To be fair, Twitter wasn’t exactly some bastion of LGBTQ+ safety and well-being before it was acquired by Elon Musk, but since the billionaire took over the social platform this past October, anti-LGBTQ+ hate has reached never-before-seen highs. While confronting hate and harassment on mainstream social platforms is nothing new for many queer people, the current state of Twitter seems to be a different beast entirely. The queer community has been caught in the crossfire of an imploding platform, and we’re finally forced to confront our own tech loyalties. Should LGBTQ+ people leave Twitter? If so, where will they go?
The facts around Twitter’s sharp uptick in hate speech are truly sobering.
As The New York Times reports based on findings from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, the Anti-Defamation League and other digital safety groups, the use of slurs against gay men on Twitter have risen from an average of 2,506 times per day to 3,964 times a day since Musk’s takeover. It’s also worth noting that LGBTQ+ people aren’t the only community bearing the brunt of increased hate speech on the platform; slurs against Jews and the Black community have also massively spiked.
Some of that hate speech can be attributed to a newfound sense of “anything goes” content standards on the platform. Musk, who claims to be a “free speech absolutist” has long been critical of Twitter’s policies monitoring hate speech, harassment and misinformation, publicly claiming he wished to do away with those policies altogether. Upon Musk’s Twitter takeover, the platform was flooded with content pushing the boundaries of what was previously unacceptable.
More hate speech came from a large number of re-platformed and new, previously disallowed accounts on Twitter. Not only have Islamic State accounts (regularly removed prior to Musk) flooded back onto the app, but QAnon accounts were able to pay for verified status, something that granted them a veneer of legitimate discourse.
High-profile personalities with track records of spreading hate – among them Donald Trump, Jordan Peterson and Kanye West – also contributed to an increase in hate speech (West most famously, though his account was later removed from the platform yet again). And lesser-known anti-LGBTQ+ figures, too, like James Lindsay, who refers to himself as “America’s top Christian nationalist” and regularly spouts transphobic talking points.
A separate report from Media Matters and GLAAD found that usage of the anti-LGBTQ+ slur “groomer” has increased substantially since Musk’s takeover.
Specifically, the report names nine right-wing accounts (Tim Pool, Jack Posobiec, Jake Shield, Gays Against Groomers, Blaire White, Allie Beth Stuckey, Andy Ngo, Seth Dillon, Mike Cernovich) who collectively saw a 1,200% increase in retweets of tweets containing the slur. It’s worth noting that on pre-Musk Twitter, the platform’s policies against hateful content did apply to the term “groomer” when it was used to reference trans people and the trans experience.
Twitter accounts of LGBTQ+ individuals, organizations and websites have also seen sharp increases in hateful rhetoric lobbed at them, particularly with mentions of the “groomer” slur. Media Matters notes one account (though doesn’t say which one) saw an increase of over 225,000% in the slur’s use against them.
So what’s wrong with “free speech”?
Massive social media platforms have existed for long enough that research on what follows lax moderation policies has been extensive, and the effects are well-known (though perhaps not to Elon Musk). While “free speech absolutism” sounds like a fair, lofty goal, in actuality it silences marginalized voices.
There’s obvious harm to a person’s and community’s well-being when they endure hate, harassment and discrimination on these large social platforms. But also, when hatred flows unfettered on a platform, this forces marginalized groups to self-silence, or at least alter how they engage and interact online. There’s a longstanding direct correlation between how “openly queer” a user’s profile and content appears to be and the amount of unsolicited hate it receives; not just on Twitter but on all mainstream, heteronormative social platforms.
When dogpiling, doxxing, and swatting become common occurrences against marginalized groups on a platform like Twitter – sometimes even leading people to take their own lives after being subjected to organized online harassment campaigns — it’s clear that “free speech absolutism” does not result in a free exchange of ideas or civil discourse around difficult topics; it results in the uptick of hateful rhetoric that has now been well-documented on Twitter over the last two months.
Ultimately, it’s unclear what will happen in terms of Twitter’s content moderation policies. With the platform hemorrhaging advertising dollars due to issues of brand safety, it’s very possible the platform will eventually lean back into policies against hateful content. But at this point, even if Musk did an about-face and advocated for the removal of hate and harassment once more, he has laid-off, fired or watched the resignation of more than half of his company’s staff. Many of those employees were the same team members tasked with removing such content.
On December 12, Twitter officially disbanded its Trust & Safety Council, a group of around 100 researchers and human rights activists that advised the platform on issues of content and human rights, including the removal of child sexual abuse material, suicide prevention and general online safety.
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which keeps track of antisemitic content on Twitter and the removal of those posts, since Musk’s takeover Twitter now takes action on only half the reported tweets it did previously, from 60 to 30 percent.
“His actions to date show that he is not committed to a transparent process where he incorporates the best practices we have learned from civil society groups,” says Yael Eisenstat, ADL Vice President. “Instead he has emboldened racists, homophobes and antisemites.”
So now what? Where do LGBTQ+ people go?
If Twitter remains a toxic hellscape for LGBTQ+ people, what does that mean in terms of the community’s digital presence there? What action should queer people take when a platform ignores active harm against marginalized groups? And what minimum duty of care do these tech industry behemoths owe to the users who regularly entrust them with such valuable aspects of their social and professional lives?
These are of course questions every individual queer person must ask and answer for themselves. While many LGBTQ+ Twitter users have already “jumped ship” from the platform, others have stayed and have no plans to leave. But since Musk’s Twitter takeover, many platforms have come to the forefront as potential replacements, including Hive, Mastodon, Discord and the queer-owned-and-operated platform SPACES.
“It’s no secret that Elon’s acquisition of Twitter has been polarizing,” Shon Washington tells LGBTQ+ Nation. A gay Black veteran and longtime Twitter user, Washington currently has nearly 70,000 followers on the platform. “Outside of the uptick in anti-LGBTQ hate speech, dude is simply an unlikeable person with problematic perspectives. For me, this isn’t simply about a difference of opinion. This is about respecting and protecting the dignity of queer people, which frankly has gone unseen.”
For Washington, the previous two months of nonstop drama on Twitter, and Musk’s own viral shenanigans – which have included sharing homophobic misinformation following the brutal attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul, and urging Americans to elect Republicans in November’s U.S. midterms – have been more than enough reason to examine other platforms.
“I began experimenting with other apps where I can continue to connect with the queer community,” Washington says. “So far: Mastodon is too convoluted, Hive has security issues that leave users’ data vulnerable, and finding queer communities on Discord is too challenging.”
The platform where Washington ended up is SPACES, a new platform launched this past March by the same team that built the 35-million-user-strong queer social network Hornet. Described as “a group-chat app for building and finding queer communities,” the app is unlike most other platforms vying for Twitter deserters in that it specifically caters to LGBTQ+ users and has made ensuring the safety and well-being of queer people a primary objective. Naturally, a platform built for LGBTQ+ people and allies is likely to host less homophobia and transphobia, but the app is also blazing a new path with initiatives like its 10-point safety pledge for LGBTQ+ safety, a first for the tech industry.
“On SPACES I don’t have to worry about homophobic and transphobic hate speech,” Washington says. “I don’t have to play ‘Where’s Waldo’ when seeking out fellow LGBTQ nerds or meatheads, because it’s an app exclusively for us. So finding queer communities for my broad range of interests and experiences has been pretty easy.”
In addition to being a user on SPACES, Washington has also created popular communities on the platform for weightlifters, Star Trek fans, heavy metal lovers and a few private Spaces for queer men to share adult content.
For many of the LGBTQ+ people currently on SPACES, the fact that the platform is owned and operated by a queer company and serves the queer community specifically offers a welcomed sense of relief given the current social media landscape.
“I’m really big in fandom spaces, like Star Wars and the MCU, and to be openly queer in those spaces is not always easy,” says Bryan Berry, host of Pink Milk, a podcast dedicated to talking about Star Wars through a queer lens. Berry has also created a community on SPACES for the same fandom. “Trying to celebrate [these fandoms] online is a hard thing to do, because it doesn’t take more than two tweets for homophobic slurs to be thrown your way. And so places like SPACES give us a really wonderful opportunity to be very queer and celebrate ourselves.”
The need for more diversity in available social platforms – specifically apps built by and for queer people – is also something that Ashlee Marie Preston considers important and long overdue. Preston, a media personality, longtime activist and social impact strategist, was also the first openly trans person to run for state office in California.
“I’m a strong proponent of the adage ‘Go where the love is,’” she says. “In fact, that’s what led me to social media nearly 13 years ago. In a world blanketed in biases, the digital space afforded me the opportunity to be my most authentic self – and build community around my truth. These days the injustices of the analog world have saturated our online safe spaces, and the hate and harassment queer and trans people endure has been exacerbated.”
“We’re long overdue for an exodus away from platforms that profit from our pain,” says Preston. “We deserve queer and trans spaces that build us up, not tear us down.”