A running joke among Twitter employees is that being on the platform is like playing a massive online multiplayer game where the main character changes every day—that is, someone who is criticized, harassed, or otherwise thrust into the spotlight. According to the joke, in the game of Twitter, you only have one goal: to never become the main character.
Vernon Unsworth, a British diver who’d spent days assisting the rescue of a group of Thai boys trapped in a flooded cave, was the main character on Twitter one day in 2018. After billionaire Elon Musk offered the rescue divers a tiny submarine, Unsworth told the media that Musk’s idea was a waste of time. Musk then took to Twitter, where he falsely accused the man of being a “pedo guy,” or pedophile, in tweets that he later deleted. Hundreds of Musk fans responded to the diver’s tweets with abusive and humiliating attacks. Musk later apologized in court for the tweets, saying he did not intend for them to be taken literally.
The saga exemplified dogpiling, a phenomenon in which powerful Twitter users incite legions of their followers to harass someone else. Teams of Twitter employees have been working to reduce dogpiling and other forms of abuse for years, with mixed results.
After the board accepted a $44 billion dollar bid from the world’s richest man, those Twitter employees learned on April 25 that Musk, the architect of the “pedo guy” saga, could be their new boss.
However, many on the frontlines of the online fight for democratic spaces have questioned whether Musk’s ownership of Twitter would stifle democracy rather than strengthen it. Musk’s words about freedom of speech rang hollow to employees who had witnessed the billionaire’s own behavior on the platform. With over 85 million followers, Musk has used his powerful account to not only insult critics and share bathroom memes, but also to make “false and misleading public statements” that boosted Tesla’s stock price and harmed investors, according to regulators.
This record, according to some Twitter employees, bodes ill for the company’s anti-harassment efforts. “His followers have been the perpetrators of targeted harassment on multiple occasions, and the use of his profile has encouraged dogpiling—exactly the behaviors we’re trying to prevent,” said a Twitter employee who works on making the site a safer online space for users.
Members of marginalized communities are among those most protected by Twitter’s current content moderation system, as they are disproportionately the victims of online threats and abuse. Activists from these communities are concerned, as are Twitter employees, that these safeguards may be rolled back.
Researchers and technologists have forged an understanding of how the design of social media sites affects civic discourse and, ultimately, democratic processes, since the explosion of social media usage more than a decade ago. One of their key findings is that sites that prioritize free speech over all else are more likely to become spaces where civic discourse is drowned out by harassment, limiting participation to a select few.
Twitter’s recent work has been influenced by this discovery. While the company does remove tweets and ban accounts of repeat offenders, the majority of its current strategy is aimed at encouraging users to be more kind. One of the platform’s stated priorities prior to Musk’s bid was to facilitate “safe, inclusive, and authentic conversations.” “Minimize the distribution and reach of harmful or misleading information, especially when its intent is to disrupt a civic process or cause offline harm,” it says.
The story of Musk’s takeover wasn’t easy to follow. It took several twists and turns as funding became uncertain and Twitter’s board of directors became hesitant, opting for a “poison pill” strategy to avoid a takeover. Throughout, Musk portrayed his quest as a defiance to Silicon Valley’s intransigent elites. His statements on free speech often align with Republican talking-points that conservatives are being unfairly censored by tech companies, and—in a move that could open the door for former President Donald Trump’s return to the platform—Musk has said that he would prefer “time-outs” for users who break the site’s rules, rather than permanent bans.