Nov 28, 2022 - Technology

Musk's Twitter amnesty raises new fears over online hate

Illustration of the Twitter logo falling into a hypnotic spiral.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Elon Musk is promising to reinstate more banned Twitter accounts even as a coalition of groups is out with a fresh warning that online hate is on the rise.

Why it matters: It's another risky bet by Twitter's "free speech"-espousing owner that he can dial back enforcement of content rules without releasing a torrent of racism, anti-semitism and anti-LGBTQ speech that could further erode the service's already shaky advertising base.

Driving the news: Elon Musk said in a tweet on Thursday that he would offer "amnesty" starting this week to previously banned accounts, provided they hadn't broken the law or engaged in "egregious" spam.

  • The move followed an unscientific poll of his Twitter followers showing support for such a move.
  • After a similar poll, Musk earlier reinstated the accounts of former president Donald Trump, who was permanently suspended from Twitter after his tweets helped incite the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, as well as several other banned accounts.
  • At the same time, a wave of layoffs and resignations of Twitter staff and contractors have decimated the teams responsible for monitoring and taking action against rule-breaking accounts.

Meanwhile, civil rights groups say that women, people of color and LGBTQ folks are experiencing both harassment and threats of real-world violence when they go online, according to findings of a new poll the groups commissioned from YouGov and shared first with Axios.

By the numbers: In results of the poll, conducted on behalf of Ultraviolet, GLAAD, Kairos, and the Women's March, 57 percent of respondents said they have seen a post that calls for actual violence against someone based on their race, gender, sexuality, or another personal characteristic.

  • Women and people who identify as LGBTQ+ reported higher rates of harassment than the average respondent.
  • Respondents described false information as an issue across multiple platforms, with Facebook and Twitter being seen as the most problematic, and a large majority said the platforms should be held accountable.

The big picture: Civil rights groups have already pointed to a rise in racist and antisemitic tweets under Elon Musk even ahead of moves to reinstate previously banned accounts.

  • Advocates have been sounding alarms about growing risks of online hate speech translating into real-world violence, with renewed warnings after this month's shooting in Colorado Springs.

Between the lines: Musk's amnesty declaration suggests that Twitter's old speech rules no longer apply, and henceforth only law-breaking, "egregious spam" and calls to violence will cause Twitter to take action.

  • That appears to leave the door wide open for hate speech, abuse, bullying and targeted harassment.
  • Musk followed up his pledge to reinstate previously banned accounts with a call for civil debate on the site, but offered no plan for how to encourage it.
  • Musk said in a Twitter conversation with author Stephen King on Saturday that his goal is "a trusted digital town square, where a wide range of views are tolerated, provided people don’t break the law or spam." He also promised that "any incitement to violence will result in account suspension."

Yes, but: Critics of Musk’s approach say that he is asking for civil debates where the starting point is inherently un-civil, as when people express white supremacy or equate LGBTQ identity with child abuse.

  • "I cannot 'engage in civil debate' about whether or not I am who I say I am or whether I should exist, but ok, dude," transgender writer Parker Molloy said in response to Musk.

Be smart: Musk's toleration of a broader range of hateful speech might pass legal muster in the U.S. but is likely to run afoul of laws in many nations around the world.

The bottom line: Maintaining civil discourse online has always been a challenge, and enforcing speech rules is tough even when they're consistent and well understood. Musk's improvisational policy-by-tweet almost guarantees Twitter's speech conflicts will deepen.

Go deeper