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Elon Musk said Twitter wouldn't become a 'hellscape.' It's already changing

Elon Musk regularly tweets and shares controversial things on Twitter, but now that he's the boss, his actions take on new significance. In this photo, Musk  arrives for the Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2022, in New York.
ANGELA WEISS
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AFP via Getty Images
Elon Musk regularly tweets and shares controversial things on Twitter, but now that he's the boss, his actions take on new significance. In this photo, Musk arrives for the Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2022, in New York.

A surge in racist slurs, a coordinated campaign to spread antisemitic memes, an owner posting a baseless conspiracy theory: welcome to the first few days of Elon Musk's Twitter.

Since the billionaire took control of the influential social media platform on Oct. 27, users, researchers and the company's own employees have been warning that trolls and other malicious actors are testing Twitter's limits, apparently emboldened by a new owner who has vowed to loosen its guardrails in the name of free speech.

The incidents are raising particular alarm given that Americans are in the final days of voting in November's midterm elections, putting government agencies, civil society groups and social media companies on edge over the circulation of false information and hateful rhetoric that is fomenting real-world violence.

Musk himself inflamed those concerns on Sunday when he tweeted a link to unfounded, homophobic allegations about the violent attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Replying to a tweet from Hillary Clinton about the attack, Musk wrote: "there is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye." He included a link to an article from the Santa Monica Observer, a fringe website with a history of publishing false stories, which makes lurid claims about the attack without evidence.

Musk, who has more than 112 million Twitter followers, deleted the post hours later, but not before it had been retweeted and liked tens of thousands of times.

His tweet heightened fears that Twitter is headed into a new era of toxicity under Musk, who has fired the company's top leadership and dissolved its board, naming himself sole director.

The billionaire Tesla CEO has long used his Twitter account to provoke, joke and troll. His posts take on a new significance now that he owns and controls the platform, however.

Yael Eisenstat, a former Facebook official now at the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted that for Musk to amplify an unfounded rumor "days after claiming to advertisers that he's going to be a responsible leader, all I can say is: I'm not overreacting by expressing my concerns." She was referring to an open letter Musk wrote to advertisers last week pledging that Twitter would not become a "free-for-all hellscape."

"Actions always speak louder than words," Eisenstat wrote.

Musk and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.

Coordinated campaign of racist tweets tests Musk's control

Musk is a self-described "free speech absolutist" who has criticized Twitter's restrictions on hate speech and misleading claims about elections and public health. He has previously said he thinks the platform should allow all legal speech. He's also said he opposes permanent bans and would reinstate banned accounts including that of former President Donald Trump, who was kicked off after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

On Friday Musk clarified that he has made no changes to Twitter's rules yet. He would not make any "major content decisions or account reinstatements" before convening a "content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints," he said.

But many on Twitter and other internet sites greeted news of his ownership as a signal that the old rules were gone.

"Elon Musk has said enough on Twitter even before his takeover to make people believe that he is on the side of saying whatever you want without consequences," said Sara Aniano, disinformation analyst at the Anti-Defamation League.

In the first 24 hours after news broke that Musk had closed his $44 billion purchase, more than 1,200 tweets and retweet spread antisemitic posts and memes, according to the ADL's analysis. In the following days, they've been posted thousands more times.

The ADL said the surge was being driven by a coordinated campaign on internet platforms popular with the far right, including 4chan, an anonymous message board that has generated previous harassment and trolling campaigns, and the messaging app Telegram.

"There were specific guidelines on 4chan on what to do, how to do it, and why they were doing it. And they were doing it to indoctrinate more users into their rallying cry against the Jews," Aniano said.

Users of 4chan also encouraged each other to amplify derogatory slurs, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute. It found use of the n-word increased 500% immediately following Musk's purchase.

According to data from Dataminr, a company that analyzes social media activity, use of several racist and homophobic slurs increased in the hours and days after Musk took control. Tweets and retweets containing the n-word were being posted more than 2,300 times an hour at the peak on Friday, the data showed.

Twitter's head of safety and integrity, Yoel Roth, also warned of coordinated efforts to proliferate hateful posts and said the platform was banning users involved in the trolling campaign.

"Over the last 48 hours, we've seen a small number of accounts post a ton of Tweets that include slurs and other derogatory terms," he tweeted on Saturday evening, noting that just 300 accounts were responsible for more than 50,000 tweets using one slur.

"Bottom line up front: Twitter's policies haven't changed," Roth wrote. "Hateful conduct has no place here. And we're taking steps to put a stop to an organized effort to make people think we have."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.