“Not hanging around for whatever Elon has planned. Bye,” tweeted Shonda Rhimes to her 1.9 million Twitter followers just days after right-wing billionaire Elon Musk anointed himself owner of the so-called “digital public square.” Over 48,000 users liked the tweet.
The platform has been hemorrhaging users since Musk’s takeover. Perhaps this is because Musk has been clear about his intentions to decrease moderation of the platform (which is already toxic to many) and charge for basic features. But for one specific group of users, Musk’s ownership of the media-driving platform poses a unique quandary. Progressive political influencers like me must choose between their distaste for Elon Musk and the not inconsequential “following” they have spent years building, in many cases since Trump’s election in 2016. In fact, many such activists have already concluded they simply must stay on Elon Musk’s Twitter to fight the good fight. After all, isn’t bashing the man on his own platform the ultimate way to stick it to him?
Over the last seven years, I’ve tweeted almost daily, building a following of around 112,000 (I’ve lost a couple thousand in the weeks since Musk’s acquisition). I became active on the site around 2015, with the goal of generating memes and viral posts in support of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and slowly built a fairly substantial following. Later, when I joined the digital team at Hillary for America, we would at times use my personal Twitter as part of our digital organizing efforts to recruit call volunteers. After Trump won, the platform served as daily catharsis — a community of like-minded Americans across the country with the shared goal of defending our democracy.
Though we’ve never met, I know some of my followers quite well. We’ve been there for each other through the highs and lows of the last several years. It’s not something I can so easily walk away from. Moreover, some who follow me are people that — simply put — would never be engaging with me in real life. Today it was Sarah Silverman — she followed me after liking my tweet criticizing the Washington Post for perpetuating a racist trope to attack Stacey Abrams.
For context, I have a Harvard Law degree, an MBA from Yale and a policy degree from the Kennedy School, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that my Twitter presence has opened at least as many doors as those credentials. It’s been a powerful networking tool. Prominent reporters know who I am because of it, and I’ve spoken with many of them. I’ve been invited on television, podcasts and to events based more on my Twitter presence than any qualifications I may have. (An admittedly concerning reality, but still reality). Recently, I even got to lecture at Harvard Law School about how law students and lawyers can use social media to amplify their advocacy efforts. Especially in institutional spaces, my Twitter success is a signal that I speak a language other smart people struggle to learn. To progressive influencers, our Twitter followings are a valuable asset.
Personal incentives aside, I do genuinely believe what I do on Twitter matters. I create tens of millions of impressions on important Democratic messages each month. (An impression is akin to a view — a tweet appearing on a user’s timeline.) I call out harmful media framing and can draw attention to important issues that are being overlooked. Presidential campaigns, non-profits, reporters and even the official Democratic Party have asked for my help amplifying their work.
In staying, we affirm the premise that an unstable billionaire can and should own the digital public square.
Yet, as my followers well know, progressive influencers cannot stand Elon Musk. In fact, I would argue he is doubly bad — a cartoon villain of sorts. Musk is both personally unpleasant — and his ownership of Twitter is a system-wide threat to our democracy. Musk claims to be a centrist but spends his days promoting extremist Republican candidates, mainstreaming QAnon conspiracy theories and cyberbullying marginalized individuals. He is pro-authoritarian both domestically and abroad. Though he denies it, Musk reportedly back-channeled with Putin. His plans to deregulate Twitter and restore Donald Trump’s account are consistent with this hunger for anti-democratic behaviors in the name of some pseudo-intellectual understanding of “free speech.”
For all of these reasons, users like me must at least consider leaving the platform. In staying, we affirm the premise that an unstable billionaire can and should own the digital public square. There are all sorts of ways Musk is likely to weaponize his control of Twitter against marginalized communities and our democracy. A resistance buzzword comes to mind. In continuing to create content on Musk’s platform and keep our followers there, too, we are, in some ways, “complicit.”
Still, there aren’t great alternatives to Twitter. The nature of successful social media platforms is that they thrive off of critical mass and network effects; everyone would need to leave and join the same new platform to achieve a similar impact. Alternatives exist, but tweeting doesn’t easily translate to visual forms, like those on Instagram and TikTok. It’s not simply a lateral move.
Herein lies the dilemma: in leaving, influencers must consider that their act of protest and moral consistency will be for naught if millions of others don’t follow suit. A few hundred-thousand users appear to have joined a Twitter-alternative called Mastodon, but this is a drop in the bucket compared to Twitter's user base. And high-profile tweeters like Molly Jong-Fast have concluded that leaving the platform would be “ceding ground.”
However, notably, the same trade-offs do not exist for the average Twitter user — who doesn’t even tweet and uses the platform to follow the news. There are many credible alternatives to getting information. These users should decide for themselves whether it is right to stay or leave. In a reversal of roles, if enough users leave — the influencers will follow. To where? That’s the $44 billion question.