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Why It Matters to Disabled Folks If Twitter Goes Dark

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Image source: Getty / OsakaWayne Studios

Things on Twitter are not looking good. Since Elon Musk completed his $44 billion purchase of the tech company in late October, the social platform has continued to bleed scandal, employees and money. NPR reports Musk fired half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees in November, and this week saw another wave of furloughed employees after a bizarre ultimatum demanded they either quit or buckle up for an “extremely hardcore” mentality, long hours and an intense workload. The ultimatum also led to a class-action lawsuit against Twitter: it contends Twitter is violating state and federal discrimination laws on the grounds that many disabled employees felt forced to quit in the face of increasing productivity demands.

Musk’s takeover and introduction (then quick termination) of subscription-based, blue-check verification raised significant security concerns about privacy, misinformation, and the spread of fake profiles impersonating other real businesses or people. The blue check was previously only used to verify the identity of public figures, politicians and journalists.

Some of the chaos is gratifying – a “verified” account impersonating US pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly has announced that insulin is now free, and the stock of the real Eli Lilly has plummeted. (In 2017, Eli Lilly was sued along with two other insulin makers for allegedly conspiring to drive up the prices of insulin, a life-saving drug.) It’s hard to say that the tweet was the sole cause of the stock’s slide. downturn, but it showed what “new Twitter” might be capable of. In the wake of this incident, one user tweeted: “it cost a few heroes $8 to evaporate billions in Eli Lilly stock value. Elon accidentally created one of the most cost-effective anti-capitalist tools in history.”

But among this collision of social media, billionaires and barely contained wildfire of guerilla-meets-troll tweeting, some people have a lot to lose if Twitter goes dark. Disabled people, in particular, rely on social media to connect with others, find community and share their lived experiences in an ableist society.

“Twitter is really the only lifeline for a lot of disabled people, especially disabled creators. If/when it goes down, a lot of us are going to be completely messed up. And I don’t mean like “struggling”, a lot of us are already constantly in that space. I mean *seriously in danger*,” Malibu Darby, a queer and disabled Twitter user, wrote in a tweet.

It’s easy to write off social media as “toxic,” but that ignores the diverse ways people use technology to enhance their quality of life.

Imani Barbarian, a disability activist and writer with more than 170 thousand Twitter followers, wrote a recent essay about the impact of Twitter: “With Twitter crumbling, it feels like the world is collapsing on disabled people.” In the essay, Barbarin wrote that through hashtags like #CripTheVote, she “met other disabled people, especially Black disabled people who validated my experiences and were vulnerable enough to let into their worlds. I finally saw the representation that I still always wanted and disabled people — Black disabled people were in the director’s chairs creating our own narratives and forcing people to see us.” Driven by this community, Barbarin went on to pursue a graduate degree in global communications and began creating her own online movements such as #AbledsAreWeird and #PatientsAreNotFaking.

Like many others, Barbarin fears “that if the platform disappears, the visibility we’ve built — demanded — will also be gone.”

Twitter has been particularly important during the ongoing COVID pandemic as a tool to spread information, find solidarity and talk back to society that has devalued the lives of the chronically ill – especially when it comes to encouraging the (declining) use of masks in public spaces. For example, actor Bill Hader, who is immunocompromised, was applauded by Twitter for being one of the only, if not the only, Emmy contestants to wear a mask.

One more user tweeted“Telling disabled people to ‘just go outside’ as soon as Twitter crashes is fat when you won’t even briefly wear a mask in the public areas of your own apartment building so they can get safely from their unit to the outside world not.”

Twitter’s fate is unclear — but in the meantime, blogging platform Tumblr welcomes Twitter exiles to its site, while writers, journalists and content creators flock to decentralized social media site Mastodon. Regardless of these options, the uncertain decline of Twitter is also a good reminder for everyone to do their part in prioritizing the creation of accessible, inclusive communities elsewhere online and IRL.

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