Elon Musk James Duncan Davidson | CC BY-NC 3.0)

A ‘free’ Twitter does not mean free of consequences. We saw this earlier this month when numerous news outlets around the world, from the New York Times to The Times of India, reported an unprecedented increase in hate speech on Twitter after billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk took over.

As a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” Musk loosened Twitter’s content moderation rules in the name of upholding free speech. So far, this freedom only appears to be galvanizing extremists and further exposing minority groups to hate speech and trauma, which have very real implications for mental health.

The United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech defines hate speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are.”

Since Twitter’s acquisition by Musk, it has seen a nearly 500% increase in the use of the N-word and an uptick in tweets using misogynistic and transphobic language compared to before his takeover. Further, the Network Contagion Research Institute reported that a defining characteristic of tweets with the highest level of engagement has been antisemitism.

Adding fuel to the fire, Musk reinstated several accounts that had previously been banned for violating Twitter’s hateful conduct policy, including Babylon Bee, a right-leaning parody site, that was suspended for mocking transgender people. Recently, Ye, formerly known as rapper Kanye West, had his account reinstated and shortly after re-banned by Musk following his tweet of an image of the swastika over the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism. Ye’s account was first banned on October 9, 2022, for similar reasons.

Musk’s quick and erratic decisions are letting history repeat itself and setting a dangerous precedent for disingenuous free speech warriors to test the waters and see how far they can take their derogatory, hateful words on a ‘free’ Twitter. After undermining Twitter’s years of work to define dangerous language on the platform and protect vulnerable communities from hate speech, Musk gets a failing grade for tech responsibility.

Contrary to Musk’s open letter, giving people a platform to say whatever they want with little to no moderation is not always “healthy.” The harmful effects of online hate speech are manifold and disproportionally affect groups that are already at an increased risk of marginalization. In addition to being a precursor to hate crimes and violence offline, online hate speech has severe psychological impacts on victims, such as depression, anxiety, and safety concerns.

Of note, a sudden and uncontrollable encounter with racist slurs, such as on Twitter, puts victims at risk of suffering from race-based traumatic stress. Antisemitism too has been linked with poor mental health. At its worst, hate speech can lead to self-harm and suicide.

The impacts of online hate speech transcend the victim and influence the wider society, including heightened stress among those who read the hateful content. Concerningly, it can cause our society to normalize discrimination as well as hateful attitudes and behaviors toward certain populations.

Indeed, when platforms for public discourse are flooded with hate speech, free speech begins to lose its value and may be more harmful than beneficial for the wellbeing of our society.

As we wait for Musk and Twitter to take action, here’s what we can do for our mental health and that of our communities:

  • Join the #StopToxicTwitter campaign which calls on the social media platform’s largest advertisers to suspend their campaigns until Musk enforces stronger policies to protect users against hate.
  • Strengthen your digital literacy as it can help you critically analyze the information you see online, counteract hate speech, as well as learn how to engage in responsible behavior online.
  • Importantly, if you need someone to speak to, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s free and confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). If you are in a crisis, you can call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
  • There are specific organizations you can contact to report hate speech, including ADL (a leading anti-hate organization to stop the defamation of the Jewish people) and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. For more serious concerns, you can submit an Internet crime complaint to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

With recent calls to action, it’s high time for Twitter to limit –if not eradicate– hateful and offensive speech. To be sure, a ‘free’ Twitter must also mean a safe Twitter, where the mental health of its millions of users (and the wider community) need not be threatened by hate speech based on their identity.

Gul Saeed is a PhD student at the Department of Social & Behavioral Sciences Yale School of Public Health.