Skip to Content
Opinion

Elon Musk has created a toxic mess for the LGBTQ+ community. I would know.

California State Sen. Scott Wiener says Twitter used to be the most responsive social network when it came to harassment and threats. He’s seen it decline already under Musk—and he’s confident it’ll only get worse.

November 30, 2022
""
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR

A mere day after Elon Musk reactivated Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Twitter account, she tweeted that I’m a “communist groomer,” presumably because I’m a gay Jewish Democratic elected official from San Francisco. 

Greene’s tweet also promoted her proposed federal law to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth and to make it effectively impossible for adult transgender people to receive that care. In the past when Greene has gone after me with homophobic or transphobic tropes, I’ve received increased abuse on social media, but this was an escalation beyond what I’m used to. And that escalation, which was especially pronounced after the Club Q massacre, was due less to Greene than to Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk.

Since finalizing his purchase of Twitter, Musk has brought some of the platform’s most notorious banned users back to the flock. Shortly before he restored Greene’s account, he reactivated the accounts of Donald Trump and Kanye West (of “death con 3 on Jewish people” fame). He’s also reinstated the accounts of Project Veritas, which had engaged in severe doxxing; James Lindsay, who popularized the “OK groomer” hashtag, opined that Joe McCarthy hadn’t gone far enough, and referred to a Jewish person as “Dr. Lampshades” (a Holocaust myth that holds that Jewish skin was used to make lampshades); and Andrew Tate, who said that rape victims bear responsibility for getting raped.

Musk is now promising—based on a Twitter “poll” that was reportedly mobbed with extremist 4chan users—to reactivate any suspended account that didn’t violate the law or generate egregious spam. That could be quite the motley crew: for example, Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist who said “the Jews had better start being nice to people like us, because what comes out of this is going to be a lot uglier and a lot worse for them”; Milo Yiannopoulos, who worked closely with Nazi and white supremacist leaders, was Sieg Heil saluted by Nazis, used antisemitic words as passwords, and recently posted about the “Jewish powers that be who hate Jesus Christ, hate our country, and see us all as disposable cattle according to their ‘holy’ book” (Yiannopoulos interns for Greene); and an endless cast of lesser-known insurrectionists, bigots, and online harassers. And given that Trump absolutely broke the law by inciting people to violent insurrection, Musk’s “violate the law” exclusion appears to be quite limited.

While Twitter is a small platform compared with other major social media, this shift matters tremendously. Twitter punches way above its weight class. It is an incredibly important platform for our democracy—a place where ideas and information germinate, spread, and break out into broader media and public perception. Whether for politics, media, science, medicine, history, or pretty much any other subject area, Twitter has become an epicenter of public discourse in American life. 

Make no mistake: the reinstatement of these accounts will make Twitter far more toxic than it was before. The people previously banned from Twitter are not just benign trolls. Many have engaged in aggressive antisemitic, homophobic, transphobic, or racist harassment campaigns; are doxxers; are egregious purveyors of misinformation that risks violence or promotes vaccine lies; or have incited or continue to incite insurrection. Bringing them back not only forgives their past behavior, it validates and enshrines their rhetoric as pillars of Twitter’s platform going forward.

Musk’s reinstatement effort appears to stem from his assertion that he is a “free-speech absolutist.” Putting aside that he’s banned multiple progressive accounts that parodied him—parody being one of the most powerful and essential forms of free speech—his free-speech absolutism is actually about free hate speech, free harassment speech, and free incitement speech. Combined with his decimation of Twitter’s content moderation staff, the policy will quickly make the platform the free-for-all hellscape Musk insists he wants to avoid.

If Twitter becomes a right-wing cesspool—even if it’s just a more benign version of 4chan—its role as a democratizing host to global conversations will quickly collapse, as people who don’t think Fuentes or other white supremacists and Nazis are awesome flee.

More tangibly for Twitter users—and for those who are not on Twitter but are nevertheless targeted on the increasingly unmoderated platform—an antisemitic, racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, threatening Twitter cesspool puts a lot of people in actual physical danger. I say this based on personal experience, as that gay Jewish Democrat from San Francisco.

Over the past several years, I’ve received thousands of death threats, overwhelmingly on or stemming from social media, largely in response to my work advancing LGBTQ+ civil rights, with a secondary source being my work to expand vaccine access.

The threats and harassment started when I wrote a law to repeal several felonies that singled out people living with HIV for harsh criminal treatment (felonies that didn’t apply to people with any other serious infectious diseases). The social media threats and harassment then exploded when I authored a law—supported by law enforcement, civil rights organizations, and victim advocacy groups—to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ young people when determining who should be included on California’s sex offender registry. That bill started the QAnon slander campaign tidal wave against me, describing me as a “pedophile” and “groomer.” The threats and harassment flared up again when I drafted legislation to allow transgender kids and their families to seek refuge in California if they are being criminalized in states that seek to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth, like Texas and Alabama, and when I pursued legislation to allow teenagers to get vaccinated without parental consent and protect their own health.

The threats and harassment directed at me on social media have been breathtaking. I’ve been doxxed. I’ve been repeatedly threatened with decapitation and rape. I’ve been told that the sender would come find me with a gun. I received a bomb threat that led to the police sweeping my home with a bomb-sniffing dog. Several threats, either from or almost certainly inspired by social media, resulted in criminal prosecutions and convictions for those who issued them. For the first time in my life, I had to testify before a jury—against a man who was threatening my very existence.

As I received these waves of death threats, I learned a lot about the various social media platforms and how they handle the problem. YouTube was the slowest to address the threats and harassment. Meta (mostly Instagram but also Facebook) was initially quite slow to take action but got better over time. Twitter was the most responsive and proactive, but I’m confident that, going forward, it won’t be any better than the other platforms. It’ll likely be much worse for people like me.

Yet as bad as it’s been for me, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m privileged because I have resources. I have a platform and a role where I can highlight this issue, as I’m doing in this piece. 

The same can’t be said about the vast majority of people who are threatened, stalked, harassed, or doxxed on Twitter and other platforms and whose lives will get worse as Musk empties out the Twitter equivalent of the Phantom Zone, allowing vicious, bigoted, and even violent harassers, Nazis, and white supremacists to return. 

School board members, teachers, and librarians are being targeted by extremists claiming these educators are “grooming” their kids to be transgender or teaching them critical race theory. Progressive activists’ home addresses are being posted online, as are pictures of community leaders’ families. Public health leaders are viciously harassed and threatened by anti-vaxxers, and physicians are harassed and threatened by elements of the anti-choice movement.

Suffice it to say that for every prominent public figure like me who’s getting harassed and threatened, thousands of people are suffering in silence.

Elon Musk owns Twitter, and he has the power to shape and change it. Yet Twitter is so much more than a private asset. It matters to our democracy and public discourse. And it matters in terms of whether people are safe. Musk lives in a rarefied world. He is, in fact, the richest man in the world. He has access to every conceivable resource—security, investigators, or whatever else he needs.

Most of us don’t have those resources. As Musk plays his chaotic Twitter game, we’re the ones left suffering the consequences.

Scott Wiener is a California state senator who represents San Francisco and northern San Mateo County.

Deep Dive

Humans and technology

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

People are already using ChatGPT to create workout plans

Fitness advice from OpenAI’s large language model is impressively presented—but don’t take it too seriously.

I just watched Biggie Smalls perform ‘live’ in the metaverse

An avatar of the singer, who died in 1997, performed with live rappers on Meta’s Horizon Worlds.

How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information

In his own words, the Chinese painter shares how he became a one-person newsroom during a week of intense protests against China's zero-covid policy.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.