In the short time since Elon Musk took over Twitter in late October 2022, the platform has taken several steps that have empowered extremists. Chief among them: the decision to sell the “verified” blue check mark and grant “amnesty” to suspended Twitter accounts.
In the past few weeks, the ADL noted both an increase in antisemitic content on the platform and a decrease in the moderation of antisemitic posts, a troubling situation that will likely get worse, given the reported cuts to Twitter’s content moderation staff. These changes are already affecting the proliferation of hate on Twitter, and the return of extremists of all kinds to the platform has the potential to supercharge the spread of extremist content and disinformation. This may also lead to increased harassment of users.
The Blue Checkmark
On November 1, 2022, Musk announced that Twitter’s blue checkmark would be available for purchase for $8 a month. Initially conceived in 2009 as a way to verify that a Twitter account actually belonged to a person or entity, over time it became an indicator of a poster’s trusted status. Musk’s decision to monetize the blue check means extremists can adopt a degree of legitimacy. While Musk now says he is launching a more thoughtful, tiered checkmark process, it will be difficult to evaluate as his actions to date have not followed a transparent process, with the input of civil society leaders, as he had promised.
The Center on Extremism is tracking several extremists who are exploiting this development:
- Lauren Southern, a Canadian far-right political activist and internet personality, has promoted white nationalist concepts in her content, including “white genocide.”
- Libs of Tiktok, the anti-LGBTQ+ account run by Chaya Raichik, has regularly stoked hate against the queer community, exposing its targets to harassment, threats and violence.
- Jason Kessler, a white supremacist who was the primary organizer of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right event in Charlottesville, VA, has already used the platform to advocate for white supremacist David Duke’s return to Twitter.
- Richard Spencer, a prominent white supremacist, was one of the organizers of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally.
- Henrik Palmgren, a Swedish white supremacist, runs the media site Red Ice TV with his wife Lana Lokteff, an American white supremacist. Red Ice TV broadcasts white nationalist, racist, antisemitic and far-right content.
- Daryush “Roosh” Valizadeh, a prominent misogynist
Many of these newly verified extremists regularly share hateful and conspiratorial content as well as links to more extreme spaces, creating a potential radicalization pipeline that could help these toxic ideologies spread.
On November 24, 2022, Musk posted a Twitter poll asking whether suspended accounts should be reinstated provided they have not “broken the law or engaged in egregious spam.” After 72% voted yes (it should be noted that such a poll was vulnerable to bots, foreign influence campaigns, and other forms of manipulation), Musk declared that amnesty would happen, though he did not specify a date. This represents a dramatic shift in extremists’ access to mainstream platforms, which has the potential to energize and amplify extremist movements and beliefs, providing bad actors with a wider audience and range of targets.
Some extremists encouraged their supporters to vote in the poll:
- One white supremacist Telegram channel with more than 5,000 subscribers shared Musk’s poll and encouraged supporters to vote, writing, “GO VOTE YES. It seems Elon is looking to pivot...into largely accepting free speech within legal limits, which is all that we ask for!” The post was forwarded to at least four other white supremacist channels, all of which have upwards of 1,000 subscribers.
- On November 24, a white supremacist Telegram channel with more than 3,000 followers posted: “We should all come back next week once the ‘amnesty’ is formally announced…Refrain from obvious slurs; don’t make it easy for them.”
- The Proud Boys official Telegram channel encouraged their 22,000 subscribers to vote in the amnesty poll, provided a link, and wrote, “Rock the Vote!”
- Jacob Creech (aka BioClandestine), a fringe QAnon figure known for spreading the Ukrainian biolabs conspiracy theory, praised Musk’s actions and referred to him using a QAnon trope: “I have been trying to get the community to jump on the Elon train since April, and I’ve faced HEAVY resistance. Can we accept it now? Elon’s hat is white.”
Even before the amnesty, problematic figures and extremists joined twitter or reactivated their suspended Twitter accounts and an amnesty will likely accelerate these efforts.
Former President Trump, who used the platform in the wake of the 2020 election to help foment the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, had his account reinstated – although to date, he has still not tweeted – but he is not alone:
- According to reporting, QAnon content has returned to Twitter, with users spreading conspiracy theories, disinformation, and promoting QAnon events, and many with suspended accounts are waiting to rejoin. Some prominent figures such as John Sabal (QAnon John), Romana Didulo and Brian Cates have already returned and boast thousands of followers between them.
- While some white supremacists were denied a return to Twitter, others did make their way onto the app and remain active as of December 1, including the Rose City Nationalist Club; members of the National Socialist Movement and the National Justice Party; and figures like Patrick Casey, Alex McNabb and Andrew Anglin.
- On November 23, E. Michael Jones, an antisemitic writer who promotes the view that Jews are undermining Catholicism and western civilization, tweeted for the first time in two years and thanked Musk.
- On November 24, the self-appointed leader of Canada First, the ‘Canadian branch’ of Fuentes’ America First movement, posted on Telegram, “We’re goin [sic] back to Twitter boys (for real this time.” Two days later, the Canada First Twitter account posted: “I was antisemitic before it was cool.”
- Several Proud Boys chapters have opened Twitter accounts for their chapters in New York, Connecticut and Maine.