Elon Musk has a record of saying one thing and doing another, a fact that has become increasingly obvious and alarming since his takeover of Twitter has resulted in chaos within the company and an uptick in far-right actors and hate speech on the platform.
Take, for example, his circuitous route to owning Twitter. After offering $54.20 per share for the company in April and waiving due diligence, the world’s richest man tried to back out of the deal because, he alleged, Twitter hadn’t offered enough information about fake accounts. It was only months later, when Twitter sued Musk to enforce the agreement, that the Tesla billionaire moved forward with the acquisition.
But rather than beef up the team focused on spam and misinformation, Musk oversaw the shrinking of the company’s workforce by about two-thirds, a mixture of mass layoffs, firings and resignations. Then Musk said that anyone, even new Twitter users with unverified identities, would be able to buy a blue “verification” badge for $8 per month under his leadership ― only to reverse course after a staggering wave of impersonation and scam accounts rolled in.
Most significant, Musk has completely abandoned a commitment he made just a few days after purchasing Twitter. He promised to convene “a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints,” including “civil rights community and groups who face hate-fueled violence,” before making any major content decisions or reinstating banned accounts that had violated Twitter’s rules.
Instead, Musk has taken matters into his own hands, tweeting out a poll to ask if former President Donald Trump, who had been permanently suspended from Twitter after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol for inciting violence, should be allowed back on the platform. Less than 10% of Twitter’s daily active users actually weighed in, but the poll reportedly broke in Trump’s favor by a 4-percentage-point margin, and Musk reinstated his account.
A second poll from Musk, which reported a quarter of the participation of the first one, resulted in a commitment from him to pursue amnesty for all suspended accounts except for those that had violated the law or pushed “egregious” spam, whatever that means.
“Amnesty begins next week,” Musk said on Thursday.
Twitter did not respond to HuffPost’s questions for this article. Musk, however, has blamed his reversal on content moderation on social justice groups, whom he has accused of “starving us of advertising” by pressuring Twitter’s major clients to hold the site’s feet to the fire over hate speech.
Rashad Robinson, president of the online racial justice group Color of Change, who attended an early meeting Musk organized with civic society groups, told HuffPost that Musk’s erratic actions have spoken louder than his words.
“It was just shocking how not ready for prime time Twitter was and how, at every turn, they made the case to advertisers far better than we could have,” Robinson said.
“The advertisers experienced the same thing that we experienced: One minute, these grand promises, and then the next minute they find out that the same people that Elon Musk brought on the call were leaving the company.”
“It was just shocking how not ready for prime time Twitter was.”
Twitter Shifts Right
In the month since Musk took over, Twitter has already reinstated accounts, including those belonging to the right-wing influencer Jordan Peterson and the satire website Babylon Bee — reportedly on Musk’s direct orders — that had violated company policy against misgendering transgender people.
Twitter has also reopened accounts belonging to Andrew Tate, a misogynist influencer; Project Veritas, the right-wing undercover activist group previously banned for violating rules about sharing others’ personal information; and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who had been banned for violating a policy on spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
Meanwhile, far-right actors including members of the Proud Boys are reportedly creating new accounts on the site.
Emma Steiner, a disinformation analyst at the watchdog group Common Cause, said she knew of new accounts being created on Twitter that were focused on the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, supporters of which call for the mass arrest or execution of public figures they accuse of being satanic pedophiles. Some accounts, Steiner said, are trying to “censorship check” Twitter by seeing what kind of material earns a response from the company ― what she called “a lot of boundary-pushing.”
Musk has said that “Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized.” But he hasn’t explained how that will work, and Gizmodo’s Dell Cameron has noted “that doing so competently would involve deploying technology that, at present, doesn’t seem to exist.” In the meantime, slurs and hate speech have been popping up across the site.
Imran Ahmed, founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, told HuffPost that “we’ve seen the anti-vaxxers in particular flooding back in,” as well as a wave of hate speech.
Ahmed pointed to an analysis from his organization showing that the use of racial slurs on Twitter spiked after Musk took over the platform. He also noted a survey that showed 99 out of 100 racist comments aimed at professional soccer players remained up after CCDH flagged them to Twitter.
In the first two weeks after Musk took over Twitter, use of the word “whore” was up 60% over the 2022 average, and the use of “slut” rose to 75% above the 2022 average, according to a CCDH analysis of Twitter data from the company Brandwatch.
Far-right users of the message board 4chan have also sought to capitalize on recent instances of antisemitism from Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, and from NBA player Kyrie Irving. The 4chan users bombarded Twitter with both antisemitic and anti-Black messages in a concerted effort to pit Black and Jewish Twitter users against each other, writer Elad Nehorai noted, as part of an organized campaign under the hashtag #TheNoticing.
“I’d love to see blacks Mexicans and Jews Reservoir Dogs each other,” one commenter wrote, referring to the Quentin Tarantino film in which an ensemble cast of jewelry thieves end up killing each other out of paranoia. The Network Contagion Research Institute found that a surge in mentions of the n-word on Twitter during Musk’s first day occurred in tandem with a surge on 4chan, suggesting a planned “raid” on Musk’s site by racists. Other slurs and hateful comments were similarly visible on Musk’s site.
Musk has painted himself as a free speech warrior, but there are apparently caveats: Amid the wave of account reinstatements on the far right, several prominent left-wing accounts have been suspended, including that of the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club, an anti-fascist group recently noted in The New York Times for demonstrating in support of drag events in Texas. Journalist Steven Monacelli has documented that several accounts belonging to anti-fascist researchers or activists, including one belonging to Chad Loder, have been removed. At least one popular account appears to have been suspended for a joke about hysteria over the HPV vaccine.
Another limitation on free speech has popped up in the Twitter offices: The new company head has reportedly fired employees who are critical of him.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s recently departed head of trust and safety, summed up the situation in a recent New York Times opinion piece citing Musk’s “impulsive changes and tweet-length pronouncements about Twitter’s rules.”
“In appointing himself ‘chief twit,’ Mr. Musk has made clear that at the end of the day, he’ll be the one calling the shots,” Roth wrote. “It was for this reason that I chose to leave the company: A Twitter whose policies are defined by edict has little need for a trust and safety function dedicated to its principled development.”
Compared to social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, Twitter isn’t actually that popular: Roughly 1 in 5 Americans said they used the site, according to a Pew Research Center survey from May, making Twitter comparable to SnapChat and WhatsApp. But the site does act at times like a “digital town square,” as Musk has described it, providing a critical resource not only for journalists and academics but also for government officials and concerned citizens.
That dynamic “has a disproportionate impact on communities that are already targeted, exploited and attacked,” Robinson said. “The rules of the platform matter. Accountability on the platform matters. And now what we have is a dangerous, unaccountable person with an immense amount of wealth and no care about the people and the communities that will be hurt by their actions.”
Steiner noted one recent high-stakes test Twitter faced: when Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, tweeted incorrect advice to voters on Election Day.
Voters in Maricopa County were experiencing long lines and printer problems in several polling places across the county, which is home to Phoenix and most of the state’s voters. Arizonans can participate at any polling place in a given county — if they’ve signed in to one, they only need to be “checked out” to go to another — but Lake urged voters not to switch polling locations at all.
Steiner contacted Twitter, urging the site to append a fact check to Lake’s tweets. Knowledgeable reporters, she noted, had pointed out that Lake was giving false information to her supporters. The tweets could potentially suppress the participation of Lake’s own supporters in the election, a violation of Twitter’s rules.
“It was completely inaccurate,” Steiner said. “You just have to talk to a poll worker to be checked out, and then you can go to another location.”
Twitter “declined” to act on the false Lake tweet, Steiner said. Since then, Lake has repeatedly cited long lines on Election Day as part of her refusal to concede the election, despite trailing the winner, Democrat Katie Hobbs, by more than 17,000 votes.
Owning The Libs
Twitter’s refusal to address the false information from Lake is part of a pattern: The previous Friday, Common Cause had flagged multiple inaccurate tweets about vote-rigging and election fraud, some from accounts with more than 1 million followers, to Twitter only to hear the day before Election Day ― an unusually long response time ― that Twitter would not take action.
“It made us wonder if content moderation was still happening at the platform,” Steiner said.
And she’s not alone. Ahmed told HuffPost that Twitter’s content moderation has always been “underwhelming” but that “it is clear that enforcement has suffered” under Musk.
“It is clear that enforcement has suffered.”
Part of the backslide seems to be due to staffing: Between layoffs and resignations, Twitter’s corporate workforce is about one-third of its pre-Musk size, and that’s not counting the thousands of contract-based moderators employed by the company who are believed to have been fired as well. How else would one Twitter user have been able to post the entire 2001 “The Fast and the Furious” film, in tweets of two-minute video clips, without action on the blatant copyright infringement for hours?
There are other, more serious signs of flailing moderation: Over the weekend, Twitter failed to remove footage of a white supremacist’s infamous 2019 attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, taking action only after the country’s government alerted the company. And Twitter users searching for information about ongoing protests in China have been swamped with spam and pornographic content, seemingly from government-connected accounts.
Twitter’s apparent lurch to the right starts at the top: Users have flagged Musk’s own pattern of interacting with far-right influencers on the site, and he isn’t shy about voicing his views. After mocking old Twitter apparel printed with the hashtag #StayWoke, Musk commented, “It has been really bad. Far left San Francisco/Berkeley views have been propagated to the world via Twitter.”
“Twitter is moving rapidly to establish an even playing field,” he added. “No more thumb on the scale!”
For now, there is no sign of Musk addressing the influx of far-right material and spam he invited to his new property, nor of any new revenue streams strong enough to keep up with Musk’s interest payments, raising questions about what Musk might do to keep the lights on. Advertisers, wary of being affiliated with a potential hate site, are eying the exits, with somewhere between one-third and half of Twitter’s top clients not advertising on the site for weeks, according to a recent analysis from The Washington Post and Media Matters.
To the extent Musk is following any plan at all, it’s one of opposition to his perceived philosophical enemies, Steiner said.
“It does seem to be kind of an ‘owning the libs’ strategy.”