement have made it more likely that people would gang up for the sole purpose of seeking fame and wreaking havoc. By 2013, every stray remark was fair game for a pile on, all by design. “One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the ‘Retweet’ button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place,” Haidt writes. “As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, ‘We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.’”

He believes it’s a direct contributor to the weaponized political speech which now drives broader debate.

Elon Musk says censorship and not abuse (or disinformation) is Twitter’s problem, and he aims to turn Twitter into a bastion of free speech with new features and less content moderation. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said in a release announcing the $44 billion deal.

Free speech is a lot harder than it looks, I’ll wager.

If all goes well with his bid, a thin-skinned, multi-billionaire with credible allegations of racist mismanagement will get a chance to test his thesis on you, me, and everyone else. There are plenty of people who worry this amounts to taking the safety off of an already loaded weapon.

Right now, lots of Twitter users, including corners of #BlackTwitter, are hotly debating where to go or what to do next. (I plan to stick around, though warily.) To help your thought process, I offer this advice from Laura Fitton, longtime Twitter evangelist and author of Twitter for Dummies.

“Listen to and watch what happens to the most vulnerable, and how their lives are changed,” she tweeted. You’ll know the line when you see it, right?

Come to think of it, that’s good advice for all of us, all the time.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On point

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Asian American women are shut out of leadership opportunities  Jessica Guynn and Jayme Fraser have dug deep into federal workforce data to show the “bamboo ceiling” in all its ugly reality: In America’s top companies one in every 45 white men and one in every 60 white women are executives. For Asian managers and professionals, only one in every 96 men and one in every 124 women hold a top job. Why the disparity? “Their careers are undercut by harmful stereotypes and racist tropes. They often are passed over for promotions, excluded from professional networks and have few if any role models. And they are widely considered capable and smart in supporting roles but too deferential and submissive to run lines of business or entire organizations.”
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And now a word from God-is Rivera  God-is currently works as the Global Director, Culture and Community at Twitter, and is one of the more visible people working on making the platform safe and welcoming for otherwise targeted or marginalized populations. At the heart of her job are relationships, as this recent interview so beautifully reveals. You'll find her best advice on how to welcome diverse communities into your workplace, and how to best amplify their stories. No spoilers, just enjoy.

Parting words

“I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that’s what free speech means.”

Elon Musk


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