Marginalized Communities Mourn Imminent Loss of Twitter As A Safe Space

Twitter served as a hub for various marginalized communities to connect with one another and organize advocacy efforts. With Elon Musk’s recent takeover, many users are grieving the imminent loss of the safe space the app once fostered.

For the disability community, Twitter was a place for disabled people to take control of their own stories, which were often in the hands of nondisabled people.

“For a lot of us, as disabled people, [it] can be very daunting the idea of being out in person physically with our disabilities or being vulnerable physically with our bodies,” disability advocate Imani Barbarin told HuffPost.

The safety that Twitter afforded these communities is being compromised under Musk’s leadership. Now, the platform is once again being flooded with hate speech, causing advocates and communities to wonder where they can turn next.

Barbarin remembers struggling to imagine what her life as a Black disabled woman would look like in the future. But when she joined Twitter, she was able to explore her identities by engaging in online discussions with disabled advocates through #CripTheVote.

“This is no exaggeration: The community saved my life. I really don’t know where I’d be without the disability community on Twitter, feeling like there’s a space for me to belong to feel heard and understood,” Barbarin told HuffPost.

Barbarin contributed to spaces where disabled people could share their stories and relate to one another through lighthearted hashtags like #AbledsAreWeird, as well as serious ones like #PatientsAreNotFaking.

Hashtags have been used in a similar way on Black Twitter, said Catherine Knight Steele, associate professor of communication at the University of Maryland. In 2013, #PaulasBestDishes made light of the scandal surrounding celebrity chef Paula Deen’s use of racial slurs and discrimination at her restaurants. In 2014, activist Feminista Jones created the #YouOKSis campaign to support Black women experiencing violence and harassment both online and offline.

“[It’s] the idea of being in community with people, even if we don’t know them, when we see something about to happen. That hashtag of #YouOKSis…[allowed] folks to know that someone is there for them and with them, and will provide that kind of comfort and care as those experiences go on,” Steele told HuffPost.

Twitter For Organizing and Advocacy

Black people found comfort in organizing on Twitter because its features allowed them to use their own offline organizing practices and communication techniques in a digital environment, said Steele. Throughout history, she said, Black people weren’t able to organize in private spaces, and instead learned to use public spaces such as churches and barber shops to hold private dialogues.

This was mirrored on Twitter through the use of hashtags and other features that allowed similarly intimate communities to form online in a public way.

Taking note of organizing initiatives by the Black community, Twitter became a space for both underrepresented and marginalized groups to propel social justice movements forward and to build cross-movement solidarity as other groups began adopting these organizing practices.

“What Twitter provided was our ability to visualize and see movements forming,” said Steele. “Other folks got to witness that organizing strategy happen in plain sight, got to join in in plain sight, got to cajole other people to come aboard.”

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, people came together on Twitter to share their frustration with the rise in violence against Asian people and anti-Asian sentiment egged on by the Trump administration, according to Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.

The Asian American and Pacific Islander communities faced several anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. The uptick in violence against the community, which continues to this day, garnered nationwide attention following the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting.

Choi’s organization joined other Asian and Pacific Islander groups and founded a coalition known as the Stop AAPI Hate movement — which has since amassed over 37,000 followers on Twitter — to tackle anti-Asian racism. Similarly, the hashtag #StopAsianHate also became widely used on Twitter.

“The platform really helped us to organize. We saw people raise money [and] be able to connect and share when there were events that brought communities together,” Choi told HuffPost. “It was a way to really manifest our heartbreak and our rage, and to come together as a community.”

Twitter Under Musk’s Rule

Twitter has been especially important for the disabled community throughout the pandemic as the community uses the platform to share vital information and resources.

Recently, Musk discontinued Twitter’s policy against misleading COVID-19 information, which was especially useful to health professionals and researchers at the beginning of the pandemic in combating the spread of misinformation.

“The fact that Twitter is no longer tackling misinformation even around COVID tells you something about how serious they [are about treating] this massive problem that we have around misinformation that often racializes, criminalizes, targets and promotes fear-mongering against our communities. This is something that our communities are vulnerable to,” Choi said.

Musk has also started to reinstate suspended accounts, including those that have previously posted harmful, offensive and racist rhetoric that violated Twitter policies before Musk’s tenure.

Anti-Blackness, antisemitism and other hate targeting marginalized groups were present on the app before Musk’s takeover, prompting people to leave the platform years ago. But a study found that less than a day after Musk’s purchase of Twitter on Oct. 28, there was an “immediate, visible and measurable spike” in hate speech targeting marginalized groups on the app. Recent findings from the Center for Countering Digital Hate and other groups show that slurs against Black people, queer people and Jewish people have increased on Twitter.

Right-wing extremists are now trying to remove progressive journalists, Democrats and researchers from the app by filing false complaints against them. Online safety experts believe that misinformation, harassment and hate speech will increase moving forward, reports CNBC.

“Even if the platform does survive, I don’t think it’ll be hospitable to people like myself,” Barbarin said.

Looking Ahead

Twitter is still in use by marginalized communities. But many activists who primarily use Twitter are now looking to alternative online platforms to gather and connect.

The social media app Mastodon, for example, gained hundreds of thousands of new users within the first week of Musk’s takeover of Twitter, bumping the lesser-known platform to over 655,000 active users.

There’s still nothing quite like Twitter, Barbarin said. The platform’s structure allowed for real-time updates on events and natural disasters, whereas other platforms are more siloed.

Advocates believe the open nature of Twitter can’t be replicated elsewhere and predict that people will start turning to multiple platforms to do different kinds of organizing and community-building.

“When it comes to advocacy going forward, a lot of these committees are going to be broken up, which feels intentional. It feels intentional that these communities who have advocated and done activism online will be broken up,” Barbarin said.

Activists are now tasked with finding ways to engage people on different platforms. Some, like Black, queer and Muslim activist Blair Imani, have found success on Instagram. Imani said the platform offers more room for creativity, discoverability and protection — all of which are important for activists and members of marginalized communities.

Imani had switched over to Instagram as her primary platform in 2020 after feeling overwhelmed by the harassment and hateful comments she received on Twitter. She notes that the comment restriction feature on Instagram has allowed her to have control over who she engages with in the comments section, even with a public account.

Imani, who has 533,000 followers on Instagram, says success on the platform is dependent on follower engagement — as opposed to Twitter, where users focus more on retweets and follower count. Instagram feeds often show posts that were made by users weeks ago, which can be beneficial for boosting activists’ content.

But Instagram isn’t a perfect replacement. Choi points out that, while the Stop AAPI Hate movement has more followers on Instagram than on Twitter and will still be able to reach community members, its Instagram content is very different from its content on Twitter.

Both Stop AAPI Hate and Chinese for Affirmative Action track hate incidents and trends and are now also monitoring the rhetoric on Twitter.

“As the situation evolves, the critical thing is that no matter what happens with the platform, we will continue to reach out to Asian American communities where they are,” she said. “Twitter has served as an important tool, but it’s just one of many channels we use to connect with and engage our communities, allies and supporters.”

Steele, author of “Black Digital Feminism,” said she has faith that Black people will find ways to once again reinvent current tools in creative ways to continue organizing and community-building. For example, she notes that many Black women who had done activism on Twitter have opted for listservs and newsletters for organizing over the years.

While Twitter’s decline continues, marginalized community members are hopeful that they’ll find a way to connect with one another once again, whether it be through existing platforms or newer ones. For example, Isaac Hayes III is trying to hold space for the Black Twitter community on his own social media platform, Fanbase, reports CNN.

“We found each other once, we can do it again,” Barbarin said. “I know it’s tiring and exhausting, but I have every confidence that we will find a way to care for each other again on online spaces and do so safely.”