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A year after Elon Musk bought Twitter, LGBTQ people say it has become toxic

On Musk’s X, users are allowed to deadname and misgender transgender people and make money off of anti-LGBTQ content.
Gay couple in cutout of twitter logo next to a vertical arrangement of three photos of Elon Musk tenting hands
Kelsea Petersen / NBC News

A year after billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk finalized his $44 billion purchase of Twitter, some LGBTQ people say the once-hospitable home for community building has turned toxic.

Monica Rose, who lives in Toronto, joined Twitter in 2008, just two years after the social media website debuted, and she said that at that time, it was like a “cute little group of friends.”?

Rose, a transgender woman, said that most of her Twitter community was also trans and that she interacted with prominent trans activists and followed news about the surge in state legislation targeting transgender people.?

But Rose’s feelings about the platform quickly soured, she said, after Musk took it over in October 2022; he later renamed it X.

The changes and statements affecting LGBTQ people have come in waves.

In November, days after he became Twitter’s owner, Musk boosted a false, anti-gay rumor about Paul Pelosi, the husband of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, after an attack at the couple’s home. The same month, he reinstated numerous accounts that the previous Twitter management had suspended, often for anti-LGBTQ harassment, and he began to lay off employees who worked on reducing abuse, such as misinformation and harassment.?

In December, he mocked pronoun usage and then smeared a gay former Twitter employee with a false claim that he supported child abuse. He also dissolved Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, a group of outside advisers for fighting online abuse.?

In April, he quietly removed the site’s previous ban on intentionally using the incorrect pronouns or names for transgender people, practices known as misgendering and deadnaming that are offensive and are often used as tools of harassment online.?

Then, on June 2, the second day of Pride Month, Musk shared an anti-trans video, propelling it to more than 190 million views. Despite Musk’s repeated jabs at trans people online and his statement in June, which has since been deleted, that he “will be actively lobbying to criminalize” aspects of trans health care for minors, Musk has at times said he does support trans people. In 2020, he said, “I absolutely support trans, but all these pronouns are an esthetic nightmare.”?

Musk has a trans daughter who has said she does not want to be associated with him “in any way, shape or form.”?

Anika Collier Navaroli, a former senior Twitter policy official who helped write the rules that Musk has changed, said Musk seemed not to comprehend that online bullying can lead to harm in the real world.?

“He’s taking us backwards in time,” she said. She left Twitter in 2021 and is now a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “The work was: We keep people safe. When that gets rolled back, we know the implications of that, which is sometimes life and death.”?

Rose said that before Musk’s acquisition, she had faced some anti-trans hate on the platform but that Twitter’s policies at the time allowed her to report it and then Twitter would often remove it and she could block people who harassed her.?

After Musk bought the platform, Rose said, she would report accounts she believes would have previously violated its policy against hate speech, but she would receive responses that said there was no violation, and the accounts would remain active.

“And some of the reports were taking four or five months to get processed,” Rose said.?

Eventually, Rose could not keep up with the amount of hate she was facing, and she ultimately left the platform in July, saying it has become a “cesspool.”

X’s press office responded to an emailed request for comment with an automated response: “Busy now, please check back later.”?

In the past year, LGBTQ people running some of the most-followed accounts have abandoned the platform. Elton John, who has over a million followers, announced in December that he would quit because of policy changes allowing misinformation.?

“All my life I’ve tried to use music to bring people together. Yet it saddens me to see how misinformation is now being used to divide our world,” John wrote Dec. 9. He has not posted since, despite a personal appeal from Musk.?

A representative for John said he was not available for comment.

Ellen DeGeneres, who for years had the crown for the most-retweeted post ever, has not posted to her 75 million followers in six months, even as she remains active on Instagram. A representative for DeGeneres did not respond to a request for comment on X’s current state.

George Hahn, an actor, writer and humorist who is gay, is also among those who have given up on X. He has 292,000 followers on the platform but has gradually backed away.?

“I hated to leave 300,000 followers. I worked very hard to get to that number, and it’s a community that’s been very good to me,” he said.?

But Musk’s boosting of misinformation about Paul Pelosi was the last straw, Hahn said, and he has moved his social media efforts to Threads, the X competitor created by Instagram. He has little hope that Musk will change.?

“He’s not going to wake up and say: ‘You know, I’ve been a jerk here. I should make some changes.’ It’s not going to happen,” he said. “I don’t want to create any free content that contributes to the business success of that person.”?

LGBTQ advocacy groups say anti-LGBTQ hate on the platform is the worst it has ever been, though they are not exactly surprised. In April 2022, just after Twitter’s board of directors agreed to sell the website to Musk, some LGBTQ users and advocates feared that the harassment they already faced on the site would get worse, citing Musk’s views on free speech and his past statements about LGBTQ people.

Those fears have largely come true, at least according to anecdotal accounts like Rose’s and research from nonprofit groups.?

A report in March found that posts linking the LGBTQ community to “grooming” — a false trope based on a decades-old moral panic — had jumped 119% since Musk took over the platform, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British nonprofit group that combats online hate and disinformation. The report found that five of the accounts with the largest followings that perpetuate the “groomer” narrative were set to generate $6.4 million a year in ad revenue for the platform.?

X Corp., the parent company of X, sued the group in July, arguing that it had orchestrated a “scare campaign to drive away advertisers from the X platform.” The Center for Countering Digital Hate said the move was “straight out of the authoritarian playbook,” and it said Musk will not “bully us into silence.” The suit is pending.?

GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy group, releases an annual Social Media Safety Index and Platform Scorecard that evaluates social media platforms’ policies that ensure safety for LGBTQ users. In its most recent scorecard, published in June, X ranked in last place among the major social media platforms.

“The user safety experience on X/Twitter has steadily declined over the past year — for LGBTQ people, for all historically marginalized groups, and for everyone, including brands and advertisers who understandably don’t want their ads appearing next to extremist hate content,” a GLAAD spokesperson said in an email.?

The spokesperson added that X’s current business model prioritizes “monetizing user-generated bullying of other users, high profile public figures, and members of the general public.”

GLAAD described Musk’s policy changes, including the removal of the ban on targeted misgendering and deadnaming, as “increasingly reckless” and said Musk has continually elevated anti-trans hate speech, harassment and disinformation by liking, replying to and sharing content from “anti-LGBTQ hate accounts.”?

The GLAAD spokesperson said the organization has kept sharing content on X to “continue reaching and celebrating LGBTQ people,” adding, “Our community is consistently creative and resilient, and we refuse to be silent or erased.”

Studying what is happening on Twitter has become much more difficult for outside researchers in the past year after Musk ended free access to the interface researchers used to get data in May.?

“Elon has shut down essentially all good faith efforts to measure pretty much anything about Twitter,” said Jeremy Blackburn, an associate professor of computer science at Binghamton University in New York.?

“There is no realistic mechanism to acquire Twitter data at the scale sufficient to measure things like hate and extremism,” he said.

Though many LGBTQ people have left X because of Musk’s changes, many others have chosen to stay. Alejandra Caraballo, a transgender advocate and clinical instructor at Harvard Law’s Cyberlaw Clinic, said she remains because of the real-life impact of the increase in hateful content.?

She mentioned the account Libs of TikTok, which has 2.6 million followers and led an online campaign against children’s hospitals that provide transition-related care to minors. Hospitals in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Boston have received bomb threats after the account accused them in posts of “grooming” or harming children, according to The Washington Post.

“These kinds of hate campaigns are causing real world effects where people are getting death threats, they’re getting bomb threats, they’re getting harassed, doxxed,” Caraballo said. “I myself was getting CC’d on bomb threats that were targeting schools primarily, but anything related to the LGBTQ community. It’s hard to leave in some ways, because I kind of want to know what’s inciting this right now.”

Though she believes X has become more unsafe for LGBTQ people, Caraballo said Musk’s allowing hateful content to proliferate has weakened the platform’s power.?

“Elon Musk doing this to Twitter destroyed the cultural capital that it had,” she said. “And so even though he’s putting the thumb on the scale so heavily towards this far-right, extreme content, because so many people have left, especially prominent people, it no longer carries the weight that it did or influence that it did.”

Caraballo has not found another platform that fills the gap left by X, but Rose has turned to Bluesky, an invitation-only website similar to X.?

Laurel Powell, the director of communications at the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, said the organization worked with Twitter before Musk bought it to help develop policies that protected LGBTQ people from misgendering, discrimination and hate speech. Now, Musk has done away with the policy against misgendering and largely disbanded the moderation teams that had helped enforce the anti-discrimination and anti-hate speech policies.

“It was a very useful platform that had an outsize influence on the discourse that’s happening in our society, and now, all that’s out the window, and they’re just failing to do their basic duty to protect LGBTQ+ people, organizations that advocate for LGBTQ+ people and any number of other marginalized groups,” Powell said.

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