(Bloomberg) — In the wake of Elon Musk buying Twitter Inc., a tide of slurs and racist memes swelled on the platform, sparking concern that the site is entering an era of hateful speech.
Twitter has long wrestled with how to enforce content policies fairly on its platform in order to appease the advertisers, users and powerful world leaders that use its service. But as Musk, a self-styled “free speech absolutist,” took over ownership of the company, some conservative officials, partisan extremists and conspiracy peddlers saw reason to celebrate the change.
“It seems like this is a group of people who think the rules magically changed as soon as he signed on the dotted line,” said Katie Harbath, the chief executive officer and founder of Anchor Change and former public policy director at Facebook.
Dr. Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University, said as soon as Musk took control of Twitter, online trolls began encouraging each other to push the boundaries on Twitter.
“Unfortunately, this spike in hateful language is entirely predictable,” said Tromble, who has studied Twitter for years. “For most of these trolls, it’s a game. But for others, including certain political influencers, saying hateful, outlandish things helps them increase their audience and make money. And they see this as a golden opportunity to gain even more attention.”
The flood of speech underlines the difficulty Musk faces in fulfilling his promise to restore people’s ability to speak freely while managing the palatability of the platform for advertisers, to whom he pledged in a letter Thursday that Twitter would not spiral into a “free-for-all hellscape” under his leadership. Musk has repeatedly opposed Twitter’s enforcement strategies, such as banning some high-profile accounts permanently.Musk tweeted that Twitter will form a content-moderation council that includes “widely diverse viewpoints.” Major decisions on content and account reinstatement are on hold until the group is convened, he said. A Twitter spokesperson added that the company has a hateful conduct policy and it had not made any changes to the Twitter Rules.
Though Musk has already fired four Twitter executives, including Vijaya Gadde, the company’s head of legal, policy and trust, who headed up a team that made decisions on permanently banning certain high-profile accounts, he has yet to make any concrete or substantial changes to Twitter’s moderation policies. Still, on Friday, some conservative politicians and pundits saw the platform coming into his ownership as a symbolic win.
“FREEDOM OF SPEECH!!!!” posted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, from her official Twitter account on Thursday evening, minutes after news of Musk’s acquisition of Twitter broke. Greene’s personal account was permanently banned by Twitter earlier this year for repeated violations of its Covid-19 misinformation policies. “Just wait until tomorrow,” she said in another tweet one minute later.
On Friday, Greene tweeted, simply: “We are winning.” The congresswoman gained at least 40,492 new followers in the hours since Musk took over Twitter, according to a Bloomberg analysis.
Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican of Ohio, also cheered Musk’s takeover of Twitter with a post on Friday morning: “Free speech. Liberal tears.” He gained at least 40,419 followers in the same timeframe, according to Bloomberg’s analysis.
Other partisan accounts with records of repeatedly spreading false claims that the 2020 US presidential election was stolen tested the limits of speech under Twitter’s Musk regime. Robby Starbuck, a former congressional candidate in Tennessee and a pro-Trump activist, published a transphobic and misinformation-laden tweet on Thursday night, prefacing the post with: “Just testing the new Twitter out.” The post collected 80,870 likes and shares on the platform.
An influential anonymous account with nearly 1 million followers, called @catturd2, complained that it had been “shadowbanned” on Twitter. On Friday morning, it was one of the few accounts that Twitter’s new chief responded to: “I will be digging in more today.”
The Starbuck and @catturd2 accounts appeared on the list of repeat misinformation spreaders in a peer-reviewed report from the Election Integrity Partnership, a group of research organizations studying misinformation campaigns, including in the 2020 election.
Dozens of anonymous trolls signed up for Twitter in the past day according to an analysis by Bloomberg, broaching topics that had been heavily moderated by Twitter in the past — such as levying hate speech against protected groups and promoting falsehoods about Covid-19 and its vaccines.
Overnight and into Friday, racist slurs, anti-Semitic speech and offensive memes surged on the platform, with users egging each other on in far-right message boards such as The Donald, and on messaging apps like Telegram and on internet forums like 4chan.
For hours on Thursday afternoon, a racist slur remained at a low volume on Twitter, with less than a dozen or so mentions every five minutes across the entire platform, according to data from Dataminr, a social media analysis platform. After the news broke that Musk had closed the deal on Twitter, there was a 1,300% increase in the word appearing on the platform in various languages, including Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese. At its peak, the word appeared 170 times every five minutes, according to the data.
Mentions of ivermectin, the deworming drug popular among those seeking alternative treatments for Covid-19 in spite of a lack of strong research to back it up, also shot up 2,900% on Twitter, peaking at 358 mentions every five minutes, according to Dataminr.
And mentions of “plandemic,” a shorthand for a conspiracy in which a shadowy cabal of elites were using the coronavirus pandemic and its vaccines to profit and gain power, increased.
On Friday, the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism said it had identified a coordinated effort to spread anti-Semitic content on Twitter, “explicitly drawing inspiration from Elon Musk’s takeover.” Over the past day, the group said, it identified over 1,200 tweets and retweets on the platform that spread anti-Semitic memes.
Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, said in an interview that Musk publicly taking on the responsibility for content decisions for an entire social network, while having business interests in other parts of the world, was unprecedented.
“He has another company that gets a quarter of its revenue from the People’s Republic of China,” Stamos said, referring to Musk’s Tesla Inc. business in China. “That is amazingly different than what has ever happened before.”
The former Russia president Dmitry Medvedev welcomed Musk on the platform with his own post. “Good luck @elonmusk in overcoming political bias and ideological dictatorship on Twitter,” he said on Friday. He added an appeal: “Quit that Starlink in Ukraine business.”
–With assistance from , and .