Twitter: Flowing Rivers of Hate Speech
The internet is a breeding ground for racist, vile, narcissistic, and repulsive views. It can also lead to rather dire consequences in the real world.
Joel Brown | CLMI Fellow
The bluebird of Twitter is migrating. Where you might ask? To flowing rivers of hate speech. Think I'm exaggerating a bit much? I'm not.
You need not look further than fox “news” when it came out. Routine purveyors of hate speech touted Elon Musk’s $44 billion move as a moment for the widely-used social media platform to finally become “fair and equal” (perhaps light homage to fox’s misleading origins as “fair and balanced”). In reality, the equality of speech it was talking about is a terrifying skip into the woods of disinformation. Now, Twitter is on an accelerated pace to exist in its own alternative universe as a sinister counter to fact-based reporting and general public conversation.
It’s took less than 72-hours for the erosion of facts on Twitter to happen, and at blazing speed. As the Washington Post reports …
Elon Musk, who has more than 100 million followers, had owned Twitter for less than three full days when he shared a post containing misinformation — then hours later deleted it.
On Sunday, he posted a response to Hillary Clinton that “there is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story” behind the attack on Paul Pelosi in San Francisco, linking to an opinion article in the Santa Monica Observer, a site described by fact-checkers as a low-credibility source favoring the extreme right.
The article claimed without evidence that Pelosi was drunk at the time of the assault and “in a dispute with a male prostitute.” The article, which was amplified by several right-wing figures, cited no sources and attributes its contents to IMHO — internet shorthand for “in my humble opinion.”
More from HuffPost’s Phillip Lewis ….
Recent research from Montclair State University also just revealing …
The seven-day average of Tweets using the studied hate terms prior to Musk’s acquisition was never higher than 84 times per hour.
However, on October 28 from midnight to noon (immediately following Musk’s acquisition), the studied hate speech was Tweeted some 4,778 times.
Terms studied included vulgar and hostile terms for individuals based on race, religion, ethnicity, and orientation.
The potential impact of this hate speech (the potential number of times a term posted in Twitter could have been viewed) was more than 3 million.
Elon Musk has promised to reduce restrictions on the platform and “free the bird.” From these results, this directive represents an obvious danger to young people using the platform.
Platforms with lax or no moderation are frequently spaces filled with racism, homophobia, transphobia, and antisemitism.
This evidence presents the worst time for Elon Musk to plan massive cut backs in Twitter staff, particularly the staff that’s made progress in monitoring and deleting hate-filled and far-right white nationalist speech on the platform. That poses serious concerns in terms of national security, considering the agendas and backing of those same voices, and global mental health. History has a habit of repeating itself. Targeted users from marginalized groups can fall into serious depression or worse, depending on the level of harassment. When chat groups first started, excessive cyberbullying undeterred by regulation managed to prompt suicidal thoughts and tragic follow through. This isn’t just about hate speech - it’s also about a new precipitous decline in mental health, especially for young users of social media.
The internet is a breeding ground for racist, vile, narcissistic, and repulsive views. It can also lead to rather dire consequences in the real world. There is no questioning that if you've been around its block a few times.
So What Do We Do About It?
Consumers and voters will need to step in and step up. We should continue, as a movement, lodging complaints to companies who would dare continue to advertise on and partner with the new pro-hate Twitter. We vote against the political forces responsible for bringing us to this point. Eventually, they learn if the response if forceful and damaging to their interests and bottom lines. We need to include punishments for breaking basic decency rules. If we can change the political calculus in Washington, D.C. and in state capitols, perhaps policy making can catch up to ultimately ban, mute and remove dangerous content.
But why does it matter if you do this and companies like Twitter still don't remove disinformation and hate? It matters a lot because terrible things will happen, and have happened. If you don't pull out the weed, you give it an opportunity to sprout its head. That head can turn ugly - take Russia, for example, who does this regularly.
Russia is one of those hostile geopolitical actors taking false news, tainted truths and spin to new levels. They spout from hundreds of false accounts. They run them in repetition. They then build upon them. That process is designed to bury the truth in the same basic way terms and outdated information get buried deeper in Google searches. Because in a world of state-controlled media, spreading misinformation and disinformation is central to its existence. In a totalitarian and fascist state, the truth is always hunted to its extinction.
This is exactly what Musk’s plan will lead to. Twitter will now deliberately fail to remove falsehoods and discrimination.
However: could that trigger one of the world’s largest social media outlets being removed from one of the biggest app stores in the world? Will these app stores enforce their policies on such an enormous app? That decision could shape social media forever.
After all, they have shut down smaller entities for breaking the rules. Don't forget: Apple did kick Fortnite off their service, one of the world's largest games by far. Still, Google and Apple do have a history of letting larger companies slide a little bit.
If they let this particular moment slide, it will open the floodgates of more hate, racism, and disinformation - which, eventually, translates into more social, political and economic destabilization. Whenever someone or an institution is successful in getting around the rules, everyone else tries to do it. If they allow Twitter to do it, while refusing flexibility for others, various interests can sue Google and Apple to allow more vile apps and services on their platforms.
Take video games as an example. Between loot boxes, gotcha games, and straight-up pay-to-win, when one game company gets away with it, every other company tries to do it, too.
When they did, it wasn’t as simple as copying. They did everything they could to squeeze players out of their money while simultaneously making players addicted. The players who were targeted were children. Every game got worse than the last. It got so bad that European countries were forced to pass laws against games with loot boxes. It didn't take longer than two years for game companies to adopt loot boxes into their platforms. So, how fast do you think large social media companies will catch on and start doing the same thing?
Even though Americans celebrate “freedom of speech” as a basic tenet of democracy, it’s difficult and near impossible to maintain democratic norms when speech is being weaponized to harm or obliterate people. Not every narcissist then should have a microphone to project. It’s not like we give egotistical maniacs the mic at a festival, wedding, or a news broadcast. So, why are we doing it on the internet?
We should not confuse Musk’s goals with the ongoing movement to empower free speech. This is not about empowering free speech: this is nothing more than a vain $44 billion attempt to empower hate and lies. These moves are an assault on democratic norms and inclusive traditions. Normalizing hate speech means every other bigot with a mic will be emboldened to not just share speech, but to impose their way of life on everyone else. Combine that with America's incredibly dangerous moment of hyper-polarization and we end up with a world in deeper crisis. Public health collapse, on top of what we’re already experiencing, as well as economic downturn follows. As researchers in the journal Health Affairs note …
Hate-motivated behavior poses a threat to the population’s well-being, especially for vulnerable populations. Targeted communities are heterogenous—in its cataloging of hate crime statistics, the Federal Bureau of Investigation recognizes myriad groups targeted on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, and disability.
Entire communities can feel the impacts of victimization. Members of the targeted community may experience vicarious trauma symptoms resulting from witnessing others being victimized. In addition, a review of structural discrimination shows that for a targeted vulnerable group, long-standing, systemic inequalities can be seen in economic, housing, and educational disparities.
As now Federal Reserve Board member and economist Lisa Cook also argued in 2020 as we were deep in pandemic and attempting to recover from a contentious election …
Discrimination hurts just about everyone, not only its direct victims.
New research shows that while the immediate targets of racism are unquestionably hurt the most, discrimination inflicts a staggering cost on the entire economy, reducing the wealth and income of millions of people, including many who do not customarily view themselves as victims.
Similarly, other research estimates that aggregate economic output would have been $16 trillion higher since 2000 if racial gaps had been closed. To put that total in context, the gross domestic product of the United States in 2019 was $21.4 trillion. The researchers estimate that economic activity could be $5 trillion higher over the next five years if equal opportunity is achieved.
Hitting Where it Hurts
So, what can we do to avoid this downward spiral? Well, one act is to simply not give Musk the power to let it continue. We don't have to use Twitter. There are even investors with the power to start a rival social media company. Some, including former creators of Twitter, are doing just that.
Shareholders can sell-off in the process of sinking Twitter’s value. That combined with top ad companies backing out if Elon Musk goes through with this scorched earth approach. That should be more than enough to show that we as a people will not tolerate something like this to prosper. After all, as everyone knows, if you want a company or prominent individual to stop doing something, you hit them where it hurts: Their bank.
In the meantime, this event is a turning point for society. We will either stand on basic ethics and values - or we let a wave of decay steamroll over us. We should elect to not let the latter happen while we watch it wipe out all the values we hold dear. Let’s recognize that we have a very serious choice ahead of us. How we handle it will not only decide social media history, but decide the next chapter of history as a whole.