Right-wing trolls are attempting to reclaim Twitter

Elon Musk's promise of 'free speech' has sparked a renaissance of extremism, but the 'replatforming' has only just begun.

The first alarming indicators flashed across Joe Mulhall's screen just two hours after Twitter announced it had accepted Elon Musk's $44 billion deal to buy the firm and take it private. Mulhall is the director of research at Hope Not Hate, a British anti-racism and anti-fascist organization.

Mulhall noticed new accounts being set up on Twitter by previously banned far-right individuals and groups, including English far-right anti-Islam political activist Tommy Robinson and Britain First, a fascist political party, after Musk announced his purchase of Twitter, saying "free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated." Other neo-Nazis who had previously been banned from Twitter created new accounts in the United States.

Mulhall, Hope Not Hate, and others reported the accounts to Twitter, and they were quickly banned before they could acquire traction. However, critics fear that if Musk follows through on his pledge to alter the regulations on what types of postings are accepted, this could indicate a revival of those previously barred from Twitter for propagating hate and strife.

The reverberations have already begun. Christopher Bouzy, the founder of Bot Sentinel, a service that monitors inauthentic behavior on Twitter, discovered on Monday that a number of left-leaning accounts had already complained about losing followers. Bouzy realized that 400 of his 77,000+ fans had left him. He didn't believe it was a huge deal at first: people change their minds about who they follow on a daily basis.

At 12 a.m. eastern time, Bot Sentinel is updated. When Bouzy looked at the statistics at 7 a.m., it was evident that something bigger was going on. On any given day, around 750 accounts out of the roughly 2.5 million he samples are deactivated or suspended.

By the evening of April 25, the results were drastically different: 5,132 accounts across the political spectrum had been terminated, with another 341 suspended. Other indicators appeared to be odd as well. "We're witnessing a substantial surge in right-wing accounts following these other accounts," says Bouzy. "It could be a bat signal that it's okay for them to return to Twitter, or it could be something else entirely."

It's referred to as "replatforming" by Manoel Ribeiro, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne who analyzes platform migration among the alt-right. "If Twitter adopts a free speech absolutist perspective, it's possible that hate speech or incitement to harm decisions will be reversed, reinstalling popular far-right accounts," he argues.

The problem isn't just a problem in the United States. In the previous two days, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has gained tenfold more followers than he had on average, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lost followers on April 26, reversing his daily gains. "It's incomprehensible," Bouzy says. "I'm not sure why Musk's purchase of Twitter would have such an impact on Brazilian politics." The rise in account activity wasn't automated, according to NBC News, and was due to organic churn, which could be tied to Musk's takeover of the platform.

Others have a suspicion as to what is going on. "We've noticed tremendous excitement about the Musk takeover across the channels that we monitor on all tech platforms," Mulhall says. "Musk has stated that he is a staunch supporter of free speech. In social media, we've seen what absolute free speech looks like."

Mulhall cites low-interference, light-touch, minimal-moderation social media platforms like Gab, Truth Social, and Parler, which are popular among the alt-right because their doctrine allows for far more free speech than their mainstream counterparts—even if that speech can easily morph into hate speech. After Twitter cracked down on disinformation in the run-up to the US presidential election, Parler, for example, attracted 2 million users in a single weekend in November 2020. Platforms preferred by the alt-right, on the other hand, may lose as many users as they gain. "I can see how'replatforming' may drive these communities back to Twitter and make third-party options less appealing," Ribeiro says.

Mulhall said, "We know what happens in those online environments." "Extremism, racism, misogyny, violence, and terrorism are rampant." He points out that the consequences of extending the meaning of free speech on social media are well-known: Before its crackdown on hate speech, Twitter wrestled with similar difficulties, and prominent alt-right platforms demonstrate the consequences of such regulations. "We've seen those platforms, they're already in place, and we've seen how toxic they can be." Requests for comment from Truth Social and Parler were not immediately returned. Gab instructed Hope Not Hate to "pound sand and cry more about words on the internet" in response to WIRED's request for comment.

Musk has his own opinions on the subject, and believes that his position on free speech has been misinterpreted. Musk maintains that his understanding of free speech is just that laid down by law, which only forbids hate speech in select nations, not the US, and calls concerns about radicalization and hate on Twitter a "extreme antibody reaction." He wrote, "I am against censorship that goes well beyond the law." Many have previously pointed out that free speech regulations vary by country, and some have interpreted Musk's statements as implied approval to disseminate hatred.

After Musk appeared to concur with criticism leveled at her, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's legal, policy, and trust lead and an immigrant to the United States, has been targeted to racist and misogynistic abuse. In a reaction to a tweet by alt-right influencer Mike Cernovich—one of the most vocal proponents of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory—Musk appeared to insult Twitter deputy general counsel Jim Baker, and Baker has faced similar criticism. Lara Cohen, Twitter's global head of partnerships, expressed her displeasure with the direction such dialogues have taken on Twitter after the acquisition.

According to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, "it all establishes a troubling precedent." "Trump boosted the radical right in the United States in 2017," he claims. "The outcome was a wave of violent attacks around the country, beginning in Charlottesville, where I live. Musk is now filling the same roles as his older brother, cheerleader, and enabler. On the second day after his offer was accepted, we saw American Nazis surround Twitter employees whom Musk had publicly chastised. We should expect greater violence in the near future."

According to Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, this week has played out like a typical Twitter squabble: He argues, "There's a lot of light and heat, but not a lot of facts." He is concerned, though, by the unsolved questions. "Whether he believes it or not, Musk has articulated an infantile perspective of online discourse that ignores the way abuse, power, and algorithms intersect to make speech uneven in its visibility, impact, and safety," he writes. "I'm not sure these notions will hold up in the face of reality—especially in an unmoderated, unfiltered environment."

Twitter's content moderators are caught in the middle of this quagmire, having to follow current guidelines as the platform continues to run but also being aware that Twitter's new owner appears to be touting a fundamentally different approach to permitted speech.

Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal struggled to answer employee queries regarding major policy choices in an all-hands meeting on April 25, only hours after Musk's purchase was approved by the board. Former US president Donald Trump was banned from Twitter in January 2021 for encouraging violence through his posts prior of the Capitol insurgency, and Agrawal wondered if he would be permitted to return. Even though Musk was not present at the meeting, Agrawal asked him this question. "We don't know which route the platform will take once the deal happens," Agrawal reportedly stated. "We don't know everything." "We are in the midst of a period of uncertainty." Other employees, including project manager Edward Perez, mirrored this attitude, saying the acquisition caused "real uneasiness and worry."

Elon Musk's Twitter account did not respond to a request for comment. WIRED inquired about Twitter's policy on acceptable speech during the transition of ownership, and whether the company can ensure that it will continue to be committed to combating hate speech and abuse under new management. "We have no comment," Twitter spokesman Jasmine Basi said.

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