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Elon Musk’s approach to ‘free speech’ on Twitter could make it more difficult for women to speak freely

April 27, 2022, 1:31 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Vice President Kamala Harris tests positive for COVID, hybrid work has some downsides, and “free speech” on Elon Musk’s Twitter may not be free for everyone. Have a wonderful Wednesday.

– Free speech for who? Let’s talk about Twitter. The social media company this week accepted a $44 billion bid from mercurial Tesla CEO Elon Musk to take the company private. The big question is: what’s next for the platform?

Musk has expressed his desire for Twitter to be a haven for “free speech” above all else. “I simply mean that which matches the law,” Musk tweeted yesterday in an effort to explain his position. Opponents argue that there’s a marked difference between First Amendment rights and the rules required on privately-owned social media platforms so that hate speech, violent threats, and misinformation do not run unfettered. As many women who use social media know, putting free speech above online safety can lead to unfortunate consequences.

“What’s potentially concerning about this move is to see the erosion of the limited progress that [Twitter has] made,” says Michael Kleinman, director of Amnesty International’s Silicon Valley initiative. Amnesty International published a 2018 study called “Toxic Twitter: A Toxic Place for Women,” and has followed up in the years since.

Free speech isn’t a new priority for Twitter. For years, the company resisted changes to its content rules that would seemingly conflict with that value, often declining to remove threats, and racist and sexist tweets from the platform. Over the past half-decade, Twitter has taken steps to encourage healthy conversations on the platform, prioritizing values like constructive conversation and respect alongside its initial core belief. Sometimes that has meant prompting users to think twice before posting tweets that contain slurs or other harmful language, and sometimes it has meant a stricter approach to misinformation on the platform (see: the deplatforming of President Donald Trump). Twitter has also revamped its appeals process for removing content.

Still, a less regulated version of Twitter poses the question: free speech for who? Amnesty International’s study found that many women are “no longer able to express themselves freely on the platform without fear of violence or abuse.”

“When Musk speaks about Twitter’s role as a digital town square, that’s incredibly important,” Kleinman says. “When we think of the function and the purpose of the town square, it’s a place where people with wildly different opinions can come and have their voices heard. When we think of a town square, we don’t think of a vicious arena where a howling mob shouts obscenities at anyone who dares show up who looks different than they do.”

Already, the potential consequences of Musk’s stated priorities are clear. Vijaya Gadde, the Twitter executive and lawyer who has overseen the platform’s efforts to decrease misinformation, saw sexist and racist comments flood her mentions after Musk objected in an interview to a decision she made to take down a New York Post story about Hunter Biden that was believed to be false at the time.

Twitter’s new owner must now decide whose definition of free speech wins out—one where healthy debate and respectful conversation are the bedrock of the platform or or one where hate speech is disseminated without safeguards.

If the version of free speech Musk seems to adhere to wins the day, Kleinman argues that ironically, a lessening of free speech could take place. “Fewer and fewer people [will] feel comfortable expressing themselves on the platform,” he says. That should be as big a concern for Twitter’s new owner as any limits on what users can tweet.

Emma Hinchliffe

The Broadsheet is Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women. Today’s edition was curated by Paige McGlauflin. Subscribe here.


- Test results. Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, according to her staff. Harris, who received a second booster shot earlier this month, will continue to work from isolation in the vice president’s residence. Due to recent travel schedules, she was not in close contact with President Joe Biden, who is expected to appear at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this Saturday. Axios

- Hybrid downsides. Women fear retaliation for their hybrid work structures, an arrangement that’s often sold as a boon for work-life flexibility. Of the 44% of women surveyed by Deloitte who work in some form of a hybrid work structure, almost two-thirds report that their employers haven’t set clear expectations around hybrid work, and 94% fear that asking for a more flexible work schedule will hurt their chance for a promotion. Fortune

- State to shareholders.  Companies in California are facing increased shareholder pressure, even after one of the state's board diversity laws was struck down earlier this month. Wells Fargo shareholders voted on a resolution for greater board diversity on Tuesday, though preliminary results suggest the proposal was not approved. Investment management firm Arjuna Capital, which introduced the proposal at Wells Fargo, put forth similar proposals for Alphabet and Tesla shareholders. MarketWatch

- Tragedy in Singapore.  Authorities in Singapore are investigating the death of Cris Albert, CEO and owner of iSport Life, the Filipino distributor for activewear company FILA. Albert was found dead in her hotel room at the Fullerton Bay Hotel on April 23. Albert started working with FILA as a marketing manager in 1992 and became company president in 2007. She was 52. Yahoo

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: The Senate confirmed Lael Brainard to a four-year term as vice chair of the Federal Reserve. Crowdfunding platform Indiegogo named Becky Center as its next CEO. LogicMonitor has appointed Alyene Schneidewind as chief performance officer and Julie Solliday as chief customer officer. Former Kindred chief growth officer Ali Levitan has joined AdPredictive as EVP of business development and growth. Husna Grimes has joined Permutive as vice president of global privacy. Aparna Rayasam joined Trellix as chief product officer. MURAL senior vice president of global customer success Bridget Shea has joined analytics platform Xeneta’s board of directors. Meghan Hillery has joined CoVenture as director of business development. Analytics firm Visier has hired Cornerstone OnDemand GVP Murika Matz as senior vice president and chief customer officer. CallMiner has named Rachel Simone chief information officer.


- Nail tips. In Queens, New York, the workers' rights organization Adhikaar is organizing Nepali-speaking nail salon workers. After the New York Times ran a blockbuster investigation into working conditions in the city's nail salons in 2015, lawmakers instituted some reforms, but those changes haven't gone far enough, workers say. The Cut

- Ultimate goal. Actor Reese Witherspoon has become a part-owner of Nashville’s Major League Soccer team along with her husband, talent agent and investor Jim Toth, and Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry. Witherspoon, who hails from the Nashville area, joins a growing faction of celebrity women investing in soccer teams, including Natalie Portman who is a founder and part-owner of Los Angeles’ Angel City FC, and model Kate Upton who invested in Mexican soccer team Club Necaxa. USA Today

- Leave it. Polish gaming company GOG is piloting a menstrual leave policy with plans to expand next year depending on whether employees take advantage of the benefit. While GOG is part of a growing contingency of companies looking to reduce the stigma around menstrual pain, many women who live in countries with menstrual leave policies, including Japan, often do not use the benefits fearing that the stigma will cost them advancement opportunities. Business Insider


Why Britney Griner was in Russia, and what it says about women's sports in the U.S. L.A. Times

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"I do feel like I have a lot of mentor friends and I gravitate toward powerful women. I idolize them."

- Actor Aubrey Plaza, who will star in the second season of HBO's The White Lotus, on her friendships with women who are older than her. 

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