Twitter’s demise is not just a story about the excesses of another “tech bro.” In October, when Elon Musk took over Twitter, users on the site began experiencing drastic modifications. These ranged from changes to Twitter’s system of “verified” blue checks, which Musk sold off for $8, to a near absence of content moderation and the elimination of most accessibility features. Musk has also raised serious concerns by at least temporarily reinstating previously banned accounts, like that of white nationalist Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, while suspending journalists critical of his practices.
Changes on the site were accompanied by massive layoffs and other changes to the company itself, prompting comments about Musk’s disregard for the expertise and labor of the people who built the platform, as well as other company workers.
While it may be easy to trivialize social media, it has become a key institution in our daily lives, reflective of many of the same inequities that affect other institutions. “My critiques of social media, in the end are critiques of capitalism,” said Aimee Rickman, author of Adolescence, Girlhood, and Media Migration, in an interview with Truthout. What varies, she says, is that “social media brilliantly obscures that it is being used in a certain way to profit and that means that extracting all this information, private information from people that can be used over their heads for years to come, or just lead to fear that maybe it will, which has a chilling effect on society, but also a deleterious effect as part of systems that are authoritarian and worse.”
Twitter Serves a Real Human Need (and Profits From It)
Over the past 10 to 15 years, many people have found Twitter to be a useful place to find community, to find an audience that they could not otherwise find in existing communication networks, and to organize others to take action.
Steven Renderos is the executive director of MediaJustice, a national racial justice organization that advances digital rights for people of color. In his view, Twitter has previously been very helpful to movements that were able to use the platform to scale up their organizing. “When you think back to the Ferguson uprisings, one of our partner organizations, Color of Change, is famous for saying that it took a million tweets from activists on the ground in Ferguson before CNN paid attention.”
Similarly, Kelly Hayes, an organizer with Lifted Voices as well as a writer with Truthout, told me, “I’ve long since lost count of how many people Mariame Kaba and I have helped bond out through Twitter fundraisers we worked on together. My Twitter followers have banded together to do some truly incredible things.” Hayes pointed out that it’s not just about how many people follow a person but more about “how you engaged, and whether you were consistently inviting people to act in concert to do things that were meaningful.”
And organizers still rely on social media to build real world networks. Pujita Guha, part of an autonomous collective at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that social media made it possible to reach out to other constituencies during their recent strike as well as to coordinate across the large University of California system. In particular, Guha says, one of the core audiences for an academic strike was undergraduate students, so social media was useful for explaining what was happening and why.
After all, these platforms are where the people are.
Twitter is part of a set of social media that have, to some extent, become necessary for not only social movements but for everyday people to go about their lives. Like the various collectives and organizers involved in the UC strike, most people rely on these media to coordinate with others. Hannah Sassaman is the executive director of People’s Tech Project, which supports base-building organizations to identify a vision of what technology should and would do in their liberated worlds. Sassaman pointed out that, “As we’ve seen, through the pandemic in particular, [Twitter] has served as a crucial lifeline for a desperate human need, which is basic connection; it’s how we maintained — and even in some cases, built — necessary human relationships to sustain us through isolation.” This is true, Sassaman said, even as social media is full of contradictions and also “makes us feel like shit.”
Rickman said it’s essential to consider why people have been pushed to rely on sites like Twitter for so many of our needs. “What the moment of Twitter under Musk does is provide us a really important lens to look more widely at what spaces we have been offered,” she says, and suggests that people have been driven to Twitter as part of a long, ongoing, historical process best understood as enclosure of the commons. Historically, the commons in Europe were spaces of land owned by no one and shared by all, enclosed and privatized as part of the imposition of capitalism. As capitalism evolved, enclosure expanded to encompass and often decimate many of the spaces where social life and culture take place.
Rickman notes the defunding of public libraries, the history of selective code enforcement against independent community spaces including all-ages, queer and other dance clubs, and a host of other ways that free, safe and accessible spaces to gather are closed. As a result, people are driven to the spaces that are left, usually where someone can profit on their presence. Generally, says Rickman, the same people involved in the closure of space are able to then profit from the new spaces. People are driven to social media in part through the systematic elimination of other ways to be together.
And once people are on corporate-owned social media, the game is always rigged. “Research has proven time and time again, that the outrageous content, the content that makes you angry, is the stuff that is more engaging on these platforms, because that is the variable that they care the most about,” Renderos said.
It’s not only that the platforms are set up to drive conflict — under the guise of “engagement” — but they also enable fascism. “As much as these platforms, especially in the early days, were infrastructure that social movements could leverage to amplify an alternative perspective — the same was true for opposition,” said Renderos. These fascist threats extend as well to the violent language and harassment that activists or users of color may experience while using social media.
Corporate social media platforms operate within the context of racial capitalism, meaning the extraction of capital is mutually reinforcing with racialized exploitation and colonialism. Renderos highlights the ways that activists of color have always had a more difficult time organizing on these sites, because of the ways they have been disproportionately censored, particularly when it comes to conversations around race.
According to Renderos, the balance appears to be continuing to shift toward one where the platforms lean most heavily toward the successful distribution of myths and disinformation rather than the ability to share grassroots-level resources or reporting that many appreciated in the past.
Seeking Justice With the Tech We Have
“We live in austerity where we get so little that if we get something nice, it doesn’t matter who it comes from. We bracket off the other parts, because … we need community, we need to feel meaningful, we need to feel like somebody cares,” said Rickman. The cost of seeking these things on social media, however, is high.
Given people’s dependence on social media for a variety of needs and its consequent size in our lives, Sassaman thinks about the tech justice she’d like to see in terms of “non-reformist reforms.” She elaborated, “In order to build towards a vision of liberation where the entire logic of our society isn’t built on racial capitalism, we have to engage with and fight on the terrain of racial capitalism,” which includes social media. Like fighting for non-reformist reforms that decrease the policing budget in an effort to chip away at the overall system of policing, tech justice non-reformist reforms can make tangible improvements in individual user experiences without expanding the power (or purses) of tech corporations. The key is to avoid fighting for reforms or changes that will make it harder to build a liberatory world later on.
Sassaman emphasizes the need for campaigns with enforceable demands that can protect and expand the ability to build a base of people online (or the ability to create community-based technology) and can also reduce the targeting and silencing that people of color and other already marginalized people face. Sassaman points to the Change the Terms campaign as an example, which seeks to reduce hate and disinformation online by pushing internet companies to adopt a set of policies that will reduce bias in their algorithms and to increase moderation of hate speech.
Meredith D. Clark, associate professor of Journalism and Communication Studies at Northeastern University, hopes that teaching Black users how to archive their Twitter histories will be similarly empowering. Her project, Archiving Black Twitter, aims for users to develop an “archival mindset” to think about their digital selves because “the more you learn about what can be preserved, and then how it might be used, even if it’s not the way that you as an individual, or members of your community are going to use it, the better primed you are to think critically about how businesses and other entities might use that data.” It’s part of the larger project, Archiving the Black Web, which is focused on preserving what’s on the internet — in Clark’s words — “with the knowledge that our families and our communities’ histories, in previous immediate eras weren’t really treated as being worth the effort to archive.”
We should not cede any terrain, said Sassaman. “These are the conditions we have…. The internet is owned and built by a handful of major corporations for profit. And they have spent so much money to both lobby and then directly capture, I would say, Washington, state governments and local governments to a degree where independent, community-based technologies are small or impossible. And so, for now, we have to fight on that terrain, we have to educate ourselves about its dangers, and our people about the dangers.”
Toward a Liberatory Technology
In the meantime, Twitter seems ever closer to collapse, and the other corporate platforms like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube are making it increasingly difficult to cut through the algorithm and engage in activities that challenge capitalism. People are in need of other ways to share information, to fundraise, to build organizing bases, and to simply connect.
Many Twitter users have moved to Mastodon, a series of decentralized servers that includes some specifically social justice-focused corners, like Project Mushroom. In talking about these experiments and their decreased reach, Renderos reflected that perhaps “it seems like a moment in which we need to trade off scale for depth in our movements. We really need more depth now to build the kind of coherence in our ideology, and our vision for the world, and our relationship to each other.”
Hayes believes everyone should have a Mastodon account “because that’s a space that can’t be bought out from under us,” and that we should support “other experiments in decentralization and noncorporate platforms” so that people “have places we can regroup and create life rafts for our work and our networks” with the ultimate aim of creating a “real public square.”
The necessity of these platforms — for movements as well as for everyday interaction — extends beyond Twitter to other apps. Guha, the strike organizer, pointed out that social media includes not only Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, but also chat platforms like Signal, Telegram and WhatsApp, which have also become critical to organizing. “Signal and Telegram definitely have better privacy and they’re less extractive,” she says, referring to the way social media draw on user data and posts to generate profit for elites. “They’re more off the radar, so there’s a lot of organizing and collaborating and so on that happens on these platforms.”
Sassaman and others that Truthout spoke with were quick to point out that tech justice needs to be a more serious component of movements for liberation, and a big part of that involves thinking more seriously about what a liberatory technology would actually be. The way out of the trap set up by the corporations that own the technologies almost everyone uses now, is, Sassaman pointed out, to have a strategy for how technology fits into liberation.
One model for this positive vision of tech is the Consentful Tech Project and curriculum. The curriculum, authored by Una Lee and Tawana Petty, is a series of lessons for building and using technology that encourages people to move from “protecting ourselves to taking care of each other.” The Consentful Tech Project defines consentful technology as “digital applications and spaces that are built with consent at their core, and that support the self-determination of people who use and are affected by these technologies.”
However, Petty cautioned Truthout, “I shy away from thinking of digital and biometric technologies as having the potential to be liberatory, until racial equity is systematized and use of our data is regulated and better governed and understood by those of us whose data are gathered, stored, shared and disseminated.”
Thinking about whether liberatory technology must necessarily be limited in scope, like the new Project Mushroom, Renderos warned not to let the current neoliberal conditions limit our sense of possibility. After all, he said, there have been previous experiments in grassroots media that have been able to scale up, like Cuba’s Radio Rebelde. Perhaps movements for social change have not “actually invested in the cultivation of technology.” He wondered what liberatory horizon could be reached if “the radical technologists that exist within our sphere were given the resources to actually build the kind of infrastructure we need?”
Twitter Was Always Us
“I feel like we’ve come to the end of an era of sorts,” says Clark. The future is, as always, uncertain and unwritten. But even as there are things that may be lost if the platform collapses or its utility continues to fade, the real “magic” behind Twitter was never the app. It was people.
Clark says that although some important things might be lost if Twitter fades, the platform itself was never the key to Black Twitter. “Black people use the communication technologies available to us to talk about the things that we want to talk about,” she said, referencing how this has been true in every media era, as Black people have built their own independent media outlets. “We are using the tools that are available to us to tell our stories in the way that we want to. We’ll continue to do that, whether it’s Twitter or broadcast frequency, or some other form of media.”
Media have long tried to coopt, profit from, and mediate communication between people. And to take credit for the work of grassroots communities.
“It was never the app that made the things we did possible. That was us, and we will find ways to keep doing what has to be done, even if Twitter explodes, or if we all leave,” said Hayes. “I believed in us, and I still do.”
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