I have been watching Elon Musk cause havoc online – and in the world in general – but especially online. As a fellow South African born human, I am feeling strangely responsible for one of our own out there on the loose, and I keep thinking that someone needs to go and fetch him. Then I think of him in the way I think of all tech bros, and realise that there is nothing particularly special about him.
He is a sad rich boy walking around with all the money in the world, attracting more sad rich boys and governments to him, and playing at power. Yes, undeniably, they wield great power not only because of the technologies they build, buy out and mess with, but also because of their position in the world – white, cisgender, heterosexual, rich boys in their own special club terrified of difference and inclusivity and a world where people could and should be equal. They instigate and prey off fear and commodify it for their own gain. They make monsters out of poor vulnerable queer and marginalised people who use social media platforms like Twitter to connect with others, to mobilise for change, and to have some damn fun on the internet. Those of us on the margins thriving seems to be their worst nightmare, and our peace and our lives seem to be a game to these bullies.
When I read that Elon Musk was going to buy out Twitter, I was worried and scared for what that would mean for vulnerable and marginalised people, for activists online, and for our ability to share information and keep organising through the platform. I started researching alternative social media platforms, joined one and found nobody else there on the LGBTIAQ+ server, threw my hands up and went back to Twitter.
Then he dismissed the Human Rights and Ethics teams, and I got more worried. My activity on Twitter stalled, I overthought every tweet, and then in talking to wonderful humans who are participating in my study on transgender, non-binary and gender diverse people’s experiences of online gender-based violence, I realised that Twitter has always been a hot mess. Not only content-wise, but in terms of its protections. Has Twitter ever worked for transgender, non-binary and gender diverse folks?
The folks I am in conversation with say No. They speak of how they reported harassment and threats to their personal safety on the platform, and how nothing came of it. They spoke of the violence that Twitter makes possible as something inevitable that they must navigate whenever they speak up and out. They shared how their experiences were dismissed by automated messages telling them to block and ignore the perpetrators of violence against them, that this would keep them safe. These perpetrators would start up fresh accounts and return to their task of violence. If they did stop, transgender, non-binary and gender diverse folks spoke of their fear that somebody else in their communities would be a target of hate. Twitter did not fix what was broken, it gaslit and dismissed real experiences of violence.
We have a dream of what Twitter was and what it will no longer be under the rule of Musk. Who is to know the level of violence he will introduce through this take over? Perhaps it will be worse under his leadership. But perhaps it will be no different.
Taking ourselves out of the power balance, and letting it swing wildly in the direction of sad rich white boys serves nobody except those tech bros, the far right, and those who would rather we did not exist.
Should we leave Twitter with everyone else? If we do, who does that serve? Which voices continue to dominate? A week ago I thought, let us leave, let us get out and go build our own beautiful dream of a platform, one informed by a feminist ethics of care, one that holds space for the vulnerable and marginalised, that enables organising and keeps us safe. But how do we change the world this way? Taking ourselves out of the power balance, and letting it swing wildly in the direction of sad rich white boys serves nobody except those tech bros, the far right, and those who would rather we did not exist.
I’m sorry but that makes me want to stay even more. We should remain, and we should keep tweeting into the abyss because who knows who is listening, who is holding out for that fresh tweet of rage about the injustice of the world, and is seeking connection with us. We do not know who is seeking out a thread like a lifeline.
We stay. We continue to organise, and if the tech starts to work against us, we work smart, and we establish new strategies and bridges and portals around the tech that they would want to silence us with.
Twitter is the place many of us cut our teeth as activists and researchers. It was at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in 2010 that I learned about the promise of Twitter and what it can do to connect people to each other, to find radical queer joy out there, and to resist and (re)imagine the world as it currently is. I remember tweeting so wildly and randomly that our tweet cloud outdid the IGF’s tweet cloud, and just how good it felt to be sharing the work of APC’s Women’s Rights Programme (WRP), Take Back the Tech, and the Erotics project from that space. I’m not giving up this space because yet another rich little boy is buying out a platform to soup up the surveillance and mine my data.
Sure, I miss social media when it was a space to post angsty lyrics and hope that some cute thing in another country that you met at a protest will know that you’re thinking of her/them. It still is that space, even after we moved into the great age of data mining.
Keep using the technology the way you have wanted to use it. Stay. Remain in conversation with your peers, post those cat videos, and lyrics, and posters of the next protest or seminar or skills exchange. But be smart about it, the way we have always been smart about it. Keep your passwords secure, keep the video seminar logins off the internet, put strategies in place for registering for events, and screen people against your networks and communities.
When the going gets tough we do not leave, we stay and we resist. This is our world just as much as it is the world of sad white boys trolling people who are not there for their desire, who cannot be made into consumable objects and products. Let the spitting fire of rage be productive. We are living through another moment.
But do rest, do seek out spaces where you can breathe and be held as you make sense of another tech buyout that seems like it will implode your world. And remember that what is happening now is a reminder of what these spaces are like, and this is a reminder to all of us that we move through these fraught digital spaces daily.
Sometimes making a feminist internet is building alternative infrastructures, and I support this wholeheartedly – give me spaces where I am safe and challenged from an ethics of care, where I am called out by my community, where I can grow and keep organising.
But also let me back into the heart of where our fight needs to take place. We serve nobody by removing ourselves from the platforms that are harmful, these spaces are ours too, they have given us so much, and there is still so much more we can dream and make through our organising on these platforms.