Elon Musk plans to reinstate nearly all previously banned Twitter accounts – to the alarm of activists and online trust and safety experts.
After posting a Twitter poll asking, “Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?” in which 72.4 percent of the respondents voted yes, Musk declared, “Amnesty begins next week.”
The Twitter CEO did not respond Thursday to a request for comment from The Washington Post. The poll garnered more than 3 million votes.
The mass return of users who had been banned for such offenses as violent threats, harassment and misinformation will have a significant impact on the platform, experts said. And many questioned how such a resurrection would be handled, given that it’s unclear what Musk means by “egregious spam” and the difficulty of separating out users who have “broken the law,” which vary widely by jurisdiction and country.
“Apple and Google need to seriously start exploring booting Twitter off the app store,” said Alejandra Caraballo, clinical instructor at Harvard Law’s cyberlaw clinic. “What Musk is doing is existentially dangerous for various marginalized communities. It’s like opening the gates of hell in terms of the havoc it will cause. 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.”
This is the second time in a week that Musk has used a Twitter poll to seemingly make a major decision related to the platform. On Nov. 18, he restored former president Donald Trump’s account after 52 percent of a poll’s respondents said he should do so. “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Musk tweeted, Latin for “the voice of the people is the voice of God.”
On that day, he also unilaterally reinstated at least 11 high-profile far-right Twitter accounts, including Jordan Peterson, a professor who was banned from Twitter for misgendering a trans person, and the Babylon Bee, a conservative media company. He also restored Project Veritas, a site that was frequently accused of misrepresenting events it commented on and banned “for repeated violations of Twitter’s private information policy,” and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s personal account, which had been banned since January for violating the platform’s covid-19 misinformation policies and pushing violent and extreme rhetoric.
Experts say that bots and bad actors can easily skew the results of a Twitter poll, and so basing decisions on one is irresponsible. “A Twitter poll can be manipulated, there’s nothing scientific or rigorous in any way about what he’s doing,” said Sarah T. Roberts, an associate professor at UCLA and faculty director for UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, who previously worked at Twitter researching content moderation processes.
“Before Elon took over,” Roberts added, “there were entire teams of people who did market and user research, who followed rigorous protocols established to conduct this kind of research. Suddenly, he’s running Twitter off of completely unscientific polls that are polling unknown people, and certainly not any kind of demographically representative swath of people.”
Many predict the restoration of banned accounts will help bring on the “free-for-all hellscape” that Musk had promised advertisers would not come to pass shortly after he took possession of the platform.
“This would be a major disaster especially in Africa where State sponsored Ghost accounts were suspended for endangering human rights activists & journalists,” Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist in Africa tweeted. “You would have allowed vile people to put our lives in danger as journalists! You will have blood on your hands @elonmusk.”
Whether Musk can do what the Twitter poll seeks is a matter of debate. He has laid off leaders of the trust and safety team, which would normally handle the logistics of reactivating the accounts. And separating out those who “broke the law” is entirely dependent on whether Twitter has detailed documentation for each suspension. Without such a legal filter, which would be dependent on state and local laws for each tweet, every account would require a thorough review, given how laws vary widely by country and region.
Madeleine Burkholder, a senior technical solutions engineer who has worked on consumer products managing spam, said Musk’s ask is nonsensical. “Egregious spamming is not a technical term,” she said, and most record keeping at major tech companies doesn’t include questions of local governmental legal codes. The norm is to simply note whether an account violated a company’s terms of service, which are rules set by the platform, not a government entity.
“It gets really hairy to pull these threads apart and figure out what the exact behavior was that led to their suspension,” Burkholder said. “Was it an innocent mistake? Was it malicious? How malicious was it? . . . Doing that on a single case is challenging, trying to do it for every account ever, you’re guaranteed to make mistakes.”
Angelo Carusone, chairman and president of Media Matters, a nonprofit advocacy group and media watchdog, said that Musk’s decision could mean bringing back networks of individuals that include the American Nazi Party and “a whole bunch of 8chan, 4chan, conspiracy theorists who engage in harassment and abuse.” 8chan and 4chan are two message boards known for their racist and antisemitic posts.
Reversing the suspensions would mean “turning Twitter into a one-stop shop for operationalizing doxing and harassment, and an engine of radicalization,” Carusone said. “It’s a red pill Pez dispenser.”
And quitting Twitter won’t keep you safe. “Even if you’re not on Twitter, you can still be the recipient of these campaigns,” he said. He predicted that public health officials, election officials, journalists and teachers will all be targeted.
“Conducting major moderation and enforcement decisions on a whim is troubling CEO behavior,” said Nora Benavidez, senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights at Free Press, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Musk, under the auspices of democracy, is legitimizing decisions that will have deeply dangerous consequences in the real world.”
Benavidez said that organizations including Free Press have spent years educating tech giants on complex trust and safety issues and “pressuring them to understand the really delicate and complex role they play in mitigating harm caused to real people.” If “general amnesty” is granted for the majority of suspended accounts, “It will be open season for people suspended for hate, harassment, disinformation, conspiracies and extremism,” Benavidez said. “It’s open season in the most dangerous ways.”
“You have journalists, activists in authoritarian regimes in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who are now even at the mercy of even more vicious trolls with no ability to fight back,” said Caraballo. “It’s literally life or death for people.”
The lifting of the suspensions was especially troubling to LGBTQ activists, coming just days after a mass killing at the Club Q in Colorado Springs killed five and wounded 18. Several of the restored accounts had previously been suspended for hateful rhetoric toward the gay and trans community, and Musk has been criticized for replying to Tim Pool, a right-wing YouTube star who falsely claimed the club had hosted a “grooming event,” and other anti-LGBTQ accounts.
“It’s a slap in the face to LGBTQ people,” Caraballo said.
In the days after he took over Twitter, Musk initially promised not to change the site’s moderation policies and restore accounts until after he’d appointed a moderation council. But more recently Musk has backtracked on naming such a council and has laid off hundreds of the Twitter employees whose job it was to police posts on the site.
Dozens of Twitter’s advertisers have paused spending with the platform in the wake of Musk’s takeover, concerned about how his approach to content moderation might affect the site’s tone.