The Well Actually

Can Social Media Host a Safe Space?

Since Twitter has turned into an unmitigated right-wing troll farm, users are looking to Bluesky in hopes of finding a well-moderated, inclusive haven for LGBTQ people, Black and brown people, and women. That doesn’t mean it’s an echo chamber.

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“Is everyone hanging out without me?” 

The extrovert’s most nightmarish question began nagging at me several weeks ago when I started seeing references to Bluesky—the invite-only social-media platform with just under 100,000 users as of late May—pop up with regularity on Twitter. I’d just marked my 16th anniversary on the bird site, and it was becoming buggier and more unwelcoming by the day. Bluesky sounded like a haven, a place where, reportedly, folks were goofing around and sharing animal pictures and consensual smut and meeting fun new friends without being creeped on and harassed by Twitter’s increasingly empowered contingent of right-wingers and $8 pay-for-play Blue Thirsties. Indeed, it sounded like the answer to the quandary journalists, content creators, lefty tech-types, pundits, and the Very Online have been struggling with ever since Elon Musk took over Twitter last fall: Where are we supposed to post now?

When a friend passed along an invitation in mid-May, I gobbled it up and commenced with the skeeting, mostly finding the platform as-described: chill, silly, friendly, and a little lefty-righteous but in a goofy, self-aware way. I didn’t get all the jokes, and I still haven’t figured out what makes a good skeet, but there was also an undercurrent of the depressingly familiar in this otherwise warm new space: users of color and trans users hosting conversations about how to nip Bluesky’s nascent troll problem in the bud. Of the few hundred folks I follow on Bluesky, dozens have tried to make recommendations about moderation policies and curbing harassment to the platform’s small team, to little avail. Bluesky’s response so far has been to point folks to a boilerplate statement and the “block” function, implying that they are simply too busy and understaffed to kickstart meaningful moderation efforts just yet.

This was an uncanny replay of a similar dust-up in late April following the launch of Substack Notes, a platform I had enjoyed as a means of engaging with my mysterious but enthusiastic newsletter readers. Then, the platform’s top brass bungled repeated queries about how they planned to handle harassment and the proliferation of bigoted content and comments, effectively saying they believe the format of the Notes platform will solve the problem on its own. (So far, it … uh, hasn’t.)

The subtext—and sometimes the text—of these mealy-mouthed responses to calls for meaningful recourse against harassers and creeps is: We’ve got to give trolls the benefit of the doubt lest we let a few free-speech-averse snowflakes run away with the whole operation based on nothing more than the facts of their lived experiences. Again and again, these scions of new social media conflate users’ requests for spaces in which they are not regularly exposed to and targeted with hatred for some sort of hostage-taking demand for an ideologically pure leftist utopia wherein insufficiently radical posters will be drawn and quartered in the digital town square. 

It brings to mind Anderson Cooper’s dippy justification of that disastrous CNN “town hall” event with Donald Trump in mid-May, wherein the anchor accused people tired of seeing a seditious serial sexual predator given a(nother) mainstream prime-time platform as “staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with.” So too, it carries more than a whiff of the New York Timesodious response to their own contributors’ call for fair, evidence-based treatment of transgender issues in the paper, whose coverage has been cited by right-wing groups and politicians in their attacks on trans people and children.

It’s hard to imagine breaking this news to Anderson Cooper or to the New York Times, but perhaps this concept would surprise them: When a man on the internet details how he’d like to see me sexually assaulted, I’m not confused about where he’s coming from—I understand his worldview perfectly well, perhaps even better than he does. I spend every day of my life navigating my safety in and around the fetid cesspool of patriarchy. Neither should trans people be subjected to debates about their own humanity, or BIPOC folks be forced to engage with racism and racist dog-whistles for the sake of their own edification or anyone else’s. Marginalized people simply do not lack for knowledge about the motivations of their abusers, harassers, and oppressors. 

If we choose to engage in a public forum with people who mean to harm us, we ought to be able to do so on our own terms. If we watch or read mainstream news, we should be able to do so with the expectation that bigotry will not be given preferred coverage. That’s it. That’s the whole ask. The fact that this request is repeatedly denied and devalued by people who are heavily insulated from bigoted attacks and harassment is more than both-sidesism. It is the denial and devaluation of the lived experiences of people who have been closest to harm, to the express benefit of an actual ideological minority, who do seek an echo-chamber universe in which queer and trans folks and people of color and women and sexual-assault survivors are not merely silenced, but erased entirely.

The capitulation to this minority by entities that have the means and even the self-interested, capitalistic motivation to do otherwise doesn’t even break down by “red” and “blue” geographies—it is a nationwide problem, and it. To wit: The Washington Post recently reported that two-thirds of book-banning complaints and legal actions, mostly against texts concerning LGBTQ issues and centering characters and stories from and about communities of color, come from “a minuscule amount of hyperactive adults” backed by a handful of right-wing political and Christian groups. 

Behemoth retailer Target pulled some Pride merchandise from stores after concerted attacks by homophobic and transphobic bigots who can’t bear to buy laundry soap within 50 feet of a pair of rainbow socks. After right-wing complaints, six-time World Series champions the Los Angeles Dodgers booted (and then reinstated) the LGBTQ+ performance and activist group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at the team’s annual Pride Night. Pharmacy giant Walgreens preemptively bowed to pressure from anti-abortion politicians to promise not to distribute the abortion medication mifepristone, even in some states where it would be perfectly legal to do so. Hell, real estate magnate Harlan Crow feels so good about the state of things that he believes he alone can dictate federal ethics law.

The message is clear: The lived experiences and identities of transgender and queer folks, people of color, women, assault survivors, and really just anyone who isn’t a raging asshole hell-bent on expending their every waking breath in the service of silencing and shaming, are secondary to the feigned caterwauling of people with the most limited experiences and the most privileged identities.  

The only two options are not “do the bidding of the worst people” or “kill reasoned debate forever.” The loudest, wrongest, most hateful and well-organized bigots already have their own echo chambers, like Gab and TruthSocial and Fox News and OANN! But they have successfully convinced political, media, and business power-players that every public space that isn’t already a right-wing echo chamber—from your neighborhood pharmacy to your local library to your phone’s social media tab—should look and feel like one, or else.

Real question: Or else what? What if we don’t take dissembling about “just asking questions” and “cancel culture” seriously? What if we don’t re-platform Nazis and amplify transphobia and entertain faux-victimization or endlessly debate deliberate lies and misinformation? Gosh, if we don’t play ball, anything could happen: A horde of angry Republicans might storm the U.S. Capitol or ban abortion or send a sexual predator to the White House or criminalize trans people for existing. 

The howling id of American white supremacist Christian heteropatriarchy already enjoys its choice of echo chambers. Bowing to the whims of bigots and fascists never satisfies them; given an inch, they will take not just miles but light years. It is not too late to stem this tide by protecting those with the most nuanced understandings of marginalization and oppression and taking their concerns seriously. Appeasement is the problem, not the solution. 

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