Elon Musk’s strategy for Twitter is very confusing, to put it kindly. First he tells advertisers that he doesn’t want the social media platform he bought to become a “free-for-all hellscape,” and that his ownership is actually about political moderation: “This is not a right-wing takeover of Twitter.” But then he opened the door for a horde of right-wing extremists, including notorious neo-Nazis and white nationalists, to return to Twitter. Then he gave the most public of these returnees, Kanye West, the quick boot when he unsurprisingly unleashed a fresh round of naked antisemitism. So, what exactly is Musk’s “free speech” policy, anyway?
And apparently, he’s doing the lather-rinse-repeat method: Nick Fuentes, the notorious “Groyper” white nationalist who has been playing sidekick to West recently, was just allowed to return to Twitter on Tuesday—along with a whole parade of other far-right provocateurs notorious for spreading hate speech. One day later, Fuentes was given the unceremonious boot. The others, however, were not. Once again, divining Musk’s actual policies on hate speech—and their enforcement—is as clear as a mud window.
Fuentes was originally banned in December 2021, then was briefly reinstated shortly after Musk’s October takeover, but he was quickly banned all over again for, once again, violating Twitter rules against hate speech. Then, on Tuesday, Fuentes’ account was unceremoniously restored, shortly following neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin’s plea to Musk on his behalf: “He’s a very nice person and I can vouch that he won’t say anything mean.”
He wasn’t alone among the hate-speech purveyors whose previous suspensions were lifted on Tuesday. Among them: Mark Collett, a notorious U.K.-based “identitarian”; Patrick Howley, a raving antisemite with a large following; and QAnon promoter Dylan Wheeler.
But Fuentes was the first among them to immediately return to hatemongering. He celebrated his reinstatement Tuesday by tweeting an apparent Kanye 2024 presidential campaign ad—containing a reference to West’s tweet (for which he was originally suspended) announcing he was ready to go “Defcon 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE.”
Fuentes also showed up promptly on Twitter Spaces, spewing at length about Jews (“Jews run the news, bitch”), talking up the “salient point” made by Theodore Kaczynski, the terrorist “Unabomber,” and ranting about his enemies: “Israel did 9/11, and we love Hitler.”
His account was suspended again early Wednesday. Fuentes promptly showed up on Telegram in white-nationalist channels, urging his supporters to “ask nicely” for his Twitter account to be restored once again. Anglin voiced his dismay, but noted that Fuentes was suspended at the same time as “Stop the Steal” promoter Ali Alexander—who, like Fuentes, had gone to work for West’s 2024 presidential campaign.
Fuentes and West have been close ever since West’s initial antisemitic meltdown in October. They traveled together to have dinner with Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in November, which turned into a huge propaganda bonanza for Fuentes and his white-nationalist operation.
Despite the suspensions of Fuentes and Alexander, however, the wider trend at Twitter continues to feature the return of multiple far-right accounts previously suspended for hate speech and targeted trolling. Among the most prominent of these (with over 70,000 followers) is Patrick Howley, the onetime editor-in-chief of Big League Politics, who was suspended in May for spewing unfiltered antisemitic and racist hate. Howley already had a record for spewing such vile garbage that even Tucker Carlson apologized for him when he wrote for The Daily Caller.
Jared Holt described for The Daily Beast how Howley—a frequent guest on Infowars—has been spreading antisemitic tropes in the conspiracist realm:
Howley is still active on Twitter, where he has nearly 75,000 followers. On his profile, he has accused the musical artist Lizzo of advancing “hostile agitation against White males on behalf of jewish interests” because the record label she is signed to is led by a Jewish male. He has advanced white genocide conspiracy theories, writing to white Twitter followers that a “genocidal racialist system is determined to destroy you and wants you dead.” Howley has written that “Zionist and Chinese institutions are genociding white people.” He has faulted conservatives for not stating that “the Fake News media” is “run by Jews.” Howley has posted that “Everything blacks hate about white people they are really just talking about Jews.” He has also claimed that the mainstream conservative movement “is run by leftists and owned by the Zionist foreign lobby to advance the goals of white demographic replacement through mass ‘legal’ immigration.” He tweeted, “Stop blaming Whitey for your problems. Realize Jewish people own everything.” He has also claimed that it is “just obvious” that Israel did the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Just before he was suspended, Howley had launched into a series of fresh antisemitic diatribes. Upon his return, Howley exulted: “The evil Satanic cannabilistic pedophiles who control world politics took an L tonight. Let's all hope and pray that they stop drinking the baby blood and we can be free of them.”
Collett’s return may be even more consequential for people in Europe. An unrepentant neo-Nazi, Collett is the founder of the far-right U.K. group Patriot Alternative. Upon his return to Twitter, Collett proceeded to post a series of tweets dedicated to a narrative depicting nonwhite people (especially immigrants) as innately violent and criminal, as well as pushing conspiracist COVID denialism.
These extremists’ revivified presence on Twitter is consistent with Musk’s handling of the platform so far—namely, his personal behavior that includes winking and nudging at the alt-right crowd, as well as the QAnon conspiracism cult, and his simultaneous eviction of a slate of leftist journalists who did not violate Twitter’s terms of service (people like antifascist Chad Loder and the journalism co-op It’s Going Down) at the apparent behest of faux journalist Andy Ngo, while inviting back a long roster of people who did violate those terms: That is to say utterly incoherent, suggestive of a policy based on Musk’s personal whims and edicts, and ultimately creating a toxic environment in which right-wing conspiracism and hatemongering rule the discourse on what once was a moderated environment.
The dramatically changing landscape at Twitter is in many ways a direct product of Musk’s sharp cutbacks in content-moderation teams, particularly abroad:
Musk has fired or accepted resignations from about three-fourths of Twitter’s employees since his $44 billion takeover at the end of October. He has also terminated thousands of contractors who were monitoring the site for slurs and threats.
Those cuts went deepest outside North America, where more than 75 percent of the company’s 280 million daily users live and where Twitter already had fewer moderators who understood local languages and cultural references, and where the political landscape could be chaotic and prone to violence.
This has already had a noteworthy impact in the real world in places like Brazil, where Twitter played a central role in whipping up a mob of insurrectionists to storm the national capitol buildings. Musk had cut virtually all staff in Brazil only a few weeks before the attack.
In Australia, where Twitter is laying off even more of its staff, anti-gay slurs began doubling in appearance in November, after Musk’s takeover and cutbacks. “It is reasonable to argue that Elon Musk’s disintegration of the Twitter safety team and major cuts to moderation is influencing these trends,” Timothy Graham, a digital media expert at the Queensland University of Technology, told The Washington Post. “At the least, it strongly suggests that Elon’s claims about hate speech reduction are overblown. If anything, the trend is increasing.”
Twitter is rationalizing the cuts by resorting to an utter dependence on automatic moderation. The company has been eliminating manual reviews and favoring restrictions on distribution rather than removing certain speech outright, its new head of trust and safety told Reuters.
“Twitter is also more aggressively restricting abuse-prone hashtags and search results in areas including child exploitation, regardless of potential impacts on ‘benign uses’ of those terms, said Twitter Vice President of Trust and Safety Product Ella Irwin,” Retuers reported.
Similarly, Kanye West’s diatribes sparked a deluge of similar and often worse antisemitism and eliminationist hatemongering, some of which was also directed at the LGBTQ community.
The more insidious aspect of the spread of hatemongering on Twitter is how it affects what happens in the real world—as well as the ability of so-called “free speech” to inflict real harm, especially when it threatens and incites (both of which are considered exceptions to First Amendment protections). As Joseph Menn at The Washington Post recently explored, the spread of hate speech is already having reality-based consequences:
[F]ormer [Twitter] employees and online researchers say that physical attacks in the United States have been tracking with Twitter spikes in some categories of hate speech, notably antisemitic and anti-gay slurs and rhetoric.
Pre-Musk, Twitter had classed the word “groomer” as hate speech. But usage began spiking not long after Musk said he would buy the platform, and it has surged repeatedly since, often after real-world incidents like the fatal shootings at a gay club in Colorado.
“In the past three to four months, we have seen an increase in anti-LGBTQ incidents, and you can see a statistical correlation between these real-world incidents and the increased use of the term ‘groomer’ on Twitter,” said Alexander Reid Ross, a Network Contagion analyst who shared the findings with The Washington Post. He did not say that use of the term had led to the violence.
The second biggest spike in tweets with the word “groomed” came just after Musk took control of Twitter. The biggest, to more than 4,000 in a day, came in late November, shortly before a record seven daily antigay attacks were recorded in the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a nonprofit tracker of worldwide political violence, Ross said.
Researchers at Tufts, as Wired reports, found it’s not just that the volume of the hate has grown at Twitter, but the virulence has intensified as well:
For the months prior to Musk’s takeover, the researchers deemed just one tweet out of the three top 20 lists to be actually hateful, in this case against Jewish people. The others were either quoting another person’s hateful remarks or using the relevant key words in a non-hateful way.
In the weeks after Musk took over Twitter, the same analysis found that hateful tweets became much more prominent among the most popular tweets with potentially toxic language. For tweets using words associated with anti-LGBTQ+ or antisemitic posts, seven of the top 20 posts in each category were now hateful. For popular tweets using potentially racist language, one of the top 20 was judged to be hate speech.
“The toxicity of Twitter has severely increased post-Musk’s walking into that building,” Bhaskar Chakravorti of Tufts told Wired.
Libby Hemphill of the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility told Wired that Twitter’s cutbacks on moderation are happening at “a dangerous time,” as the recent attack on a Colorado LGBTQ club suggests.
“We’re seeing a rise in violence—whether it’s verbal or physical,” Hemphill said, adding that Musk’s actions don’t reflect his stated goals, and ignore the real-world risks that inevitably arise when hate speech is allowed to flourish.
“Phrasing this as a freedom of speech expression issue is disingenuous,” she said. “And speech can be dangerous.”
Election season is already here, and it's already off to an amazing start with Democrats' huge flip of a critical seat in the Virginia state Senate, which kicks off this episode of The Downballot. Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard dissect what Aaron Rouse's victory means for November (abortion is still issue #1!) when every seat in the legislature will be on the ballot. They also discuss big goings-on in two U.S. Senate races: California, where Rep. Katie Porter just became the first Democrat to kick off a bid despite Sen. Dianne Feinstein's lack of a decision about her own future, and Michigan, which just saw veteran Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow announce her retirement.