By Asha Swann
Visuals by Vanessa Kauk
As Lila Mansour began studying for her Law School Admission Test in early 2020, the now second-year Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) law student started to consider joining Twitter for the first time. Mansour heard that the platform would be a great place for her to engage with politics and thought she’d be able to connect with like-minded individuals on the website.
Growing up in Prince George, B.C., Mansour says it sometimes felt like she was the only person who wore a hijab in the city. She jokes her peers didn’t even know enough about her faith to actually be Islamophobic—but Mansour knew her religion made her identity stick out at a young age. Out of the 74,000 people living in Prince George, only 115 identified as Arab, according to a 2021 census of the city.
Sitting alone on her living room couch, she remembers how her parents raised her to be informed about politics—Al Jazeera and CNN often fueled conversation in her childhood home—and wanted to feel more connected to political discourse again.
As the first lockdown forced Mansour indoors and away from the town’s only mosque, she made a Twitter account and finally found her place among “Law Twitter.” After George Floyd’s death in May 2020, Mansour began seeing conversations about politics and justice happen on social media in real-time, compelling her to start following and retweeting accounts to further the conversation.
“[Twitter] was a place where you could hear different ideas, engage with different people. What I wanted was just to be involved politically,” says Mansour.
“Seeing the kind of collective energy on Twitter was very empowering.”
There are countless “Twitter communities” on the popular social media platform and they often aren’t separate from the app. These communities are integrated into your timeline based on the accounts you regularly interact with and follow.
Users who belong to specific communities will often colloquially refer to their version of the app. For example, in Mansour’s case, she often says she’s on “Law Twitter.”
“I’ve been able to get a lot of insight, great advice from people through Twitter and Law Twitter as well,” Mansour says. “It’s also a great platform to get to see professors or other legal professionals outside of their professional scopes.”
However, these last few months have left Mansour feeling worried about the app’s future.
As a visible minority on social media, Mansour is concerned that tech mogul Elon Musk’s takeover will result in more hate speech across the platform.
In mid-April 2022, Musk publicly declared his interest in purchasing Twitter, despite the platform not being for sale at the time, according to ABC News. By April 28, the board unanimously voted in favour of Musk purchasing the platform for $44 billion USD, according to CNN. He officially became the owner and CEO of Twitter in October 2022 when the acquisition was finalized.
In the following weeks, Twitter’s top executives were fired and hundreds of staff resigned while others were let go, due to Musk’s promise to input a new, “hardcore” work model, according to a Euronews and Reuters report.
Today, many Twitter users feel as though they’re watching their beloved social media site crash and burn in real-time. Within weeks of Musk’s leadership, controversial figures whose accounts were formerly banned—such as Andrew Tate, Donald Trump and Jordan Peterson—all had their accounts reinstated. Though Musk describes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” data shows that some speech allowed under Musk’s jurisdiction is actually hate speech.
The Network Contagion Research Institute, an organization that analyzes hate-speech online, reported that racial slurs, including the N-word, increased by over 500 per cent within 12-hours of Musk’s takeover. The Washington Post reported that on the same day, pro-Nazi tweets and swastikas were trending worldwide. In December 2022, the Anti-Defamation League, one of the most prominent anti-hate groups internationally, reported that antisemitism has risen across the app, while moderation of hate speech has decreased.
TMU students who once found solace in Twitter communities have also noticed the change and some now feel differently about using the platform. While Twitter is still used for activism, the site no longer feels like a community, according to Mansour, who admits that she’s now looking for like-minded individuals on Instagram.
Caitlin Andrews-Lee, an assistant professor at TMU’s department of politics and public administration, has been studying the implications of charismatic leaders for over a decade. She explains that a true charismatic leader is someone who gains controversial popularity by circumventing traditional legislation and gaining power through populism.
Andrews-Lee says Musk’s internet presence—specifically relating to social issues and activism—helps add to the popular narrative against political correctness, which Musk once described as one of “the biggest threats to modern civilization,” in a podcast with The Babylon Bee, a conservative satire website.
“I think I was very lucky to be on the platform when we saw the rise in many social justice movements,” Mansour says. “Twitter has always been viewed as a space for people to amplify their voice, whatever movement or whatever cause they’re advocating for. I think that’s probably the main thing that attracted me to the platform.”
Just like Mansour, fourth-year English student Elle Shannon, who is non-binary, knows first-hand how much it hurts when the community you live in treats you like an outsider. They also have a transgender sister and remembers their sister being bullied and picked on by both teachers and students as she grew up. Even now, as they’re both adults, Shannon says the rejection from their local community continues.
Last October, Shannon and their sister were visiting their father’s grave in the town’s cemetery when a local man approached them and started questioning their identities.
The man demanded to know what they were doing and how long their family lived in their small community within Niagara Falls. Shannon says the man seemed skeptical of them until they mentioned knowing multiple families who had also lived in the town for several generations.
“I don’t know if he saw himself as the graveyard watch for the town but I’ve never in my life been interrogated in that small town,” Shannon says, explaining that it was this and similar experiences of small town bigotry that originally drew them to Twitter’s social justice community.
“I walked down my childhood street and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I lived near Nazis,’” they say.
Shannon, who has been using Twitter since 2016, says they’re noticing more hateful accounts on the app since Musk’s takeover.
“Even just random tweets will have more hidden replies, there’ll be more ‘Make America Great Again’ bigots and stuff just piping in,” they say.
Shannon also explains that while issues of bigotry and intolerance aren’t just exclusive to Twitter, they do see Musk’s takeover as symptomatic of greater issues in society.
“It speaks to a larger conversation about how visible minorities are always going to have targets on their backs unless we deconstruct white supremacy and Islamophobia and all these other power systems in our society,” they say. “I think Elon is just another symptom of that.”
“He thinks that just being a free speech absolutist, you should be able to say whatever the fuck you want, whenever you want,” Shannon says.
Shannon admits that there were issues on Twitter before Musk’s takeover as well. Accounts that often engage in political discourse have long been subjected to temporary suspensions or permanent bans. In 2019, during the Hong Kong democracy protests, NPR reported that Twitter suspended around 200,000 accounts that the app believed were bots spreading misinformation about China in an attempt to discredit the pro-democracy movement.
During the summer of 2018, Twitter suspended over 70 million accounts as part of a larger “campaign against bots and trolls,” according to a The Washington Post article, which did not confirm exactly how many of the deleted accounts were actually bots. In 2019, users also began wondering if the personal politics of then-CEO Jack Dorsey were behind the app’s censoring of content, as reported by Vanity Fair. Musk’s own account was temporarily suspended in 2018, which led to fans asking him to buy Twitter for the sole purpose of deleting it.
When Musk officially announced his intentions to buy the app in April 2022, he tweeted that he hoped to make the website open source, increasing transparency in what content the algorithm would promote. He also described Twitter as “the digital town square,” explaining that free speech would be prioritized while bots would be “defeated.”
Andrew Selepak, a professor of social media at the University of Florida, has researched Twitter before. Selepak explains that while free speech is protected under United States law, social media platforms have a right to regulate content under their terms of service.
“Meta, with Facebook and Instagram, says no nudity. Twitter doesn’t have that,” he says. “Does that mean you’re censoring people on those platforms? There are those who would argue that you don’t have free speech because you can’t put nudity.”
While Twitter does permit nudity, abusive content is technically prohibited under the site’s regulations. Twitter’s own hateful content policy admits that, “For those who identify with multiple underrepresented groups, abuse may be more common, more severe in nature and more harmful.” These groups include people of colour, women, 2SLGBTQIA+ people or other “marginalized and historically underrepresented communities.”
Shannon says the issues extend beyond only seeing hateful content toward trans people on Twitter. Another problem, they explain, is that even just positively participating in tweets made by a trans person can leave you bombarded with hate.
“I remember replying to something in a thread and just being inundated by MAGA trolls,” they say, referencing a thread where transgender people were discussing access to medical care.
When Shannon’s tweets get lots of attention, they often fear they’ll receive hateful comments or even death threats, as they’ve seen such previously happen to their friends.
Shannon also explains that people may assume that online spaces with young people are more progressive—but that isn’t always the case. They say their grandparents have been more open-minded when it comes to trans issues than some members of younger generations on social media.
“I grew up with my baby boomer grandparents…Maybe they’re not using ‘politically correct’ language but they were speaking positively…they’re still open to those ideas,” they say. “Whereas now, I’m seeing people younger than my grandparents who are just jumping onto these reactionary positions that are based in fear.”
Mansour isn’t on Twitter as much these days. She hasn’t deleted her account but she knows the app isn’t the same since Musk’s takeover. Instead, she’s been spending more time on Instagram, explaining that the popular photo and video-sharing app is the place to be for people in their 20s.
Despite the two platforms’ differences, Mansour says Instagram is similar enough to Twitter that she still feels a part of a larger community of like-minded, politically engaged individuals when she’s using the app.
She says that people like herself, who often use social media as a tool for advocacy, understand that rules have to exist to keep people safe.
“We have the power to move away, or to use or to engage with a specific platform,” she says, criticizing Musk’s take on free speech.
Mansour admires the real-world community that living in Toronto has brought her. In the city, she can connect with other Syrian Muslims that she couldn’t find in Prince George. Mansour follows accounts on Instagram that are localized to Toronto, like the Muslim Legal Support Centre, Islamic Relief at Toronto Met University and The Arab Community Centre of Toronto where infographics provide helpful visuals.
“Despite the many ills that social media can have, I think it’s contributing so much to society,” says Mansour.
“But right now, Twitter is like ‘the Wild West’ of social media.”
Even though she’s on Twitter much less now than she was two years ago, Mansour wants to remind people that all social media sites must have certain protections in place to avoid hate speech towards minorities.
“I think it just [goes] to show that we can’t live in a space where there are no laws, no regulations, no rules,” she says.
“As humanity, we cannot manage without rules.”