Twitter under Elon Musk is now a major platform for proponents of hate speech, according to a report by the prestigious Brookings Institute, one of the first think tanks to weigh in on the new ownership.
Musk has tried to build support for his takeover by rallying around “free speech,” which includes allowing the return of Donald Trump and myriad others — mostly right-wingers — who were banned for various infractions.
But free speech has hardly been the result.
“By show of his previous political statements, current missteps, and future plans for the platform, this so-called freedom may simply galvanize extremists and further expose racial and religious minorities to hate speech and trauma,” the Institute’s authors, Rashawn Ray and Joy Anyanwu, wrote.
Among some of the disturbing trends, the study found a nearly 500 percent increase in the use of the N-word almost immediately after Musk’s takeover.
“Within the following week, tweets including the word “Jew” had increased fivefold from before the ownership transfer. Tweets with the most engagement were overly antisemitic.
“Likewise, there has also been an uptick in misogynistic and transphobic language. This surge in hateful language has been accredited to various trolling campaigns on sites like 4chan and the pro-Trump forum “The Donald.”
Twitter’s own internal investigation found that the derogatory language was coming from about 300 “inauthentic” accounts, Yoel Roth posted on Twitter before Musk summarily fired him as Head of Safety and Integrity at Twitter.
“Even if this hateful conduct is coming from a small number of troll accounts, this phenomenon speaks to how fringe, alt-right networks not only feel empowered by Musk’s takeover, but protected as well,” the authors wrote.
Critics raised concerns last month after the acquisition finally went through that Musk would remove important safeguards against hate speech, online harassment, and incitement of violence, and weaken the platform’s rules against misinformation and disinformation.
From early appearances, their worst fears have come to fruition.
“Not only has Musk brought on a number of investors to help finance the deal, including entities with links to China, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, but… Tesla, is increasingly dependent on the Chinese market and the goodwill of the Chinese government,” it cautioned.
Musk’s deal is backed by financing from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia and Qatar Holding, an investment firm owned by the Arab country’s sovereign wealth fund.
In addition, Larry Ellison, a multi-billionaire who made his fortune through tech investing in companies like Oracle, also put up capital for the deal.
Ellison is politically active and has supported both Democrats and Republicans in the past. But more recently, he has become a major Republican financier.
He was one of the top donors to Conservative Solutions PAC, a super political action committee that supported Republican Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid.
In 2020, Ellison shift his attention to Trump and opened the doors to his sprawling Rancho Mirage estate for a Trump fundraiser.
This past January, Ellison donated $15 million to the Opportunity Matters Fund super PAC to support South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott and he’s also backed U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
Early last month, the links caught the attention of President Biden, who said foreign investors behind Musk’s $44 billion purchase are “worth being looked at.”
In a singular display of hypocrisy, the remark drew howls from conservative, right-wing commentators at the same time they were criticizing the administration for being too soft on China.
“I think that Elon Musk’s cooperation and/or technical relationships with other countries is worthy of being looked at,” Biden said. “Whether or not he’s doing anything inappropriate, I’m not saying that, but it’s worth being looked at.”
A mechanism to investigate Twitter already is in place. The federal Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), was established by the Republican Ford administration in 1975 to examine national security implications of foreign investment in domestic companies.
Most recently, Trump, in 2020, ordered the Chinese company Beijing Shiji Information Technology Co. to divest from U.S. cloud-based company StayNTouch Inc. following a CFIUS review.
In another troubling move, Musk has moved quickly to gut Twitter’s staff. In all, he’s laid off almost 50 percent of its employees.
Among those who have been given walking papers are Bret Taylor, the company’s General Counsel, Sean Edgett, and the head of legal policy, trust, and safety, Vijaya Gadde, who were responsible for maintaining Twitter’s editorial integrity.
Gadde was instrumental in banning Trump from Twitter because of his continued misstatements and lies.
Musk has also made a mockery of its verification system to prevent imposters from impersonating well-known figures. He now sells verifications to all comers for $8 a month.
Fake verified accounts quickly exploded for companies and political leaders. One fake account actually triggered a sell off in Ely Lilly stock dropping, costing investors billions of dollars, according to the institute. Twitter has since modified its policy.
But the question remains, will Twitter under Musk do enough to moderate the rampant lies, misinformation and propaganda that currently flood the site?
Researchers analyzed political content on Twitter from Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Japan, Britain, and the United States. In six of the seven countries (Germany being the exception), right-wing political content received higher algorithmic amplification than left-wing content, according to Brookings.
A Brookings Institution report found that Reddit, a similar site, has a much more rigorous moderation policy to check and address hate speech.
“Conversely, Twitter is like the Wild Wild West and seems to be moving in a direction that may further marginalize people on the platform. Increasingly polarized politics and the prevalence of misinformation make this trend even more disconcerting,” the report concluded.
Twitter’s decision to ban Trump, alone, caused a significant shift in the level of political discourse. The presence of online misinformation regarding election fraud plunged by 73% after his account was suspended.
Conversely, Musk’s decision to lift the ban on COVID-19 misinformation, has cause a sharp rise in false information about the pandemic.
“COVID-19 and vaccination misinformation [are] now freely available on Twitter. Another milestone is reached in irresponsibility,” wrote French Digital Minister Jean-Noël Barrot on Twitter.
Other world leaders have echoed Biden’s concern.
French President Emmanuel Macron criticized Musk’s decision to relax content moderation around subjects like coronavirus disinformation and called for more regulation.
Musk’s policies have also attracted the attention of the European Union. It’s putting policies in place to moderate misinformation and hate speech on social media sites and has warned Twitter that it will face scrutiny.
Musk has moved so quickly to change Twitter, critics say he appears to be acting on whim. It’s time for cooler heads to prevail at the company or it risks jeopardizing its franchise.