#OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign on what we all stand to lose if Elon Musk crashes Twitter

The media strategist and advocate who's created movements says living in Twitter limbo is "stress-inducing"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 7, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

April Reign is the founder of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, has recently spoken out against HBO's planned series "Confederate." (Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
April Reign is the founder of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, has recently spoken out against HBO's planned series "Confederate." (Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Politico's scoop that it had obtained a draft opinion revealing that the Supreme Court had voted to overturn Roe v. Wade spread earlier, and fast, on Twitter. That in itself is not news; the social media platform has been the masses' de facto newswire for many years now, for better or worse. But it is an example of how we take the service's speed, reach, and relatively unfettered, instantaneous access to information for granted.

This is as vital for journalists as it is for activists and community organizers, especially in times of crisis. But it's also a beneficial tool for stirring bystanders to action, as April Reign proved when she created #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag that turned a Klieg light on Hollywood's lack of people of color among the nominees for the 87th Academy Awards. This was the first push in what became a larger movement for inclusion in front of and behind cameras throughout the entertainment industry.

In addition to her work as an inclusion advocate, media strategist, and consultant, Reign also uses Twitter as a means of amplifying marginalized voices, sharing information, and connecting people with resources. She is an expert in harnessing Twitter's power to enact change, in other words: Her most recent campaign, #SheWillRise, is devoted to supporting and elevating the profiles of Black female attorneys and judges across the nation and sharing important news about developments in our justice system.

And she's precisely the type of expert-user Elon Musk might lose if he fundamentally changes the way that Twitter operates.

"I've been very transparent about the fact that I owe Twitter for my professional livelihood right now," Reign told Salon in a recent interview. "And what happened with #OscarsSoWhite, and some of the other hashtags I created, or activations that I've been involved with, could not have happened on any other social media platform." 

Musk, calling himself a "free-speech absolutist," declared that Twitter needs to be transformed into a private company, which many have interpreted as an indicator of his aims to curtain the platform's moderation policies.

But those policies were enacted to curb harassment and curtail the spread of misinformation. And as a private company, nobody knows what level of oversight may be put in place to prevent Musk from mishandling user information or censoring certain voices.

"It is incredibly stress-inducing for those of us, especially who have built significant platforms or who owe their livelihoods to Twitter in various ways, including me, to not know what is coming next," she said.

We spoke with Reign about her history with Twitter, soliciting her thoughts on what she believes might be in store for those who use the platform as a means of developing and supporting social justice movements.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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How long have you been using Twitter? And when did it really start to coalesce for you in terms of building your brand?

I joined Twitter in March of 2010. So it's been 12 years now. You know, it's interesting that you want to talk about movements. Definitely the death of Trayvon Martin, and the death of Michael Brown, were where things really coalesced for me. I found out about the murder of Mike Brown through Twitter. Someone tweeted something like  I'm paraphrasing  "Hey, they just killed somebody right outside my window." And you know, he had a picture there of Mike Brown's lifeless body laying in the middle of the street.

In fact, the data shows that there were over 1,000 tweets about the death of Mike Brown before any major media outlet picked it up. And so for those of us who wanted to be helpful and perhaps could not be on the ground in Ferguson, Twitter became a community hub. It was forwarding information about, you know, "If you are tear-gassed, don't use water, use milk." Or "The cops are coalescing over here. So make sure you're over in that area instead."

So it became a rallying point. It became a place for people in the movement to get real-time information that would be helpful to them.

That was before #OscarsSoWhite. That was just me trying to be helpful. And then #OscarsSoWhite happened for me, and my whole life changed.

Do you see there the possibility of another instant communications form that might be used in lieu of Twitter? Or are we stuck with it for the time being?

I honestly don't know. I think that Clubhouse attempted to be the next major platform. And it faltered a bit. There were a lot of concerns about misogyny and antisemitism on the site, and that's when it stumbled.

"We are already teetering on the edge of, 'Is this worth it?'"

. . . I think that many people have tried and been unsuccessful in recreating the Twitter model. Also, people on Twitter have run off some of the brightest minds that we have. I think about Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others who just don't feel it's worth it to attempt to engage with folks based on the vitriol that they receive.

So it's hard to say, because for those of us that have been with Twitter for a while and have established platforms, that would mean that we're starting from zero. And that's difficult, you know. In my case, how do you go from 190,000 followers to zero, and try to build up again? Also, it's not about the followers, it's about the community. I know that if I need to put something out there in the world, or if I need to amplify folks, I have a built-in community that will help me do that if word needs to get out about something very quickly. It would be harder for me to do that on a brand new platform.

At the same time women, especially marginalized women, we experience untold harassment, gaslighting, appropriation of our ideas and culture. And we are already at our breaking point. We are already teetering on the edge of, "Is this worth it?" And these are questions that I ask regularly. Unfortunately, if things were to get any worse than they are right now, then maybe the answer is, '"OK, 12 years for me was a good run."

April ReignCreator of #OscarsSoWhite movement, April Reign, poses for AFP during a photo session in Hollywood, California, on February 1, 2020 (VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)What would be your "no-go" point? Or do you feel like, there's a chance that Twitter can remain this platform for both communication in real time along uplifting and amplifying each other?

Good question. You know, I have friends who are Twitter employees, and friends who are Blackbirds and some who are part of some of the other ERGs (Employee Resource Groups). And so I wonder what it looks like for them.

I think about the fact that in 2018, I was asked to help curate a live simultaneous nationwide watch party of "Black Panther," like the week before it dropped. I was able to say, "OK, in these 10 cities around the country, here are all of the Twitter people that I you know, the people who use Twitter that I know, let's invite them." That wasn't movement building. That was just a really special moment that only the Blackbirds of Black Twitter could have pulled off.

So I wonder whether Elon Musk, who does not have a great track record with respect to his Black employees, to say the least, will see events like that as important and will still champion them.  And if he doesn't, if things drastically change for the employees, then that means it also drastically changes for me, to get back to your actual question.

The breaking point is if I see employees being treated badly, is if I see a . . .  drastic influx of the number of bots and trolls, and those people are things you can't control, but also more power given to those who are not open to conversation.

My concern is that over time, we'll see just the withering of the community that we have, and if we lose a whole bunch of really bright minds. I love the fact that Roxane Gay is on the site, and I can just see what she's talking about or engage with her. If we were to lose her and lose Michael Harriot and lose other folks, it's like, OK, then, where am I getting my news and information? It definitely hasn't been TV for over a decade. So where do I go to be able to learn from and interact with these folks?

"Black folks are malleable, sometimes against their will, sometimes intentionally so. We will make the best of a situation."

Some people, at least a few I've spoken to, have said, "Well, start subscribing to their Medium channel, their Patreon, and their Substacks." But that's a different kind of thing.

It's a one-way street. It's not actual engagement . . . That's not the same type of interaction. And those things also already exist. right? So we're not talking about creating anything new, it's just migrating over and using those other platforms more.

I wonder if there is a way that people can make their spaces a little more intimate and useful without shutting out new voices, that aren't necessarily being contrarian. Because as people have said, the beauty of Twitter isn't necessarily being with a bunch of people who agree you, but actually getting different points of view to enrich opinion. Do you see that you see the potential using Twitter slightly differently, in a way that's still useful?

I hope that's true. You know, I'm going to be 52 in a couple of weeks. I am no spring chicken. And I have learned so much from folks in my kids' generation, Gen Z, millennials, and others different points of view, but just information. I also recognize that, you know, I'm a [cisgender], hetero, able-bodied Black woman still learning more about the queer community, things that I'm not going to get from an article because they are lived experiences and people talking about their issues in real time.

. . .  So if I need to ask a "stupid" questio, so that both I and others can learn from others that are in various communities, then I'm happy to do that. I hope that that doesn't change, that there are still people out there and I'm not talking about like, tutorials, you know but just people talking about what their lives are like, and the rest of us getting a different and broader understanding.

I think that's the crux of what Twitter is. I also know that in every instance, Black folks are malleable, sometimes against their will, sometimes intentionally so. We will make the best of a situation. So it may mean that Twitter changes because Black Twitter kind of runs Twitter it changes and it morphs into something new, but that we're still able able to carve out a very important place.

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There is a commerce element here, that movement Twitter and I mean that in terms of all movements, not just Black Twitter   brings to the platform.

And I think one of the things that when Elon Musk said when the announcement was made, he said, in essence, "I hope that people that disagree with me don't leave because I believe in contradictory points of view." A lot of people pointed out the reason he's saying that he has an outside board of investors that help them put up the money. And if these people do leave, then that, you know, that basically decreases the value of the product.

What do you think is the the tipping point between people involved in movements looking at the commerce element and saying, "OK, this is the devil we know," you know, and actually saying, "You know what? We've got to find a different way"? Is there a tipping point?

I think there is. I don't know that movement Twitter considers its value enough on the platform and recognizes how valuable it actually is. Because, again, Twitter is the only platform in which you can have those conversations, in which you can galvanize people and support. It's not Facebook, it's not Instagram, it's not TikTok.

But I don't know that on a regular basis, [movements] fully invest in their value and leverage it in ways that they should. So I don't know what the tipping point is, and because there isn't another platform. I think that movement Twitter will be undervalued in that way.

. . . It's like you know, that line in " An Officer and a Gentleman": "I have nowhere else to go." And so what do you do? You have to continue this work. . . . It's sort of a Catch-22, I guess, right? People don't value their importance enough, and so they stay. And then on the other side, the organization says, "Well, you don't have anywhere else to go anyway. So we're going to undervalue you as well."

Gosh, that's true and depressing.

It is.

Right now, as you said, you have a lot of contacts, within the tech world, probably within Twitter itself. I don't want you to put anybody's business in the street, but do you get any sense that there's any thought of, "OK, we're going to be able to hold the line"? Or what does it look like to you?

It looks like uncertainty. You know, there are a lot of people, me included, who are hoping that the FCC will do what the board of directors could not, or would not, and say no, this is too much power for one person to hold in this way – who has absolutely no experience in any of this, right? That's part of it.

I mean, white men be bored. That's the through line here. Why, Musk? Are you doing this for spite, or to be petty because someone pitched you up, or you just bored? Because $44 billion, even though you know, it's not all his and he has to raise it, and yada yada, yada. But whatever the amount is, put that toward police reform or education. With that type of money, you are able to consult with the leaders in any of those fields and really make a substantive difference in the lives of people.

Instead, he's choosing to buy a tech app because he doesn't already have one. And because it's so flippant in that way, it's concerning for many of us. Because, OK, and then he gets bored with Twitter, and he moves on to whatever else. And then what are Twitter employees and those who use Twitter left with? What if he runs it into the ground ? So we're waiting – and not with cautious optimism, unfortunately.

. . . Once you start to build something strong, you stay there and you continue to incubate it. And so I am worried for what movements galvanizing thousands of people, not just in this country, but around the world, what that's going to look like if Twitter changes significantly.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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April Reign Black Lives Matter Black Twitter Elon Musk Interview Oscars #oscarssowhite Twitter