Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The conservative social media company Parler announced on Monday that it is being purchased by Kanye West, who was temporarily suspended from Twitter this month for an antisemitic tweet. A statement from Parler’s parent company announcing the deal described West, who has legally changed his name to Ye, as having taken “a groundbreaking move into the free speech media space” where “he will never have to fear being removed from social media again.”
In a release by Parler, West said that “in a world where conservative opinions are considered to be controversial we have to make sure we have the right to freely express ourselves.”
This development means several social media companies could soon be left in the hands of mercurial, mega-rich men who have pledged to promote “free speech,” including the kind of extreme views that got West temporarily booted from Twitter. Elon Musk is currently in the process of buying Twitter, though Twitter said in a recent court filing that federal authorities (it was not clear which ones) are investigating Musk (while Musk’s attorney said this filing was designed to distract from Twitter’s own legal issues).
For his part, Musk has said Twitter should be “an inclusive arena for free speech.” And former President Donald Trump, who was thrown off Twitter and Facebook in January 2021, founded the company that created Truth Social, which describes itself as a “free speech haven.”
If West and Musk go through with their deals, these three social media platforms are likely to serve as ecosystems for conservative thought. This will likely make the views of those who remain on them more extreme — which could have a radical effect on our politics. That’s because when people who think similarly come together, they reaffirm and heighten one another’s initial beliefs.
While men such as West, Musk and Trump claim to promote free speech by not favoring the moderation of problematic content, here’s what lack of moderation really does: It drives away the people victimized by abusive content such as West’s tweet.
A 2020 study of women in 51 countries by The Economist Intelligence Unit found that 38% have been victims of online violence, from stalking to doxxing to violent threats. As Amnesty International and others have found, women of color are most affected. Antisemitic content is also rampant online. A 2021 report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that a sample of 714 anti-Jewish posts on five social networks had been viewed 7.3 million times.
When women become victims of online hate, they often “shut down their blogs, avoid websites they formerly frequented, take down social networking profiles, (and) refrain from engaging in online political commentary,” according to University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks.
In practice, what these so-called free speech policies really boil down to is an ugly form of censorship that scares away the voices of people who are attacked by users of these platforms.
West has already described Parler as a place where conservative views can flourish, and nonconservatives are unlikely to flock to Truth Social, given its association with Trump. If women, people of color and others start fleeing Twitter, that could leave it as a platform for conservatives as well. This would likely make the views of those who remain even more zealous.
“When like-minded people get together, they often end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk to one another,” Harvard University law professor Cass Sunstein writes in “On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, and What Can Be Done.” Sunstein says this happens because their exchanges heighten their preexisting beliefs and make them more confident.
So, when conservatives get together on social media, we can expect them to become more far right. And just as Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk-show hosts radically altered the political landscape in the 1990s in ways that laid the groundwork for Trump’s presidency, the far-right views nurtured on these social networks could have a huge impact on our country’s politics. It isn’t hard to imagine that the people who commune on these sites could band together to support and elect political candidates who share their worldviews.
We can also expect these male owners to use their platforms to amplify their own views — even when they’re sexist, misogynistic, racist or otherwise hateful.
If West comes to own Parler and Musk takes the reins of Twitter, an already-extant conservative ecosystem will be supercharged on social media. These men’s “free speech” policies are likely to drive away people victimized by hate online. Those who remain in these conservative spaces will become even more extreme as a result of their interactions, which could cultivate a dangerous far-right ideology that has far-reaching effects on our politics.
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Just think about the way these owners already post, with Musk recently suggesting China control Taiwan and Russia keep part of Ukraine and West releasing a music video showing a doppelgänger of ex-wife Kim Kardashian’s then-boyfriend, Pete Davidson, being kidnapped and buried. If this is a glimpse of what social networks will look like in the future, we should all be very scared.