Elon Musk's Twitter roils with hate speech as trolls test new limits

Twitter has long wrestled with how to enforce content policies fairly on its platform. PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO – In the wake of Mr Elon Musk buying Twitter, 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 advertisers, users and powerful world leaders that use its service.

But as Mr 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 Ms Katie Harbath, chief executive 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 that as soon as Mr Musk took control of Twitter, online trolls began encouraging each other to push the boundaries on Twitter. “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,” she said.

The flood of speech underlines the difficulty Mr 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 on Thursday that Twitter would not spiral into a “free-for-all hellscape” under his leadership.

He has repeatedly opposed Twitter’s enforcement strategies, such as banning some high-profile accounts permanently.

He tweeted that Twitter will form a content-moderation council that includes “widely diverse viewpoints”, adding that major decisions on content and account reinstatement are on hold until the group is convened.

Though Mr Musk has already fired four Twitter executives, including Ms Vijaya Gadde, who headed 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 Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, using her official Twitter account on Thursday evening, minutes after news of Mr Musk’s acquisition of Twitter broke.

She gained at least 40,492 new followers in the hours since Mr Musk took over Twitter, according to a Bloomberg analysis.

Representative Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, also cheered Mr Musk’s takeover of Twitter with a post on Friday morning saying: “Free speech. Liberal tears.”

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 Mr Musk regime.

Mr Robby Starbuck, 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.

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, on messaging apps like Telegram and Internet forums such as 4chan.

A racist slur, lies surge

For hours on Thursday afternoon, a racist slur remained at a low volume on Twitter, with fewer than a dozen or so mentions every five minutes across the entire platform, according to data from Dataminr, a social media analysis platform.

After news broke that Mr Musk closed the Twitter deal, there was a 1,300 per cent 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, showed 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 per cent 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 is using the coronavirus pandemic and a potential vaccine to profit and gain power, increased.

On Friday, the Anti-Defamation League’s Centre on Extremism said it 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. BLOOMBERG

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