Very OnlineTwitter is a Salve for Black People. It’s Also Anti-Black.

Photo credit: Timi David/Unsplash, The Gender Spectrum Collection, Angelo Moleele/Unsplash

On June 19—JuneteenthTwitter’s pinned a tweet of a photo of a Minneapolis billboard that displayed a tweet. The tweet, taken from author and activist Frederick Joseph’s Twitter account, read, “Protestors aren’t trying to start a race war—we’re trying to end one.” It was retweeted more than 9,000 times, and liked nearly 50,000 times. Joseph’s tweet was a part of a Twitter campaign in which Black people’s tweets were shared on billboards all across the United States. One person featured, podcast programmer and songwriter Yolanda Sangweni, explained the source of the billboards, writing that “in exchange for this, @Twitter will be donating money to a Black organization.” The effort was meaningful, especially up against platforms like Facebook and Instagram, which continue to pay mere lip service to the concept that Black lives matter while simultaneously refusing to fact check racist users of their platforms (the current president included).

In the midst of uprisings against police brutality, Twitter changed its bio to read #BlackTransLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter. Twitter offered a platform to Opal Tometi, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, in allowing Tometi to speak to the meaning of #BlackLivesMatter in a video they shared on the official Twitter account. The @TwitterTogether account shared a gif explaining the history of Juneteenth and also included a link to Twitter’s inclusion and diversity report, which explains Twitter’s 2025 vision to have at least half of their global workforce be women, and at least 25 percent of the United States workforce be underrepresented minorities. It shares that across all roles, Twitter is 41 percent white, 28 percent Asian, 6 percent Black, and 5 percent Latinx; nonwhite people decrease when focused solely on leadership, in which nearly 60 percent of those in leadership roles are white.

These numbers lead me to this question: What does Twitter’s commitment to Black people actually look like, and what is the impact when Twitter fails Black users? “It’s hard to remember sometimes, but social media once functioned as a tool for the oppressed and marginalized. In Tahrir Square in Cairo, Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, activists used Twitter and Facebook to organize demonstrations and get their messages out,” Kevin Roose wrote in a June article for the New York Times. “But in recent years, a right-wing reactionary movement has turned the tide. Now, some of the loudest and most established voices on these platforms belong to conservative commentators and paid provocateurs whose aim is mocking and subverting social justice movements, rather than supporting them.”

When Twitter is overrun by conservative voices, it’s overrun with racist perspectives that promote anti-Blackness, whether clearly or sneakily, with users baking racism into memes, posing as a devil’s advocate, or trolling by using Black profile photos to play at being Black themselves. It becomes a place where Black users, especially queer Black people and Black women, have to watch their backs, just waiting for the moment their tweets end up in conservative spaces, leaving them vulnerable. “Being a public facing woman on social media is dangerous,” explains I.S. Jones, a 30-year-old, writer and editor currently based in Madison, Wisconsin. “When I wrote a piece on [rapper] XXXTentacion, I was harassed and insulted for days, and no matter how many times I reported it, Twitter did nothing. I’m fortunate enough that people speak out on my behalf, but most Black women are not afforded that luxury.”

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That lack of support has real impact, especially considering that Black women receive so little support even offline. “The violent racism that goes unchecked on the platform can be triggering when you’re on Twitter so often,” says Ebony Purks, a 22-year-old freelance writer and blogger based in Texas who remains on Twitter despite its issues to promote her blog and find work. “Sometimes you come across racist content when scrolling through comments or someone retweets or engages with something problematic. Either way, whether consciously or subconsciously, Black people having to come in contact with racist content so often has a negative effect on our psyche and perception of self.” Twitter is still as much as salve as it is a source of violence.

Though Black Twitter users exchange ideas about everything from trending television shows to demonstrations against police violence, that platform has become, as Jenna Wortham writes in a 2016 article for Smithsonian magazine, “a virtual place to just hang out.” “There is much about the shared terrain of being a Black person in the United States that is not seen on small or silver screens or in museums or best-selling books, and much of what gets ignored in the mainstream thrives, and is celebrated, on Twitter,” Wortham writes. “For some Black users, its chaotic, late-night chat party atmosphere has enabled a semi-private performance of Blackness, largely for each other.” For years, hashtags have been created about everything from popular television series to lived experiences (#LivingWhileBlack became a linchpin for an entire dissertation), creating a space for Black people to both find and create a sense of community.

That community is valuable, especially in quarantine where many of us don’t have access to our usual communities offline. On Twitter, Black people can connect over everything from music to politics to memes. “My relationship with Twitter as a Black person and as a Black creator is that I find that not only is there a wealth of joy and humor to be found, [but] there’s also something to be said for the exchange of personal stories that create empathy and different perspectives in our community,” Joshua Williams, a 26-year-old author and artist based in New York City and Ohio, told Bitch. “I see new stories told everyday, whether it’s an anecdote about growing up Black, or a new fact about my heritage I have had yet to explore. There’s just so much that we are able to talk about on Twitter as a platform and gain so much support from our peers; It’s invaluable.”

Though Black Twitter has the unique ability to shift, with its most prominent voices changing year in and year out, but the soul of this “constellation of loosely formed multifaceted communities created spontaneously by and for Black Twitter users who follow or promote Black culture” remains consistent. Black Twitter, then, is by and for Black people, which is valuable given the internet’s ability to spread anti-Blackness just as easily (if not more easily) as it spreads pro-Blackness. But Twitter didn’t set out to create such a community. Originally, the mission of Twitter was much smaller: a tool where you could communicate with your friends online via a single text. In 2006, in its early stages, no one imagined that it would burst beyond small friend groups and become a space where tweets can land in front of anyone with an account, stripped of the context, and the safety, that comes with community. 

There’s a history of white supremacy on Twitter; it’s not just a blip or an error.

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Now, Black Twitter users are subjected to unchecked harassment and rampant violence, with a 2018 Amnesty International study finding that women of color disproportionately face violence and harassment on the platform. Black Twitter users are also at a disadvantage because the vitriolic tweets that the platform allows to spread with impunity. “Twitter says it abhors racism on the platform, but its current rules permit racism and racist speech, only banning users who promote violence or make threats or harassment on racial grounds,” Sunder Katwala wrote in a 2019 article for the Guardian. “New rules won’t help if Twitter can’t enforce them.” Take, for instance, the now-infamous racism Leslie Jones faced at the hands of (largely white, male) Twitter users who were angry about her role in the Ghostbusters remake. Jones was doxxed and impersonated, and harassed for weeks with vile, racist memes and imagery.

Jones eventually left the platform, primarily because of Twitter’s unwillingness to effectively shut down the accounts of those harassing and abusing her. In a statement, Twitter said, “We realize we still have a lot of work in front of us before Twitter is where it should be on how we handle these issues.” From Jones to Charlottesville to now, there’s a history of white supremacy on Twitter; it’s not just a blip or an error. “You can make the argument that Twitter is a more focused iteration of america: who is the least protected is the most vulnerable among us,” Jones explained. “Black women are easily punished and least protected; Black men causally make jokes about killing black trans women & nothing happens to them.” Rather than committing to anti-racism at the start, with the many brilliant people behind the app ensuring that anti-Blackness and violent racism was difficult to spread on Twitter, they committed to other things, like Moments and the ever-changing threading process.

We got gifs and sponsored tweets, but we didn’t get an effective reporting system or a team dedicated to fighting racism or suspending accounts that perpetuate white supremacy. “[By putting] the work on Black Twitter users to report racist content, Twitter is treating Black people as if it’s our responsibility to do the work towards eradicating racism, as if our responsibility to do the work is greater than [that of] Twitter itself,” Purks told Bitch. Everyday Twitter users aren’t tech geniuses who should be held accountable for fighting racism on Twitter—and we shouldn’t have to be. Though Twitter may, at times, function as a bubble, ideas that start on Twitter don’t remain on Twitter. 

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Donald Trump, who’s one of the biggest threats to Black people in the United States, regularly tweets content that encourages violence against marginalized groups, and has spent the last nearly four years bolstering a militia that is meant to, and likely will, act in his name. He has cultivated an account that retweets, and therefore boosts, content from white supremacists, along with deepfakes that present news sources as unreliable, racist, and untrustworthy. And he does so to 84 million followers. Though political pundits have noted that reposting racist, anti-Black content could hurt Trump in the November 2020 election, that guidance would stick to a person who cares about the rules of engagement. But Trump has proven, even if solely through his Twitter presence, that he has no regard for rules.

Trump isn’t interested in running for re-election because he may not have to: He might just refuse to leave. And he’s used his Twitter account to build and bolster a following that sees him as the god who they should protect at all costs. Imagine a world where Trump doesn’t have a Twitter account. One where white supremacists throwing out the n-word, threatening the return of the confederacy, or encouraging civil war results in a simple account deletion? It’s not a world where Trump is any less racist or any less violent, but it’s a quieter world where Trump isn’t able to so easily push statement after statement that encourages violence in the name of his ego. And if Twitter were serious about the idea that Black lives matter, it would have deleted his account before things could’ve escalated to this point.

Twitter is working to diversify its workplace, but we know that diversity efforts don’t always work; if the downfall of the girlboss and the continued repeat of the glass cliff—the concept of hiring Black women to fix workplace racism and misogyny as a company is failing—shows us anything, “diversity” doesn’t always mean tangible change. Even if more Black people end up working at Twitter, they can’t retroactively strip away the impact of dozens of tweets inciting anti-Black violence from the president and other white supremacists on the app. “Twitter can better support us by giving us our due (Black tweets are typically the most cited and used in marketing and sharing) and enacting policies that prevent its users from hurtful and ignorant online practices such as hate speech, doxxing, and general spread of misinformation,” Williams adds. “There’s always going to be the argument for ‘freedom of speech’ but on Twitter trolls see that as ‘Freedom of Hatred’ and that’s the issue: we don’t always feel safe in voicing our views, stories, and joy.” We used to pay for Twitter with our data. Now we pay for Twitter with our safety. At a certain point, we have to ask if it’s worth it.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.