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It’s hard to see what an avowed far-right militant ‘would be doing much differently’ than Elon Musk with his Twitter policies, extremism expert says

Collage of Elon Musk

Win McNamee/Tristar Media/Nathan Howard/Patrick Fallon; Jenny Chang-Rodriguez/Insider

  • Elon Musk’s Twitter policies help extremists, an expert told Insider.
  • Far-right users are now using Twitter to “mobilize harassment” against other accounts.
  • Musk undid many safety policies that took years to implement at Twitter. 

Ever since Tesla and Space X CEO Elon Musk decided to try his hand at running a social media company, Twitter has been plagued with scandals. 

The policies that Musk instated following his $44 billion purchase of Twitter resulted in an increase in hate speech after the company lowered the guardrails on content moderation, a dismantling of the Trust and Safety council — which recommended ways in which the social media platform could keep users safe — and the promotion of baseless conspiracy theories — some from Musk himself.

Another side effect of Musk’s acquisition? Right-wing extremists, many on reinstated accounts, are now benefitting from using the social platform to harass other users.

In an interview with Insider, J.M. Berger, a researcher on extremism and extremist movements on social media, explained what constitutes extremism and how Musk fits into the right-wing extremist ecosystem.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I don’t know how much you knew about Musk before his Twitter takeover, but is he someone who would have been considered a right-wing extremist or someone adjacent to right-wing extremism?

I think he’s been showing his hand a little more since the takeover. Before he was interested in taking over, he was just on the edge of my attention. He’s not somebody I was particularly interested in. In fact, I had muted him because people were constantly retweeting his dumb takes and I was tired of looking at them. 

But … when you start looking at stuff over time you see some public figures who will start dabbling in far-right stuff and then become increasingly oriented in that direction. And I think for most of us from looking from a distance, it’s hard to know whether it’s something they were always into or whether they are making a transition in the attitudes that they have or they were just like this all along but they just feel empowered to talk about it for some reason having to do with the environment or ecosystem around them or the things happening in their life. 

I don’t want to guess what Elon Musk’s personal journey has been, but what we’ve seen since he did this takeover is that he started off positioning himself as this kind of super neutral and he’s sort of explicitly saying he’s politically neutral. And… there are two things that we’ve seen since then. First is in his interactions on Twitter, he is increasingly palling around with — and apparently paying heed to — some of the worst people on the far right. And then secondly, the way that Twitter’s content moderation has changed since he’s taken over has definitely skewed towards favoring the far right. So whatever he brought to this, whatever his beliefs were in the beginning or whether there has been an evolution or whether it’s something that was there all along…his tenure at Twitter has been marked by a huge increase in both the presence of far-right accounts on the platform and also in how he personally elevates some of these accounts by seeming to take them seriously and engaging with them on questions of policy.

Elon Musk wouldn’t be considered a right-wing extremist, right? 

What I would say is that we haven’t heard from him any kind of articulated statement of what he believes. If you’re going to say something is extremist, you need to hear from them some statement of belief and ideology. They subscribe to the things that they think need to happen in society. And I would argue that, based on what I’ve seen from him, I don’t think he’s articulated that. It’s hard to say if he’s an extremist, but he is most definitely implementing policies that favor extremism. Whatever he believes personally, his actions are greatly increasing the amount of right-wing extremism on the Twitter platform and really increasing the amount of mainstream influence that extremists and right-wing extremists can wield.

On a technicality, I wouldn’t want to say “yes, he’s an extremist.” But if he was an extremist, it’s hard to see what he would be doing much differently from what he is doing. 

How do right-wing extremists then benefit from the added social platform?

This landscape has changed a lot over the last 10 years. At this point, there are certainly forums in which right-wing extremists can participate in — large communities online — and talk to each other. Places like Truth Social or Gab or Parler where there’s not a lot of pressure on their content in terms of people saying, “you’ve gone too far; we’re gonna suspend you!” If they just wanted to have a presence online, they can do that anywhere. But on Twitter, they can reach a larger audience. And I would say, different kinds of extremist movements have different priorities. I would say with the right wing, we’re not seeing a lot of effort to use Twitter for what we would traditionally call recruitment activities or proselytization. They’re not out there trying to win people over. They’re using it to harass people and to mobilize harassment. But in some cases can escalate toward violence or create an atmosphere that empowers violence. What they’re doing on Twitter, the accounts that I’ve seen in my monitoring of the accounts that had been restored since the amnesty, those accounts are primarily harassing other accounts. They’re not out there putting lengthy threads about what they believe or trying to articulate anything in particular. They’re trolls. They’re abusers and harassers and trolls. 

Elon has talked a lot about how he’s committed to allowing the “center 80%” to have a voice on Twitter. Is Elon Musk just bad at his job and unintentionally letting these right-wing extremists through or is it more sinister than that?

I think he’s intentionally empowering right-wing extremists… any argument that he’s trying to empower the center is patently bullshit and should be treated as such. 

There are a couple of aspects to this. One of the things that is sort of tricky in my line of work is talking about extremism without talking about more mainstream politics because there’s been a huge convergence with politics on the right, which have just increasingly overlapped with kind of extremist points of view. If we’re talking about empowering centrist voices, then if you look at polling and you look at people’s attitudes, a centrist platform would not empower anti-LGBTQ+ activism and violence, because most people support equal rights for LGBTQ+ people. There’s a mythology of the center that the far right advances and that is the mythological center that Elon Musk is interested in promoting. You can sort of harken this back to Nixon’s silent majority idea — this idea that typical Americans are family values, red-state kind of voters. And that’s not true. It’s evidently not true. By creating that mythology what they succeed in doing is tilting the entire conversation to the right and then making space for further and further kinds of right far-right views that verge into open extremism. 

I think that what we’re seeing right now is really a reaction to a lot of changes in attitudes, mores, and norms. Over the last 10-15 years, there’s just been a real dramatic change in acceptance of inclusion. And that kind of change usually provokes a reactionary backlash, and that’s part of what we’re seeing now. 

I know there were efforts made by Twitter leaders to be more inclusive [and] to try to stamp out hate — that’s why there were so many suspended accounts in the first place before Musk reinstated many of them. But, I know there were also criticisms levied against Jack Dorsey and the way he handled some prominent white supremacist accounts. Is Elon really that much more different than the previous regimes? Or is it because we’re in a new era that we are seeing his actions as something worse than before?

Here’s what I would say about these big social media platforms: We have two models of social media ownership — one is the personal individual leader who shapes everything that happens in the company. And if that person is, for instance, a sociopath, the company tends to behave in sociopathic ways. The other is the corporate model which is exploitative and has its own downsides but is very responsive to things like shareholder concerns and public relations problems.

Twitter started off as an individual leadership company under Jack Dorsey. Because of Jack Dorsey’s personal views about freedom of speech and whatever his sympathies are ideologically, Twitter had to be dragged — kicking and screaming — into the age of content moderation. Twitter was really the last of the big three platforms to implement any kind of robust moderation. And it really only took off after Jack Dorsey stepped away and Twitter became more of a corporate model. As somebody who has been here in this process, from really the very beginning of this discussion over content moderation, I would say that it was a long battle to get Twitter to the imperfect place that it was at when Elon Musk purchased it. And all that progress and all that fighting, all the public pressure, all the studies that we published and all the analysis we did — everything that was gained from that work — has been thrown out in a relatively short period of time. Whether it sticks is another question.

Twitter does face some problems in the elimination of most of the content moderation staff. First and foremost is that the European Union is much more inclined to regulate these platforms than the United States is and Twitter’s already probably run afoul of a lot of those regulators and they’re probably going to run into deeper and worse problems with them as time passes. So…where Twitter is at right now may not be where it ends. On the other hand, there are also a lot of existential risks to the company, in terms of how Elon Musk is running its infrastructure, its security, and its privacy practices, which are the subject of an FTC consent order that could — and it’s a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the company — result in billions of dollars in fines at any moment. And of course, the company is now heavily leveraged with debt, so a giant multi-billion dollar hit to its bottom line would potentially put it out of business.

It’s really hard to know what’s going to happen next. There are a lot of possibilities. I think the most likely possibility is that one of the existential threats hanging over Twitter right now is going to put it out of business within the year. But if it doesn’t, then there’s going to be some kind of give and take on this. In order to keep operating, especially next year when the European Union’s Digital Services Act becomes law, Twitter is going to have to demonstrate content moderation capabilities, and if it can’t demonstrate them then it faces a potential ban in Europe. We’re in this kind of weird, crazy “Free For All” right now, and it’s not clear to me where all the dust is going to settle exactly.

Is there any solution to all of this? 

As much as corporate models for public goods are problematic, corporations can be moved by traditional incentives such as advertisers, boycotts, user dissatisfaction, and bad headlines. Individual people may not be so susceptible to those pressures, especially if they are not being motivated by any real sense of the public good or any understanding of how society works, or if they are so rich that they have become completely insulated from any information that runs counter to their understanding of the world. In the short term, certainly, as users of the platform, there are things we could do that would change, that would affect, a traditional company’s calculus — and it’s unclear to me what would change Elon Musk’s calculus. The only advice that I would give Twitter users who are concerned about what’s happening is not to give Twitter money. Don’t pay for a blue checkmark. Don’t buy advertising. Don’t click on ads. That’s the only leverage that we have. It’s unclear that that’s enough leverage to make a change, but you can at least not be complicit in what’s happening.

Read the original article on Business Insider