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QAnon, white nationalists and hate speech: Experts reveal how the floodgates opened on Elon Musk’s Twitter

Those who specialise in monitoring the spread of disinformation say ‘trust and safety are dead’ on the social media platform. Alex Woodward reports

Thursday 01 December 2022 15:56 GMT
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One day after officially acquiring Twitter, the world’s wealthiest person pledged that a “content moderation council” would review the restoration of previously banned accounts. Elon Musk said that civil rights groups – as well as those who had experience “hate-fuelled violence” – would be a part of the process.

Then, on 23 November, Musk introduced a Twitter poll asking users whether he should grant “general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam”.

Extremism researchers and experts who have closely studied the spread of online hate and mis- and disinformation have warned that Mr Musk’s acquisition and the mass return of previously banned users could rapidly deteriorate the platform. Under the disingenuous banner of “free speech”, Twitter could become one of the most toxic spaces on the internet for marginalised groups, according to experts.

Without critical guardrails, the platform risks turning into a “hostile environment for people that might be subjected to abuse and the people who don’t want to see it, and that’s the vast majority of people,” according to Imran Ahmed, founder and CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

On 18 November, Mr Musk created another poll asking whether to allow Donald Trump back to the platform. The former president had been permanently suspended from Twitter “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” in the aftermath of the attack on the US Capitol fuelled by his election lies.

Mr Musk also reinstated at least 11 accounts belonging to prominent far-right and anti-trans influencers, including Jordan Peterson and right-wing satirical media company the Babylon Bee, which were both suspended for misgendering transgender people.

Twitter also restored an account for activist group Project Veritas, despite its ban “for repeated violations of Twitter’s private information policy,” as well as the personal account belonging to far-right Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. Greene had been suspended for flagrant violations of the platform’s policies against spreading Covid-19 misinformation.

Effective 23 November, Twitter announced that the platform “is no longer enforcing the Covid-19 misleading information policy”.

‘Trust and safety and content moderation are dead’

The platform has reinstated tens of thousands of previously suspended accounts. Of these, roughly 62,000 accounts have more than 10,000 followers each, including one account with more than 5 million followers, and 75 accounts with more than 1 million followers, according to Platformer. Employees have reportedly called the mass reinstatement “the Big Bang.”

Dozens of clips of a video filmed by a white supremacist who murdered 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch in 2019 – footage that is illegal to share in New Zealand – were not caught by the platform’s moderation tools at the end of November. The clips were only removed after the country’s government told Twitter about it.

“Effectively, trust and safety and content moderation on Twitter are dead under Elon Musk,” according to Sam Woolley, head of the Propaganda Research Lab in the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth. “Twitter has taken … a lot of time and put in a lot of effort over the last several years to respond to the problems of disinformation and propaganda on its platforms. What we have now is a completely confusing environment that Musk contends is free speech for everyone but which is really an informational dictatorship that prioritizes Musk’s whims over any kind of systematic governance of the platform.”

Within the first week of his acquisition, Twitter’s most popular untrustworthy accounts saw their engagements increase by more than 57 per cent, according to an analysis from NewsGuard with data from NewsWhip. Posts from the 25 most-followed Twitter accounts tracked by NewsWhip and associated with publishers that NewsGuard has identified as “repeatedly spreading false information” received more than 3 million likes and shares, the report found.

Two weeks earlier, those same accounts had received roughly 1.98 million likes and shares.

“The findings highlight how Musk’s public statements about potential future changes to Twitter policies appear to have encouraged greater activity by malign actors, boosting the popularity of misinformation on the platform,” according to NewsGuard.

Even without any apparent policy changes, and Mr Musk’s insistence that its policies remain the same, “the simple and highly publicized fact of new ownership and Musk’s public speculation about changes to the platform coincided with a significant increase in the popularity of false narratives,” NewsGuard stated.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate’s analysis of Brandwatch analytics also found a significant “uptick” in hateful and sexist language on the platform within the same time frame that Mr Musk claimed the company’s “strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged” and that hateful speech declined to “below our prior norms”.

In the first full week under his ownership, there were more than 26,000 posts mentioning the n-word – triple the average in 2022, according to the report. There were also more 50,000 posts mentioning transphobic and homophobic slurs, up by 53 per cent and 39 per cent, respectively, than 2022 averages.

Within his first two weeks at the helm, from 31 October to 13 November, there were more than 204,000 tweets and retweets using the gender-based slur “c**t” – up 30 per cent from the 2022 average – and more than 831,000 posts mentioning “sl*t,” up 75 per cent from the 2022 average. Posts mentioning “wh*re” were also up by 60 per cent. The platform also saw significant spikes in antisemitic slurs and racist abuse towards Hispanic and Latino people, the report found.

Despite claims from Twitter’s now-former head of Trust and Safety, Yoel Roth, that the platform had reduced the number of times hate speech appeared on Twitter’s search and trending pages, “the actual volume of hateful tweets has spiked,” according to the center’s report. Asked during an interview at the Knight Foundation on 30 November whether he still believed Twitter’s safety had improved under new ownership, Mr Roth said “no”.

The European Union has signalled that the platform could be regulated or banned in EU countries unless it adheres to stringent rules for content moderation.

“In an offline context, it would be blisteringly obvious that if every time I opened my door and went onto the street, someone shouted a racial slur or religious slur, I would think, ‘Crumbs, I don’t want to leave the house,’” Mr Ahmed told The Independent. “The problem is that Musk recognizes the virtues of Twitter, clearly, because he recognizes the way that it brings people together and has allowed him to communicate to millions of people. He seeks to deny that ability to people from marginalized groups who know that the price of taking part in Elon Musk’s Twitter is an intensified wave of abuse, the likes of which they haven’t seen before.”

On 30 November, the company said in a statement that “none of our policies have changed,” but that its policy enforcement will instead rely on the “de-amplification of violative content: freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach”.

“We have to move beyond a surface-level understanding of what free speech means and actually begin to understand that free speech doesn’t mean the right to practice open hate and violence,” Mr Woolley told The Independent. “You’re not legally meant to be able to threaten people with violence or harm. You’re not meant to be able to sow purposefully false content about electoral processes, but all of these things are happening on Twitter. And so that’s not free speech. It’s informational anarchy and chaos that prioritizes powerful voices who know how to manipulate the system in order to get their content amplified.”

‘I will salute my leader, Elon Musk’

Shortly after his account was restored on the platform, alt-right figure Patrick Casey of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa said on his livestream broadcast that “other than Trump, Elon Musk has done the most for us, absolutely.”

“You have people like [Fox News personality] Tucker [Carlson] who have in some cases broadcast our ideas to tens of millions, hundreds of millions,” he said. “But Elon Musk, he’s up there … and we thank him for his service. … I will salute my leader, Elon Musk. Thank you, buddy.”

Conservatives, Republican officials, right-wing personalities and far-right figures have embraced Mr Musk and his ownership of Twitter, projecting the billionaire as a key figure in their crusade against perceived censorship under a leftist online regime. QAnon influencers who have amassed followings on platforms like Telegram and Truth Social after their bans elsewhere are also returning to the platform, while hashtags and phrases connected to the conspiracy theory movement – like WWG1WGA, an acronym for QAnon slogan “where we go one we go all” – are readily searchable.

Conspiracy theorist influencer John Sabal, known as “QAnon John”, is currently running a Twitter account affiliated with The Patriot Voice, which organises QAnon-affiliated conferences that attract well-known Republican figures and far-right personalities. He also believes Mr Musk is a so-called “white hat” working within the government to dismantle the alleged “deep state” against them.

Mr Musk – who said he intends to “vote Republican” and would support Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis for president in 2024 – frequently interacts with far-right influencers on the platform, building his own so-called “filter bubble” of right-wing admirers and opinions.

He has accused the platform, in its previous incarnation, of advancing “far left San Francisco/Berkeley views” and asserted that Twitter “obv[iously] has a strong left wing bias”. But the company’s own research shows that the platform amplifies right-wing content more than left-leaning posts. Right-wing accounts drove most conversation and topics in the leadup to the 2020 presidential election, according to an analysis from Politico and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Much in the same way that the world paid attention to the former president’s every tweet, media outlets are closely watching Mr Musk’s bully pulpit, from which he broadcasts to nearly 120 million followers.

On 29 October, Hillary Clinton shared a link to a Los Angeles Times story detailing Paul DePape’s digital trail of far-right conspiracy theories before he brutally attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul. The following day, Mr Musk replied with a screenshot of a bogus report accusing Mr Pelosi of getting into a drunken fight with a male prostitute. He deleted the tweet, but thousands of people had already shared it, along with the original widely debunked article which inspired thousands of similar posts.

On November 28, Mr Musk shared – then quickly deleted – a photograph of neo-Nazi influencer Tim Gionet, a.k.a “Baked Alaska”, saluting a McDonald’s.

Two days later, he asserted without evidence that Twitter had interfered with elections in the past. The claim was widely circulated as a breaking news item among right-wing accounts that have baselessly claimed Twitter helped “steal” the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump.

On 1 December, hours after Ye — formerly known as Kanye West — praised Adolf Hitler and said he “loves Nazis” during a virulently antisemitic rant on InfoWars with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Mr Musk approvingly replied to a post made by Ye that mentioned Mr Musk and the First Amendment.

Later, after Ye posted a swastika embedded within a Star of David, he was suspended from the platform.

“I tried my best,” Mr Musk said. “Despite that, he again violated our rule against incitement to violence. Account will be suspended.”

That same day, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, founder of antisemitic white supremacist website The Daily Stormer, was reinstated.

While he pledges to combat the presence of “bots” or fake accounts used to manipulate engagement on the platform, Mr Musk has relied on easily manipulated Twitter polls in an apparent attempt to justify his decision-making.

“These surveys are just a means to an end,” Mr Woolley told The Independent. “They’re so easily gameable that Musk is able to get exactly what he wants out of them. … Musk is doing what I call manufacturing consensus. He’s creating the illusion of popularity for his ideas and other people’s ideas.”

‘A Faustian bargain’ and a race to the bottom

If users begin to leave Twitter, experts say that the platform risks becoming another closed-loop app indistinguishable from competitors like Truth Social and Parler. Such platforms also tout their alleged “free speech” bonafides and are dominated by right-leaning users and false information.

“His current direction of … turning it into a free-for-all of abuse and hatred is commercially unviable in one sense, because advertisers are already flooding out,” according to Mr Ahmed. “The alternative path, which is to make it a subscription-based model, is increasingly going to turn it into a right-wing paid version of Truth Social, and who wants to pay to be on Truth Social?”

Its viability also relies on its utility for media organisations, publishers and journalists. Specifically, it depends on whether they are willing to accept a kind of “Faustian bargain,” in which they can continue to draw highly engaging and valuable content from the platform while enabling Mr Musk’s worst impulses, according to Mr Ahmed.

“The problem with social media at the moment is that the industry for a decade now has been in a race to the bottom of, ‘How can we acquire as much market share as possible with the attention of eyeballs?’ By gaming the algorithm to engage with [them] for as long as possible,” he told The Independent. “Everything they’re doing is perfectly legal, and in fact, reflects their fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders. The truth is that this is a classic example of where a race to the bottom needs to be arrested through regulation that sets minimal standards. It’s a classic example of it.”

Mr Musk provides “the best possible argument that we need to... say that they are part of the democratic space and so therefore they should be subject to democratic norms and democratic accountability,” according to Mr Ahmed.

“At some point we’ve got to wean ourselves off the teat of hoping that billionaires are going to save us,” he added. “Because they’re not.”

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