Just days after Elon Musk assured advertisers that Twitter would not become “a free-for-all hellscape,” the social media site was swamped with an outpouring of racist, sexist and antisemitic posts, along with election disinformation and bizarre conspiracy theories. The ugliest of these conspiracies were amplified by Musk himself.
The Anti-Defamation League reported that an anonymous post on 4chan instructed followers to disseminate antisemitic content on Twitter following Musk’s takeover. “The post,” the ADL tweeted, “was shared almost immediately in several extremist Telegram channels.”
The dawn of the Musk era was also celebrated by MAGA conspiracy theorists and election deniers, who used the occasion to push out disinformation about vaccines and gleefully repromote gross anti-transgender talking points.
But the real test of the new Musk regime came with the violent attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband, Paul.
Filmmaker and former felon Dinesh D’Souza gushed that “Twitter has become fun again,” and (like other right-wing figures) spread a false homophobic smear about the hammer attack on the speaker’s husband. D’Souza baselessly claimed that the attack was the result of a gay lovers’ quarrel.
Police have since debunked these theories — the attacker was not in his underwear, for example, and the suspect was completely unknown to Paul Pelosi. And yet, D’Souza’s lies quickly rocketed around Musk’s newly liberated social media site.
For a brief moment, it was unclear how Musk would react to this cataract of falsehood.
Then he joined in himself.
As NBC News reported, Musk “tweeted and deleted an unfounded anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory Sunday morning about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband from a website that has a history of publishing false information.”
In response to a tweet by Hillary Clinton calling out the GOP and its “mouthpieces” who “regularly spread hate and deranged conspiracy theories,” the new owner of Twitter linked to an article espousing a thoroughly debunked conspiracy about Paul Pelosi bringing home a male prostitute. “There is a tiny possibility,” Musk wrote, “there might be more to this story than meets the eye.”
This is sick stuff on multiple levels. The website that Musk highlighted is a notorious swamp of disinformation. (In 2016, the site reported that Clinton had actually died on 9/11 and that the former secretary of state was actually a body double, or maybe a robot.) But with a single tweet, Musk had emerged as the Pelosi attack truther-in-chief. Before it was deleted, Musk’s reckless speculation had been retweeted more than 24,000 times and got more than 86,000 likes.
And all of this took place within the first 72 hours of Musk’s tenure. It may be about to get even worse.
On his first day, Musk reportedly fired Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of policy, trust and safety — just in time for the midterm elections.
Musk has long claimed to be a free speech absolutist, who may lift the bans on many of the sketchiest characters in American politics — including Donald Trump.
Many on the right are eagerly waiting to see if Musk will indeed welcome back Donald Trump.
Many on the right are eagerly waiting to see if Musk will indeed welcome back Trump, as well as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, white nationalist Nick Fuentes, and Andrew Tate, a misogynistic British American kickboxer who the Observer reported “talks about hitting and choking women, trashing their belongings and stopping them from going out.”
But as Nilay Patel wrote in The Verge, Musk is about to find out that “most people do not want to participate in horrible unmoderated internet spaces full of s—– racists and not-all-men fedora bullies.”
Musk, Patel wrote, won’t be able to keep advertisers on board unless he can promise them they won’t be immersed in a fetid swamp of bigotry and crazy. “That means,” he wrote, “you have to ban racism, sexism, transphobia, and all kinds of other speech that is totally legal in the United States but reveals people to be total a——-. So you can make all the promises about ‘free speech’ you want, but the dull reality is that you still have to ban a bunch of legal speech if you want to make money. And when you start doing that, your creepy new right-wing fanboys are going to viciously turn on you, just like they turn on every other social network that realizes the same essential truth.”
Let’s put this in context.
The day after Musk took over Twitter, the federal government published a joint intelligence bulletin warning of the threat of domestic violence aimed at “candidates running for public office, elected officials, election workers, political rallies, political party representatives, racial and religious minorities, or perceived ideological opponents.”
In the bulletin, NPR and other outlets report that the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and U.S. Capitol Police warn that “violence will largely be dependent on drivers such as personalized ideological grievances and the accessibility of potential targets throughout the election cycle.”
“We assess some [domestic violent extremists] motivated by election-related grievances would likely view election-related infrastructure, personnel, and voters involved in the election process as attractive targets — including at publicly accessible locations like polling places, ballot drop-box locations, voter registration sites, campaign events, and political party offices,” it said.
This weekend the guardrails came down; many trolls were seemingly emboldened; and a cascade of hateful speech and deception flooded into the feeds of millions of social media users.
So welcome to Elon Musk’s hellscape. And our own.