Updated Nov 25, 2022 - Technology

Musk's Twitter "amnesty" plan for suspended accounts alarms activists

Elon Musk gestures as he speaks during a press conference at SpaceX's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on February 10.

Elon Musk gestures during a February event near Boca Chica Village, Texas. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Elon Musk announced Thursday a "general amnesty" for suspended Twitter accounts from next week, "provided that they have not broken the law" or engaged in "egregious spam."

Why it matters: Online monitoring groups have reported a rise in racism, anti-Semitism and other hate speech on Twitter since free speech advocate Musk completed his $44 billion acquisition of the social media company last month, though the billionaire said Thursday it has declined.

A screenshot of an Elon Musk tweet saying "the people have spoken" after his unscientific poll results showed most who voted wanted an amnesty for suspended Twitter accounts.
Photo: Elon Musk/Twitter
  • Activists warn the situation would get much worse if people like former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke were welcomed back following permanent bans for hate speech.

Driving the news: Musk tweeted his decision after 72.4% of over 3.1 million voters backed the amnesty in an online poll, which AP notes is an unscientific method that's vulnerable to the influence of bots.

What they're saying: "Superspreaders of hate, abuse and harassment will be the only people to benefit from this latest decision by Twitter," said Imran Ahmed, CEO of campaign group the Center for Countering Digital Hate, to the Guardian.

  • "The choice for advertisers has never been starker: stick around and back Elon Musk, or protect their brands and ensure their marketing dollars aren’t used to enable the spread of hate, abuse and disinformation."
  • Hopewell Chin'ono, an award-winning Zimbabwean journalist, tweeted that the move would be "a major disaster especially in Africa where State sponsored Ghost accounts were suspended for endangering human rights activists & journalists!"
  • "You would have allowed vile people to put our lives in danger as journalists! You will have blood on your hands @elonmusk," added Chin'ono in a warning ahead of the poll closing.

Between the lines: Alejandra Caraballo, clinical instructor at Harvard Law's cyberlaw clinic, told the Washington Post that Musk's planned action was "existentially dangerous" for marginalized communities.

  • "It's like opening the gates of hell in terms of the havoc it will cause," Caraballo said.
  • "People who engaged in direct targeted harassment can come back and engage in doxing, targeted harassment, vicious bullying, calls for violence, celebration of violence. I can’t even begin to state how dangerous this will be."
  • Caraballo said Apple and Google should seriously consider "booting Twitter off the app store."

The big picture: Groups like the Center for Countering Digital Hate have reported a rise in racism on Twitter since Musk took over, including research indicating it failed to act on "99% of racist abuse" of soccer players in the leadup to the men's World Cup in Qatar.

  • Many advertisers have slowed or paused their purchases on the platform or left altogether. Musk blamed Twitter's "massive drop in revenue" this month on "activist groups pressuring advertisers."

Meanwhile, a European Union report published on Thursday found Twitter removed 45.4% of hate speech tweets it was notified about from March to May, down from 49.8% for the same period the previous year.

Between the lines: Though this was before Musk took over Twitter, his new policy could put it on a collision course with the EU — where laws like the Digital Services Act put more responsibility on platforms to police and remove content deemed illegal, such as hate speech, with fines for failure to comply.

Worth noting: Musk pledged to concerned advertisers after taking over Twitter that the platform would not become a "free-for-all hellscape" and tweeted Thursday that hate speech had declined on the site following a "spike."

  • "I have half a mind to wag my finger at the 1500 accounts that caused the spike, but I shall forebear," he said.
  • Musk said last week he'd deemphasize "hate" or "negative" tweets while also having previously suspended accounts reinstated.

The intrigue: While Musk had yet to indicate which banned users may be affected by the planned amnesty, he last week flatly ruled out reinstating the Twitter account of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

A screenshot of a tweet by Elon Musk saying hate speech has declined.
Photo: Elon Musk/Twitter

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Editor's note: This article has been updated with more comment from Musk, details of the EU report and further context.

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