Right-wing trolls are trying to get back on Twitter

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In two hours from Twitter announcement what did it take Elon Musk’s $44 billion proposal buy a company and make it private, first signs flashed across Joe Mulhall’s screen. Mulhall is director of research at Hope Not Hate, a British anti-racist and anti-fascist group against bigotry.

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When Musk announced his purchase of Twitter, stating that “Free speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy and Twitter is a digital town square where issues vital to the future of humanity are discussed,” Mulhall saw that new Twitter accounts had been created earlier. banned far-right individuals and groups, including the English far-right anti-Islamic political activist Tommy Robinson and the fascist political party Britain First. In the US, other neo-Nazis previously banned from the platform set up new accounts on Twitter.

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These accounts were reported on Twitter by Mulhall, Hope Not Hate and others and were subsequently banned before they could gain a foothold. But some fear it could signal a resurgence of people previously banned from Twitter for spreading hate and conflict if Musk follows through on his promise to loosen rules about what posts are allowed.

Wave effects have already begun. On Monday, Christopher Busi, founder of Bot Sentinel, a service that tracks inauthentic behavior on Twitter, noticed that a number of leftist accounts were already complaining about losing followers. Busi noticed that he had lost 400 of his 77,000+ followers. At first, he didn’t think it mattered much: people regularly change who they’re watching.

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The Sentinel Bot updates at midnight ET. When Bowsey looked at the data at 7am, it was clear that something more important was going on. On a typical day, on average, about 750 accounts out of approximately 2.5 million he samples are either deactivated or suspended.

By the end of April 25, the results were vastly different, with 5,132 accounts across the political spectrum deactivated and another 341 suspended. Other indicators also looked strange. “We are seeing a significant increase in the number of right-wing accounts that are starting to follow these other accounts,” says Busi. “It could be a bat signal when they feel safe to get back on Twitter, or it could be something else.”

Manoel Ribeiro, who studies platform migration among the alt-right at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, calls it “transformation.” “If Twitter adopts a philosophy of free speech absolutism, it could very well be that hate speech or incitement to harm decisions are reversed, leading to the recovery of popular far-right accounts,” he says.

The problem is not limited to the United States. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has achieved a tenfold increase in his following over the past two days from his previous average, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lost followers on April 26, counteracting the average daily gain. “It doesn’t make sense,” Bowsey says. “I don’t understand why Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has had such an impact on Brazilian politics.” Twitter confirmed to NBC News that the increase in account activity was not automated and was a natural churn that could be related to Musk’s takeover of the platform.

Others have suspicions about what might be going on. “We are seeing widespread excitement across the channels we monitor across all tech platforms about the Musk takeover,” says Mulhall. “Musk has said that he is an absolutist of free speech. We know what free speech absolutism looks like on social media.”

Mulhall points to social media platforms with low intrusiveness, light touch, and minimal moderation, such as Gab, Truth Social, and Parler, which are popular among the alt-right because their doctrine allows for far more free speech than their mainstream equivalents—even if such speech can often transmogrify into hate speech. Parler, for example, hit 2 million users one weekend in November 2020 after Twitter cracked down on misinformation ahead of the U.S. presidential election. But platforms favored by the alt-right can lose users as quickly as they gain them. “I can imagine that ‘retraining’ could bring these communities back to Twitter in this way and reduce the appeal of third-party alternatives,” says Ribeiro.

“We know what’s going on in these online spaces,” Mulhall says. “They are inundated with extremism, racism, misogyny, violenceand terrorism“. He points out that the implications of radically expanding the definition of free speech on social media are well-known: Twitter was grappling with these issues before cracking down on hate speech, and popular alt-right platforms are demonstrating the effects of such a policy. “We have seen these platforms, they already exist, and we know how toxic they are getting.” Truth Social and Parler did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Responding to WIRED’s request for comment, Gab said hope, not hate to “go grind sand and cry more words on the internet” via Twitter.

Musk has his own views and believes his position on free speech has been misrepresented. Calling out fears of radicalization and hate on Twitter “extreme antibody response” Musk argues that his definition of free speech is simply established by law, which, although he didn’t say so, only bans hate speech in some countries, not the US. “I am against censorship, which goes far beyond the law”, he tweeted. Many have already pointed out that free speech laws differ depending on the country you live in, and some have taken Musk’s words as a tacit license to spread hate.

Vijaya Gadde, Head of Legal, Policy and Trust at Twitter, an immigrant to the US, was subjected to racist and misogynistic slurs after Musk seemed to agree criticizing her. Musk also criticized Twitter Deputy General Counsel Jim Baker in response to a tweet by influential far-right Mike Cernovich—one of Pizzagate’s biggest proponents of the conspiracy theory—Baker was similarly abused. Lara Cohen, Head of Global Partners at Twitter, tweeted her lack of surprise at the turn such Twitter conversations have taken since the takeover.

All of this sets a worrying precedent, says Shiva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “In 2017, Trump galvanized the extreme right in the US,” he says. “As a result, a wave of violent attacks swept across the country, starting in my city of Charlottesville. Now Musk plays the same roles: big brother, cheerleader, assistant. On the second day after his proposal was accepted, we saw American fascists round up the Twitter employees whom Musk had publicly criticized. We should expect more violence soon.”

Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, thinks this week has passed like a traditional Twitter brawl: “Lots of light and warmth, but little facts,” he says. But he remains concerned about the unanswered questions. “Whether or not he believes it, Musk has articulated a childlike view of online discourse that ignores how violence, power, and algorithms intersect, making speech uneven in terms of its visibility, impact, and safety,” he says. . “I’m not sure these ideas can withstand contact with reality, especially in a completely unmoderated, unfiltered context.”

Stuck in the middle of this swamp are Twitter’s content moderators, who must abide by the current rules as the platform continues to operate, but realize that Twitter’s new owner appears to be touting a fundamentally different approach to acceptable speech.

At a general meeting on April 25, just hours after Musk’s deal was passed by the board of directors, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal struggled to answer employee questions about key policy decisions. Agrawal questioned whether former US President Donald Trump, who was banned from Twitter in January 2021 for inciting violence in his posts ahead of the Capitol uprising, would be allowed to return to the site. Agrawal asked this question to Musk even though he was not at the meeting. “Once the deal closes, we don’t know which direction the platform will go,” Agrawal said. reportedly said. “We don’t have all the answers. This is a period of uncertainty.” This opinion was supported by other employees, including project leader Edward Perez, who tweeted that the takeover was a time of “genuine discomfort and uncertainty”.

Elon Musk did not respond to a request for comment via his Twitter account. WIRED asked Twitter about the platform’s policy on acceptable speech when transferring ownership, and whether the company can confirm that Twitter will remain committed to preventing hate speech and abuse under new ownership. Twitter spokesperson Jasmine Basi responded, “We have no comment.”

Updated April 27, 2022 4:30 pm ET: This article has been updated to clarify that there is no legislation in the US that prohibits hate speech.

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