Elon Musk’s Twitter is starting to take shape.
A “general amnesty” has restored hundreds of accounts belonging to right-wing activists and QAnon supporters, according to data reviewed by NBC News. The reinstatement of far-right accounts coincided with a series of left-wing account bans, leaving users unsure about how the company is now enforcing its rules.
“The ambiguity is a problem,” said Yoel Roth, who recently left Twitter as head of trust and security. “People don’t know if the rules have changed, and amnesty suggests there’s disagreement on some level at least about removing some of those people. So we see that a lot of rules are being pushed, in combination with more limited enforcement. It’s a dangerous combination.”
The reintroductions and bans come as researchers continue to monitor an increase in hate speech and high-profile users are leaving the platform. Together they have created a shift in platform that has been noticed by Musk’s criticsas well as his supporters.
Musk, who took control of Twitter at the end of October, has maintained that the company has not changed its moderation policy, although Twitter did announce this week that it is no longer enforcing its Covid policy on disinformation.
But Musk has also used informal Twitter polls to make key decisions, first to reinstate former President Donald Trump’s account and then to issue “general amnesty” for suspended accounts.
“The people have spoken,” he tweeted last week. “Amnesty starts next week.”
Musk kept his word. Travis Brown, an independent software developer in Berlin who tracks Twitter suspensions and screen name changes as part of a project that studies extremism, shared a dataset for this article that showed that a wide variety of far-right accounts had recovered since Musk’s announcement.
In that time, Brown has logged an estimated 12,000 rollbacks from past bans, in a run that, while not a definitive list of rollbacks, paints a picture of the types of users welcomed back to the platform, leaving experts alarmed. Among the spammers, copyright violators, adult content creators, and high-profile accounts, Twitter has reopened the door to a growing and emboldened community of trolls, white nationalists, conspiracy theorists, and far-right activists.
Patrick Casey, a white nationalist, and Andrew Anglin, a neo-Nazi, have been reinstated.
“I never thought I would see the day when I would be allowed back on Twitter and yet here we are,” Casey told listeners of his podcast on Tuesday.
Those remediations coincide with some users saying they’ve experienced an increase in harassment that prompted them to leave.
“Since the takeover, I’ve been getting more occasional racism and sexual harassment,” Jane Manchun Wong, an independent Hong Kong app researcher known for breaking insider secrets about ongoing features, said Wednesday. in a post on the open-source social network Mastodon, citing “the number of trolls scaling up and getting stronger on the site.”
Author Sam Harris deleted his account with 1.5 million followers last week, following Trump’s recovery. In one of his last tweets, Harris wrote, seemingly referring to Musk: “The prevailing opinion among ‘free speech absolutists’ seems to be that in order to get sane, this platform must helplessly publish every maniac’s malicious lies, on big scale. regardless of the consequences.”
Many of the accounts in Brown’s set had flags and hashtags in their bios that indicated they were involved in the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, which was largely removed from Twitter last year.
Those reassignments also come after Twitter slashed its staff, including those dedicated to dealing with abuse and hate speech. In a Wednesday interview with technology journalist Kara Swisher, Roth expressed doubts about the platform’s ability to enforce its dwindling policies.
“Are there enough people who understand the emerging malicious campaigns happening on the service and understand them well enough to drive product strategy and policy direction?” he asked. “I don’t think there are enough people left in the company to do that job.”
While a lack of effective content moderation has reportedly turned off advertisers and alienated some users, the move to bring back hordes of former rule breakers has also drawn attention to the platform, a statistic Musk seems to appreciate, said Sarah T. Roberts , an associate professor at UCLA and the author of “Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media.” She briefly worked at Twitter to research content moderation, but returned to the school this year.
She called the reinstatement of banned accounts “a field day” for their holders.
“From their point of view, there’s a sense of justification and you just have to wait for the weather to turn,” Roberts said.
That turn now appears to include new suspensions in addition to the account recovery.
Several independent media accounts reporting on far-right groups and left-wing activists have been suspended in recent days.
Chad Loder is a Los Angeles independent journalist with more than 137,000 followers whose coverage of the January 6 riot has been cited in Justice Department indictment documents. Loder, who uses she/she pronouns, recently had his account suspended, reinstated briefly, and then suspended again for no apparent reason.
Twitter initially incorrectly flagged the account as spam, reinstated it on Nov. 23, and then suspended it again for ban evasion, according to the company’s reports, which Loder shared in an interview.
Loder said their account was banned shortly after being placed on a right-wing “target list” of accounts to report for Twitter rule violations.
On Nov. 25, the account of anti-fascist publisher CrimethInc, which had more than 66,000 followers, was suspended after right-wing activist Andy Ngo tweeted at Musk asking for it to be banned. Leigh Young, a member of the group, said CrimethInc never received an official explanation for the suspension.
“This suggests that the decision to ban our account shortly afterwards was made by Musk himself,” Young said.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on the suspensions and reinstatements. Requests for comment sent to Musk’s email addresses bounced back as undeliverable. On Thursday, Musk demonstrated such unilateral decision-making by suspending Ye for “inciting violence” after the rapper tweeted a picture of a swastika in a Star of David.
Some observers felt the move contradicted Musk’s earlier embrace of free speech.
“Elon ‘absolute freedom of speech’ Musk is now drawing the line where some European countries have always done,” Marietje Schaake tweeteda former member of the European Parliament and director of international policy at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center.
The platform shift was enough to scare away even some right-wingers. Claire Lehmann, the founder of the online magazine Quillette, which emerged in recent years as a popular destination for new libertarian-leaning writers sometimes referred to as the “Intellectual Dark Web,” left Twitter last week. Before deleting her account, shen tweeted that people from the platform were “bullied” and that followers did not equate to higher income for creators anyway. “It is rational to leave,” she wrote.
Celebrities have also jumped ship. Jim Carrey was the most recent big name to leave on Tuesday night, telling his 18.9 million followers, “I love you all so much!” The actor follows a large group of celebrity users who have pulled their content from Twitter since the Musk acquisition. Accounts of musician Trent Reznor, actress Whoopi Goldberg, singer Toni Braxton, musician Moby, and TV producer and writer Shonda Rhimes have all been deleted or are on hold. Links that pointed weeks ago to accounts with millions of followers now dwell on farewell tweets, or serve as little solemn markers that say “This account doesn’t exist.”
It’s not the first time prominent Twitter users have vociferously fled the platform, in many cases only to reactivate their accounts after a few days or weeks. And there are indications that the high-profile exits are outliers. Data from two independent research firms also showed that downloads and activity have increased in the weeks since Musk took over, particularly in the United States.
But data collected by researchers tracking hate speech online seems to support recent claims that the platform has become less a place for “healthy conversations” and more of a platform where hate and misinformation are spread unchecked. Musk has refuted those claims by publish charts citing Twitter data on total impressions showing that hate speech has declined, though he didn’t detail how the company arrived at those conclusions.
He reiterated that claim on Friday, tweeting that the overall reach of hate speech based on the number of times tweets are viewed has declined.