What Elon Musk is doing to Twitter, a virtual public space, by introducing mass layoffs and overhauling its operations are a reminder that so-called public spaces have never been as public as advertised and haven’t been designed to be.
So-called public spaces are often hostile toward women and marginalized people
A growing body of research reveals that so-called public spaces, be they physical or virtual, are most often designed by and for the dominant classes and are often hostile toward women and marginalized people. What little efforts Twitter had made to address those problems, Musk is undoing in one fell swoop. He’s eliminating the platform’s safety measures and encouraging increased hostility among its users.
On her show Friday, MSNBC Host Alex Wagner explained that Musk fired the curation team (tasked in part with fighting disinformation), the human rights team (which helped offer protections to journalists and human rights advocates), the ethical artificial intelligence team (which fought algorithmic bias) and half the security team (which protected user privacy). The loss of those people on the security team could make human rights advocates even more vulnerable. Twitter has seen a huge rise in misinformation and hate speech against minorities since Musk’s takeover, which proves the point that, when left unregulated, public spaces privilege the dominant classes.
Evaluating public spaces — their history, use and design — is a useful framework as we think about Twitter and the broader internet, which are also ostensibly for the public en masse, but are not equally safe, accessible or beneficial to everyone.
Think of those town squares from New York to New Orleans that were used for selling enslaved people. Recall the seemingly endless list of Black people who have been killed — by the state — in public spaces for simply existing in them.
Such public spaces are not often designed to be easily accessible for people with disabilities or people pushing strollers, most of whom are women. As an article in The Conversation on gender bias in urban planning explains, even those public spaces for entertainment and recreation are often designed so with men in mind and are unsafe for women: “Entertainment districts are supposed to promote a sophisticated, cosmopolitan urban culture. In reality, many are beer-based male hangouts. Behaviors such as binge drinking, fighting, street vomiting and urination, and sexual harassment exclude women or make them feel uncomfortable.”
Even worse are the so-called public spaces that are privately owned, such as parks and plazas in and around residential or commercial buildings.. As Sarah Schindler, a law professor at University of Denver, explains in her paper “The ‘Publicization’ of Private Space,” privately owned public open spaces "regularly fail to achieve the goals of ‘good’ public space, in part because they are often exclusionary; they only feel welcoming to certain people, and they only permit a limited number and type of activities,” Musk’s purchase of the site has made Twitter even more of a virtual equivalent of a privately owned public open spaces or POPOS. Twitter was never owned by the state, of course, but now the company is now private and is no longer publicly traded.
In 2018, Amnesty International released a report of gender-based violence on Twitter that lamented pervasive rape threats and concluded the site was so hostile toward women that it regularly violated their human rights.
These environments — whether they are publicly or privately owned — are so hostile to or unsupportive of women and marginalized people because they are designed predominantly by white men who have drastically different lived experiences and priorities.
In 2018, Amnesty International released a report of gender-based violence on Twitter that lamented pervasive rape threats and concluded the site was so hostile toward women that it regularly violated their human rights. “Abuse on Twitter can include general nastiness or name calling (you b*tch, slut, c*nt),” Jessica Valenti, a feminist journalist and author with over 300,000 followers on Twitter, told Amnesty International. “It can be more targeted harassment or can be more direct threats — which in the past I have had directed at my daughter. I’ve had my address, my tax information, as well as my phone number released.”
There has been a devastating proliferation of anti-LGBTQ — and especially anti-trans — hate speech on the site since Musk acquired it, though a lot of it predated the acquisition and has been posted by Musk himself. (In 2020, he tweeted “pronouns suck” and reportedly wants to do away with the policy that penalizes users for misgendering trans people and using their deadname.) And while Black people already face high levels of threats and harassment online, the content they post on the internet is also 1.5 times more likely to be identified by AI as hate speech and over two times as likely to be singled out if it’s written in African American Vernacular English, according to a 2019 article from Vox.
So, when Musk says he’s purchased Twitter to defend free speech, that is an utter lie. There is nothing “free” or “neutral” about how Twitter operates, especially now that the teams tasked with attempting to introduce and preserve equity have been done away with. Through what he personally shares and through the personnel he eliminates, Musk is helping protect the dominant classes, chiefly white men. His actions make this as good a time as any for us to ask probing questions about which people public spaces accommodate and which people they exclude. Because, as communications professors Maria Bakardjieva and Georgia Gade warn, how we use the internet contains “liberatory potential and … susceptibility to new forms of domination, rationalization and commodification.”
Unlike many physical public spaces and urban planning which were designed centuries ago, we’re building the internet and its technology in real time. So, if we’re willing to interrogate its shortcomings, we truly have the opportunity to create, for the first time in history, virtual public squares which are safe and welcoming for everyone. But the first step requires that we don’t buy into Musk’s narrative that he is defending free speech for all — he’s simply defending it for those who have more power than others, but who are scared their power is slipping away.