PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Pariss Chandler built a community for black tech workers on Twitter that eventually became the foundation for her own recruiting company.
Now she fears it could all fall apart if Twitter becomes a haven for racist and toxic messages under the control of Elon Musk, a series provocateur who has indicated he could relax content rules.
With Twitter powering most of her business, Chandler sees no good alternative as she watches uncertainty spread.
“Before Elon took over, I felt like the team was working to make Twitter a more secure platform, and now they’re basically gone. I don’t know what’s going on internally. I’ve lost hope in that,” said Chandler, 31, founder of Black Tech Pipeline, a job and recruiting website. “I’m both sad and terrified of Twitter, both for its employees and for its users.”
Those qualms weigh on many people who have come to rely on Twitter, a relatively small but powerful platform that has become a kind of digital public square for influencers, policymakers, journalists and other opinion leaders.
Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, took over Twitter last week in a $44 billion deal, making his unpredictable style felt immediately.
Just days later, he had tweeted a link to a story from a little-known news outlet that made a dubious claim about the violent attack on Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband at their California home. He soon removed it, but it was a worrying start to his tenure for those concerned about the spread of online misinformation.
Musk has also announced his intention to lift the barriers to hate speech and perhaps have former President Donald Trump and other banned commentators return. He tempered the thought after the deal was closed, but promised to form a “content moderation board” and not allow anyone to get kicked off the site to return until it establishes procedures to do so.
Still, the use of racist comments quickly exploded in an apparent test of his tolerance level.
‘People, it’s getting ugly in here. I’m not exactly sure what my plan is. Stay or go?” Jennifer Taub, a law professor and author with about a quarter of a million followers, said Sunday, while tweeting a link to her Facebook page in case she leaves Twitter.
For now, Taub plans to stay, given the opportunity it offers to “laugh, learn and feel sorry” for people from around the world. But she will leave if it becomes “a cesspool of racism and anti-Semitism,” she said in a phone call.
“The numbers are going down and down and down,” said Taub, who has lost 5,000 followers since Musk officially took over. “The tipping point could be if I just don’t have fun there. There are too many people to block.”
The debate is especially fraught for people of color who have used Twitter to network and raise their voices, while also facing toxicity on the platform.
“As a user of Twitter — as a power user in many ways — it’s been of great use and I’m very concerned about where people are going to have this conversation next,” said Tanzina Vega, a Latina journalist in New York who once received death threats on Twitter, but also built a vital community of friends and resources there.
Chandler, a software engineer, hoped to counteract the isolation she felt in her white-dominated field when she tweeted a question and a selfie four years ago: “What does a black Twitter in Tech look like? Here, I’m going first! ” The response has been overwhelming, she now has more than 60,000 followers and her own company connecting black tech workers with businesses large and small.
She also received hate messages and even some death threats from people accusing her of racism for centering black technologists. But she also had connections with Twitter employees who were open to her concerns. Chandler said those employees have left the company or are no longer active on the platform.
Chandler’s company also uses Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, but none can replicate the kind of vibrant community she leads on Twitter, where people combine professional networking and light-hearted chatter.
Instagram and TikTok are fueled more by images than by text exchange. Facebook is no longer popular with younger users. LinkedIn is more formal. And while some developers try to use alternative sites, it takes time to develop a stable, easy-to-use site that can handle millions of accounts.
Joan Donovan, an internet scientist who examines the threat disinformation poses to democracy in her new book “Meme Wars,” said it’s not clear whether Twitter will remain a safe place for public debate. Still, she called the networks people built there invaluable — to users, their communities, and to Musk.
“This is exactly why Musk bought Twitter and not just built his own social network,” Donovan said. “If you control the territory, you can control the politics, you can control the culture in many ways.”
In his first few hours at the helm, Musk fired several top Twitter executives, including chief legal counsel Vijaya Gadde, who had oversaw Twitter’s content moderation and security efforts around the world. And he dissolved the board of directors, leaving him responsible, at least on paper, only to himself. On Friday, Twitter kicked off widespread layoffs.
European regulators immediately warned Musk of his duty under their digital privacy laws to monitor illegal speech and disinformation. The US has a lot of lax rules for Twitter and its 238 million daily users. But advertisersusers and perhaps lenders can rein in it if Congress doesn’t tighten the rules first.
“If the advertisers go and the users go, the ideas market may well dissolve itself,” said Cary Coglianese, a regulatory policy expert at the University of Pennsylvania law school.
That could make Twitter just another magnet for extremists and conspiracy theorists — a concern that has prompted some to urge their network of friends to stay, to counter those stories.
Chandler said she can only “walk on eggshells” and is taking a wait and see approach.
“Personally, I’ll stay on Twitter until there’s really no more reason to stay. I don’t know what the future holds, I’m actually hoping for some kind of miracle,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere for now.”
___ Follow Maryclaire Dale on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Maryclairedale.
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