It's unclear exactly how self-described “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk will impose his vision on Twitter, which the billionaire is expected to purchase for $44 billion. But with no shareholders to appease and Musk’s track record of dehumanizing comments towards transgender people, it doesn't look good.
Musk's plans for Twitter will drive away queer and trans people who have used the platform to create community and advocate for human rights. It will also influence real world events negatively through unmoderated spread of harmful misinformation and incitement to violence. Queer and trans people are rightly worried that their efforts fighting online harassment on the platform will be erased—including policies which prevent misgendering and transphobic hate speech, which often fuel offline harassment and violence.
If that happens, Musk's Twitter will be a genuinely unsafe place for trans people at a time when queer and trans rights are under constant attack across the US and around the world. A report from TGEU shows that 2021 was the "the deadliest year for trans and gender-diverse people" since they started tracking registered murders of those communities worldwide, and a survey of 49 countries in Europe and five in Central Asia describes “an alarming loss in rights when compared to 2020." Anti-trans laws have been introduced in various countries, such as a law in Ghana that would make transitioning illegal. And just last week, a court shut down Russia’s biggest LGBTQ+ rights organization on the basis of spurious claims.
The situation is not much better in the US. Arkansas recently passed the first legislation banning gender-affirming care for minors, which is widely recognized as medically necessary by an overwhelming consensus of medical experts. The law passed after Texas governor Greg Abbott directed state officials to investigate the parents of trans children under baseless claims of “child abuse,” causing some families to begin fleeing the state. The Human Rights Campaign notes that over 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in the US this year, with more than 130 specifically targeting transgender people."
Against this backdrop, Musk has made his attitude about trans people clear through his own Twitter account: pronouns are “dumb” and an "esthetic nightmare," and people who put pronouns in their bio are deserving of mockery. Musk also "reached out" to right-wing site The Babylon Bee earlier this month after the account was suspended on Twitter for intentionally misgendering US Health Secretary Rachel Levine, who is a transgender woman. And last month, Musk tweeted a transphobic meme and briefly changed his Twitter name to “Elona” after Page Six reported a rumor that his pop star ex Grimes was dating transgender whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
In other words, Musk has made it clear that he believes Twitter is a global public square where people can say whatever they want as long as it is not explicitly illegal (although he hasn't clarified what countries' laws he's referring to). "If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect," he tweeted earlier this week.
But as human rights advocates have repeatedly pointed out, creating online spaces where harassment is tolerated effectively silences the voices of trans people and other marginalized groups—and exposes them to real-life violence.
For example, in 2018 Twitter banned deadnaming, the practice of using the name a transgender person no longer uses, but that may still be on legal documents. Deadnaming is not illegal in most places, but it is frequently used as a tactic of abuse, and can potentially expose trans people to real danger- from physical attacks to blackmail. Many US states recognize this, and some courts will waive the requirement to publish an address and previous name when a trans person requesting a legal name change.
Musk, meanwhile, has proposed creating a system for “authenticating all humans” on Twitter\. This carries clear risks for LGBTQ+ people that have been thoroughly explained over the years. In fact, one of the first successful advocacy campaigns against a social media company was the Facebook-focused #MyNameIs campaign in 2014. Facebook used to require people to use their legal names, and in 2014, drag queens, trans people, and sex workers—who for obvious reasons were not using legal names on the platform—were the target of a rash of account suspensions.
After a physical protest at its Menlo Park headquarters brought a slew of bad press, Facebook met with advocates and dialed back its “real names” requirement, and continued to make changes in response to campaigning over the next several years. The #MyNameIs campaign joined voices with the Nameless Coalition, a global group with members from around the world. An appendix to a Nameless Coalition public letter from 2015 included examples of the various people who had been impacted by Facebook's policy, including domestic violence survivors, clergy, high profile Chinese human rights defenders, anti-caste activists in India, and LGBTQ+ activists.
These policies have real-life consequences in places where repressive governments use digital evidence against LGBTQ people. For example, in a high profile case in 2017, attendees at a Mashrou Leila concert in Cairo, Egypt were arrested after images of people waving rainbow flags were widely shared on social media. Since then, new research from Harvard researcher Afsaneh Rigot has shown that the Egyptian government has been hard at work figuring out different ways to use digital evidence against LGBTQ+ people.
Notably, Musk has not said that he wants to require people to use their legal name on Twitter, But even the process of "authentication" itself would be problematic. For example, it could require users to provide some sort of identification, raising a whole host of concerns about Twitter managing personal data. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, "Governments in particular may be able to force Twitter and other services to disclose the true identities of users, and in many global legal systems, do so without sufficient respect for human rights."
Considering the speed with which anti-trans legislation is now being passed worldwide, it's highly likely that governments would use such an authentication system to investigate or prosecute trans people and their families. Ultimately, as Rigot (who herself works under a pseudonym) points out, for many people, "anonymity is the only way we can practice free speech."
As always, Musk’s appeal for “free speech” begs the question: free speech for who, and at whose expense?
Dia Kayyali has been a lawyer and organizer in digital rights since 2014. They currently work as Associate Director for Advocacy at Mnemonic, the umbrella organization for Syrian Archive, Yemeni Archive, and Sudanese Archive.