Elon Musk hasn’t wasted time putting his imprint on Twitter, and ominously he appears to be tilting the social media site toward Russia in the Ukraine War.
A growing current of Twitter posts are raising alarm about signs that Ukrainian users are being suppressed with shadow bans and suspensions while new users are being effectively blocked.
Although the evidence, so far, is anecdotal, we don’t have to look farther than The New York Independent’s (@nyi_news) recent experience for an example.
The web publication has been a member of twitter since 2009 and has posted almost 50,000 tweets since then. It has never been suspended until last week.
A terse message appeared at the top of NYI’s feed informing it of a one-week suspension for violating Twitter rules.
“After careful review, we determined your account broke the Twitter Rules. Your account is temporarily in read-only mode, which means you can’t Tweet, Retweet, or Like content. Most accounts regain full access in a week, but it could take longer,” it read.
The offending Tweet was a post critical of a Russian atrocity in Ukraine.
The initial Tweet read that a Ukrainian pilot had been shot down and safely ejected from his jet, only to be killed in his parachute by Russians.
Our Tweet, which has since been deleted read: “No honor, no morality. Russians in Ukraine are like locusts. The only thing you can do is exterminate them.”
Apparently, this was a violation Twtter’s rules on violence:
Giving Twitter the benefit of the doubt, the Tweet was probably singled out by an algorithm.
But Musk has disbanded the site’s Trust and Safety Council, a volunteer group formed in 2016 to advise the social media platform on site decisions, according to a widely reported email.
In our case, there are clearly mitigating circumstances that should have put the Tweet in its proper context.
The Tweet wasn’t directed at an individual or group of people, it was directed at Russian combatants in a war zone who had allegedly committed a war crime.
Furthermore, Russia illegally invaded Ukraine and the Ukrainian army is actively trying to eject them, by literally exterminating the occupying soldiers.
In another example, Maria Drutska (@maria_drutska) who works in Ukraine’s defense sector and regularly post war updates, retweeted one post that showed she appeared to have been shadow banned.
It was impossible to reach Drutska for comment through Twitter, because of NYI’s suspension.
Shadow banning, by definition, is a means to deliberately making someone’s content undiscoverable to everyone except the person who posted it, unbeknownst to the original poster.
In a July 2018 blog post, Vijaya Gadde, (@vijaya) then Twitter’s General Counsel with the title of “Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead,” wrote that Twitter did not shadow ban.
“You are always able to see the tweets from accounts you follow (although you may have to do more work to find them, like go directly to their profile). And we certainly don’t shadow ban based on political viewpoints or ideology.”
But, in fact, shadow banning appears to be have been used regularly. In one recent example that went viral, Twitter emails showed that Musk shadow banned an account that was tracking his private jet flights. The information is routinely public.
Gadde, who’s known for leading the charge against permanently suspending Donald Trump’s official handle, was fired by Musk in October.
Ella Irwin, the person appointed to replace Yoel Roth as Twitter’s new head of trust and safety, reportedly asked a “Team” to “please apply heavy VF to @elonjet immediately,” according to The Daily Beast.
VF stands for “visibility filtering,” a means of blacklisting or shadow-banning certain accounts and shielding their content from other users.
Hard-right Republicans have long complained about being shadow banned and were met with adamant denials from Twitter executives.
But in the second installment of Musk’s Twitter files release, independent journalist Bari Weiss exposed how conservative tweets and users were blacklisted by keeping “disfavored” tweets from trending and secretly hiding whole accounts or topics without users’ knowledge.
One Twitter team, the “Strategic Response Team – Global Escalation Team” (SRT-GET), was reportedly committed to censoring “up to 200 ‘cases’” per day. Victims included prominent conservatives Dan Bongino and Charlie Kirk, as well as Stanford University professor and co-author of the “Great Barrington Declaration” Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, according to the conservative Federalist Society.
“Twitter’s political discrimination was not exclusively algorithmic. The deliberate silencing of conservative voices was carried out by regular employees and the tippy top of Twitter’s corporate ladder,” the organization wrote in a blog post.
Of course, Musk has been on a crusade since taking over to “free the bird” in the name of “free speech.”
But he appears to be taking more direct action against Ukraine.
A number of Twitter users have noted that the Ukraine country code has been deleted from Twitter’s database. Effectively, Ukrainians with two-factor authentication cannot access their accounts, they report.
“Ukraine’s country code has apparently been deleted from Twitter’s database. This means Ukrainians with 2-factor authentication cannot access their accounts, in the midst of a deadly war. It’s time to investigate Elon Musk’s conversation with Vladimir Putin,” wrote Dash Dobrofsky, a political commentator on substack.
Concern over Musk’s tilt toward Russia has also been raised by the billionaire himself.
In October, Ian Bremmer (@ianbremmer), a Columbia University political scientist and founder of the Eurasia Group, claimed Musk spoke directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin before tweeting a proposal to end the war in Ukraine. The move would have permanently ceded occupied territory to Russia.
“Redo elections of annexed regions under U.N. supervision. Russia leaves if that is the will of the people. Crimea formally part of Russia, as it has been since 1783 (until Khrushchev’s mistake). Water supply to Crimea resumed. Ukraine remains neutral,” Musk tweeted as part of a “yes or no” poll.
International diplomacy apparently isn’t Musk’s forte. His proposal was instantly condemned by Ukrainian authorities and was counter to official U.S. policy.
Although the results are unscientific, Musk’s idea was also rejected by 59 percent of those responding to his poll.
The Act (18 U.S. Code § 953) makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to engage in unauthorized foreign diplomacy, including to “influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government” or to “defeat the measures of the United States.”
Musk quickly denied that he’d spoken to Putin before advancing his proposal, which decidedly favored the Kremlin.
He said he’d only spoken to Putin once 18 months prior and the only topic was space.
Oddly, Musk was an early and key supporter of Ukraine. His decision to make his Starlink satellite internet service available has been instrumental in keeping Ukraine’s military and citizens online.
The United States, United Kingdom and Poland are paying most of the cost of Starlink’s service, after 1,300 Starlink terminals went offline in October, reportedly due to a lack of funding.
But Musk’s peace proposal is more in line with hard-right Republicans like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and Ron Johnson. They’ve argued for an end of U.S. funding for the war.
Musk also tilted to right just before the mid-term elections. He urged his two million followers on Twitter to vote Republican after insisting Twitter was politically neutral.
After Musk’s actions caused an uproar on social media, some right-wing commentators claimed the Biden administration had begun an investigation of his activities.
President Biden said publicly Twitter was worth watching, but fact checkers quickly confirmed that no investigation is underway.
Still, Musk’s near unilateral control of Twitter is cause for concern. The social media site’s influence is huge and Musk has shown his willingness to bend it to his interests.
Hopefully, the alarm bells over Ukraine are unwarranted. But if true, Musk may yet have to account for his actions.