The messages, in simple white text, flashed onto the walls of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters Thursday evening.
“Launching to bankruptcy.”
Other messages called Elon Musk, who closed his $44-billion purchase of Twitter late last month, a “Space Karen” and “lawless oligarch.” Another quoted a former Twitter engineer who resigned and called on others to protest: “If your personal situation allows for it, it is your moral duty to disobey. To strike. To protest.”
As a mass exodus of Twitter employees who rejected Musk’s “hardcore” ultimatum was unfolding inside the building, the messages continued beaming from a projector mounted atop a tripod set up across the street. Crowds began to gather outside, and the projections started to go viral online.
The projections were the work of Alan Marling, a Bay Area activist who declined to give his age or comment on his profession. He stood nearby — donning a Captain America face mask and a Sunrise Movement beanie — as passersby, many of whom were tech workers getting off work from nearby offices, stopped to take videos and photos.
One man, short of breath, walked up to Marling and said he had run from his home to catch a glimpse of the public display after seeing videos of the messages posted on social media.
After about one hour of projecting the messages, Marling packed up his equipment and went home. On Friday, as Twitter‘s fate grew increasingly grim, Marling spoke with The Times about why he protested the tech giant and its controversial new owner.
Was this your first time projecting your work at Twitter?
I projected previously at Twitter and started there in 2017. I wanted the company to enforce its policies on hate speech and to stop amplifying its tweets of Donald Trump. Twitter really gave him a platform, and they amplified his hate speech. They gave him a way to spread his white-supremacist conspiracy theories, dating back to his birther movement tweets.
Were you glad when Twitter banned Trump from its platform?
I would’ve argued they should’ve done it five years earlier. I’m not going to thank them for doing it so late.
Why did you show up to project more messages on Thursday?
Over the last few months, as I started paying more attention, it became obvious that Elon Musk is a white supremacist himself.
In this case, I was particularly concerned that Elon Musk has gone above and beyond, and below, other companies by firing its human rights staff, his diversity and inclusion staff and many of the moderators.
I wanted to call that out and also his claim that he wanted to make Twitter a space of free speech. It’s somewhat not genuine ‘cause it’s a private company seeking profit off that free speech.
We were considering projecting next week, but we were worried Twitter would declare bankruptcy by then.
Have you protested during other movements in the past?
I protested the Iraq War. But in 2017, I realized the amount of extremism on social media was a problem in the U.S. Social media is causing our society to become extreme because of the way their algorithms work.
And why use a projector this time? Is it hard to set it up?
I wanted a new way to protest. It’s a nonviolent, silent protest that allows people to interact with it as much or as little as they wish.
The difficulty in projection is powering it. I was lugging around a lead battery that weighed 50 pounds inside a suitcase. The suitcase would break and spill acid everywhere. Now I use lithium batteries, but they have a tendency to melt. But it doesn’t explode like Tesla batteries.
It’s difficult to handle. That’s why you don’t see a lot of projection activists.
How do people normally engage with your work?
Some people just walk on past. But some people do respond positively to them. When I project, I try to project something they’re thinking about but haven’t put into words yet. When I succeed in that, I hear “good work,” “awesome job,” and get a thumbs-up. The most common interaction is simply taking a picture.
Even if Twitter collapses, would you still return to its building to continue protesting?
I would be tempted to, yes.
Whether or not Twitter implodes, we should by in large hold tech companies accountable for what they publish and what they are spreading to the world. Specifically extremism drives the most engagement on Twitter and elsewhere, and they will continue to amplify it, even over the truth and democracy, even over the interest of their own country, until we make it unprofitable for them to do so.