Return of suspended accounts, policy muddle make Musk’s Twitter a ‘free-for-all hellscape’

In April 2022, Twitter announced that it had accepted tech mogul Elon Musk’s offer to acquire the company at a whopping $44 billion, following which it would become a privately held company. A month before that, Musk had disclosed a major stake in the company during a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing. Initially, the company had announced that Musk would be joining the board, but Musk reportedly declined.

Later, in a more aggressive move, he offered to buy the company at $44 billion, his ‘best and final’ offer. Over the next few days, Musk and Twitter reached a deal. However, on May 13, Musk tweeted that the deal had been put on hold over concerns related to the prevalence of bot and spam accounts on the platform. A few hours later, he tweeted that he was “still committed to the acquisition”.

The acquisition was eventually completed in late October. But the drama leading up to the actual acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk was like a precursor to what the Musk-led platform had to offer — bizarre policy moves, claims of free speech and actions wholly detrimental to the cause, and random moves that either stayed or got rolled back at Elon’s whims, to name a few.

The Moderation Council That Never Was

One of the first tweets by Elon Musk after the acquisition was a video of himself walking into the Twitter headquarters carrying a sink. The same day, he penned an open letter to advertisers. it said, “It is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence. There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society.”

On October, 28, Musk announced that Twitter would have a moderation council and that “no major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes.” Ironically, one of the first directives made by Musk after he took over was the reinstatement of Babylon Bee, a satirical site that had been suspended for an anti-trans tweet. A month later, Babylon Bee, former US President Donald Trump, and various other figures were welcomed back to the platform.

Meanwhile, the promised moderation council never happened. While responding to a tweet, Musk said that the moderation council was based on the fact that a ‘coalition of political/activist’ groups had agreed not to encourage advertisers to leave the platform. Musk claimed that the group had broken the deal hence the council never took off. Speaking to CNBC, various members of this coalition denied having such a deal.

Perhaps, Musk’s understanding of content moderation became clear when he suspended the account of Ye (formerly known as Kanye West). The account of the musician was suspended after he shared an image of a swastika combined with the Star of David. Responding to a user, Elon wrote, “I tried my best. Despite that, he again violated our rule against incitement to violence. Account will be suspended.”

According to two former employees who spoke to The Washington Post on condition of anonymity, Ye’s tweet would have violated Twitter’s rules on hateful content, not incitement to violence. In the same week, Musk announced that Twitter would reinstate all suspended accounts based on a Twitter poll.

A few weeks later, when Musk did a poll asking whether he should step down as CEO, his ardent supporters suggested that Twitter polls could be swarmed by ‘bots’ and that only Twitter blue subscribers should be allowed to vote in policy-related decisions. Interestingly, the fact that Twitter polls are prone to manipulation was already raised by former employees and researchers. It is just that these concerns did not matter as long as polls were yielding favourable results.

While Elon Musk was busy organizing polls, on November 18 in India, editor-in-chief of the pro-BJP propaganda channel Sudarshan News Suresh Chavhanke tweeted to his 6,00,000 followers an invitation card for a wedding reception of an interfaith couple, thus revealing the venue of the event and putting the couple and their families at risk of physical violence — a clear case of violation of Twitter’s policy.

This wedding event was eventually cancelled. This tweet continues to be available on the platform even today. Suresh Chavhanke never faced any consequences. Interestingly, almost a month later, Twitter temporarily suspended the accounts of multiple journalists because they ‘doxxed’ the real-time location of Elon Musk by reporting or sharing about the popular jet tracking account @ElonJet.

Amplify Misinformation, Hate and Threats, All at ₹650 per month

It was clear from the beginning that very few prominent Twitter users would succumb to the pressure of subscribing to Twitter Blue. The flip-flops on the feature has been the butt of jokes on the platform since Musk took over. Recently, it became clear that half of all the Twitter Blue subscribers had less than 1,000 followers (this data is before the legacy blue tick purge of April 20, 2023). Not only that, there has been an uptick of hateful content, conspiracy theories and even denialism on the platform. (Reports can be found here, here and here).

Alt News checked close to two dozen Twitter Blue subscriber accounts which have more than 10,000 followers and predominantly engage in content related to India. We found that these accounts not only amplified dangerous communal misinformation but also regularly participated in trolling, amplifying political propaganda, doxxing and sharing content that stereotyped marginalized communities. Some of these accounts have been reinstated on the platform because of the ‘general amnesty’ that was granted based on a Twitter poll last year.

One of the accounts called ‘@MrSinha_‘ that was reinstated by Twitter on December 26 had amplified dangerous communal misinformation within four days of being active on the platform. On December 30, when Indian cricketer Rishabh Pant met with a near-fatal car crash, @MrSinha_ tweeted that the cricketer had met with an accident in a Rohingya-dominated area and that instead of helping him, the locals looted all his belongings and ran away.

This was entirely false as police clarified in a video statement. In fact, Pant was saved by Haryana Roadways Bus operators Sushil Kumar and Paramjeet Nain. The two had contacted the police, saved Pant’s life and handed his valuables to him while the paramedics were taking him away.

This user has amplified communal and political misinformation on multiple occasions since being reinstated (here, here, here and here).

In March this year, when a migrant crisis in Tamil Nadu was fueled by misinformation, verified Twitter Blue user Mohammed Tanvir was among the prominent enablers of panic on social media. This user shared three graphic videos claiming that they were visuals from Tamil Nadu where Bihari migrant workers were being lynched. Alt News independently debunked two of the three clips shared by Tanvir. The Tamil Nadu Police also issued a statement debunking these claims.

Monu Manesar, a cow vigilante from Haryana, who has been accused of the murder of two Muslim individuals and is apparently on the run was also a verified Twitter Blue user until things blew out of proportion and his alleged deeds came under the spotlight. This is in stark contrast to what happened in the case of Suresh Chavhanke, who tweeted the address of an interfaith wedding reception. The tweet was simply never removed because it never caught the attention of international media.

Ritesh Jha, who rose to fame in the spring of 2021 for doing a YouTube live stream in which the channel’s audience ‘rated’ Pakistani women, ‘auctioned’ them off to each other, and posted sexually charged comments on their looks and clothes, is also a verified Twitter Blue user. Jha who goes by the pseudonym ‘Liberal Doge’, has been at it for over two years and was the inspiration for the GitHub apps ‘Bulli Bai’ and ‘Sulli Deals’, which did a similar auction of Twitter accounts of Indian Muslim women.

Below is a collage of some of the tweets and replies made by Ritesh Jha alias Liberal Doge as a Twitter Blue subscriber.

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He also shared a clip recently in which a minor can be seen being sexually assaulted. The clip has a text superimposed on it that reads, “Lessons being taught in madrasa”. Jha also used his Twitter to amplify the false claim that a recent chemical blast in Bulandshahr took place at a Muslim individual’s house, a claim categorically refuted by police.

Another account called Megh Updates, which attempts to position itself as a news aggregator, was reinstated on January 12. Since then, this account has spread false information at least 10 times.

The activities of these accounts are not just limited to spreading misinformation. They are also involved in trolling, harassing and attempting to intimidate journalists and politicians by sending items to their addresses. On at least three separate occasions, a paid verified user called ‘@Cyber_Huntss’ has put up tweets in which he says he is sending grocery items to his targets. Among his targets were Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair, Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. (Archive 1, 2 and 3).

Tweets by these accounts targeted Dr BR Ambedkar, journalist Danish Siddiqui who was killed by the Taliban, and shared AI-generated images of Prophet Muhammad and Aisha.

One account even shared the false claim that Dr BR Ambedkar was ‘the first rapist of independent India’. The basis of this claim is a medium post and nothing else. (Archive)

Attacks on Journalists in India

Journalists have always been a target of abuses on Twitter, especially those hailing from minority communities. In 2018, Amnesty International looked at 778 women journalists and politicians in the US and UK and found that 7.1% of tweets sent to them were abusive or problematic. In 2020, Amnesty International released a report in which they analyzed 114,716 tweets mentioning 95 Indian women politicians in a three-month period. It found that 13.8% of the tweets that mentioned 95 women politicians in the study were either ‘problematic’ or ‘abusive’. The study also found that Muslim women politicians received 94.1% more ethnic or religious slurs than women politicians from other religions.

The issue of inappropriate and abusive content existed in the old regime, but in Musk’s Twitter, these accounts are not only given a verified tick (which looks like a seal of approval) but their engagements are also prioritized as per the claims of the new owner.

Indian Muslim journalists Rana Ayyub, Arfa Khanum Sherwani, Mohammed Zubair, and Sayema, a radio jockey, are among the top favourites for these trolls. Ayyub, who is famous for her investigative reporting and columns, has been a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government. In a recent study, researchers found that “of all the obvious abuse directed at Ayyub, 62% were personal attacks, including sexist, misogynistic, sexually explicit and racist abuse (e.g. ‘presstitute’, ‘ISIS sex slave’, ‘Jihadi Jane’, etc.) and 35% was designed to undermine her credibility as a journalist or commentator.” The research also notes that “nearly 42% of all of Ayyub’s tweets receive at least one abusive reply, a remarkably high rate, and the speed of the abuse is highly unusual – sometimes within seconds of her posting – potentially signalling coordinated campaigns.”

Ayyub told the researchers that she was not only being attacked for her journalism but due to her faith as well, so she had to defend herself ‘as a Muslim journalist’. The amount of abuse faced by journalist Arfa Khanum Sherwani and RJ Sayema is almost on a par with Rana Ayyub. In February this year, right-wing influencers attempted to create a ruckus over Arfa allegedly being a speaker at the Harvard India Conference, by sharing a poster of the list of speakers from 2020. Arfa did not take part in the 2023 conference. Even Right Wing outlets debunked the claim. (Archive)

Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair is among the few Muslim male journalists who are relentlessly trolled. There are verified accounts which unfailingly manage to abuse or send threats on almost all of his tweets. Zubair spent 23 days in jail last year after Delhi police had arrested him over a 2018 tweet that an anonymous complainant found ‘objectionable’. At the beginning of March, Zubair received a series of online threats from pro-Hindutva influencers after Alt News debunked a disinformation campaign about murderous attacks on migrant Bihari workers in Tamil Nadu. Below are screenshots of the relentless trolling of the above-mentioned journalists done by some verified Twitter Blue users.

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A clear line of communication is also missing since Twitter now automatically responds to media queries with a poop emoji. Other factors also make it evident that a very small team has been looking into day-to-day moderation and there is virtually no direct communication until it causes an uproar.

Recently, when the news agency ANI was locked by Twitter, the editor of the organisation made a Tweet announcing the same while tagging Musk. The same evening NDTV was ‘blocked’ by Twitter and they too announced it while tagging Musk. Both handles were restored within a few hours. This came across as quite unusual, as social media companies have a person of contact to quickly rectify an error like this. In Twitter 2.0, grievances can be directly addressed by tagging the owner, giving an advantage only to those accounts having a large number of mass followers.

When Musk took over Twitter last year, he started using his personal account to respond to complaints. At one point, he changed his Twitter bio to ‘Twitter Complaint Hotline Operator‘, normalizing the practice. In the previous regime, users raised issues about Twitter by tagging the Twitter Support account and/or some prominent employees. At the present moment, that systematic approach has been dismantled. India has the third largest Twitter users globally and it is surprising that Musk himself is the de-facto point of contact for such a huge user base. Such a carefree approach for a market like India only accentuates the policy paralysis in Musk’s Twitter.

A Twitter Blue user with 1 million plus followers uploaded two movies back to back on Sunday, April 30. It took Twitter three hours to take down the first movie and the second movie remained on the platform for up to seven hours, making it evident that Twitter currently is surprisingly slow at detecting and taking down illegal content. Twitter under Musk is also struggling to curb child abuse content despite it being one of the top priorities promised by him. Even a network of AI spam bots using ChatGPT to tweet politics in Southeast Asia and cryptocurrency remained under the radar until it was flagged by a researcher earlier this month.

Free Speech Absolutism — A Sham From The Start

Post-acquisition, Elon gave access to internal documents of Twitter to a handful of journalists who published what they called the ‘Twitter Files’, which apparently revealed partisanship, government interferences and censorship happening on the platform. Based on these publications, Musk openly criticised the policies of the platform that existed under the previous leadership. Around the same time, Musk took the opportunity on multiple occasions, to explain his position when it comes to ‘censorship’. In fact, during the talks about the acquisition of Twitter, Musk said that by free speech he simply meant speech which complied with the law. It was clear from the beginning that his understanding of content moderation was rather naive and more importantly, he would simply comply with any government requests without ever challenging it.

In January this year, when the BBC aired its two-part documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’ in the UK, which looked into the role of Narendra Modi during the 2002 Gujarat violence, it quickly gained attention among Indian viewers due to unauthorised circulation of clips of the documentary on social media platforms.

The Indian government invoked an emergency law and issued orders to YouTube and Twitter demanding that they block any content related to the documentary from being published on their platforms. Complying with this, Twitter blocked dozens of tweets that provided links to the documentary. When prompted about this by a user, Elon replied by saying that “It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things”.

Then almost a month and a half later, Twitter blocked 122 accounts belonging to journalists, authors, and politicians in India based on legal requests from the Indian government. Additional 23 accounts were blocked by Twitter on March 23 based on legal demands. On March 28, BBC’s Punjabi news service was ‘withheld’ in India for a few hours based on a government request. On April 7, investigative journalist Saurav Das tweeted that one of his tweets about home minister Amit Shah had been withheld globally. The move was an apparent first for Twitter as the platform generally tended to block tweets only in the region whose government had made the legal request.

It was not unusual for Twitter even under the previous leadership to comply with requests made by the government. But the blanket compliance appears to contradict not only Elon’s commitment to ‘free speech’ but also the culture that was established by the previous system. For instance, in July 2022, about three months before Musk took over, Twitter took the Indian government to court for a judicial review of the content it had asked to be blocked in the country. On April 12, 2023, during an interview with BBC, it became apparent that Musk’s Twitter had no interest in taking the same path. He said that India’s rules for social media platforms were ‘quite strict’ and that he would rather comply with the government’s blocking orders than risk sending Twitter employees to jail.

Amid all these developments, Musk followed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter on April 10, 2023.

To Verify or Not to Verify, That is the Question

A consistent vision also appears to be missing from the beginning of the takeover, other than the obvious obsession with metrics and labels. The very first product launched by Twitter under Musk, a paid-for blue verification mark, had to be paused immediately after launch due to the swarming of fake verified accounts spreading misinformation. Next, Twitter removed labels indicating a device from which a tweet was sent because according to him it was a “waste of screen space & compute”. Then eventually came the ‘view count‘ button, while they experimented with the position of the retweet and like buttons. He also introduced colour-coded check marks, in which yellow check marks indicate corporate accounts, while the grey check marks denote the accounts of government officials. An additional label called “Official” was introduced at some point and killed within hours before the very first Twitter Blue launch which gave users the option to apply for a paid blue check mark.

Musk’s takeover of Twitter in October last year was rejoiced by Right Wing figures globally. Many prominent Russian and Chinese personalities challenged Musk to live up to his commitment towards free speech by removing labels on their accounts and rolling back policies limiting their visibility and reach on the platform. Their wishful remarks started coming to fruition in April of this year when Musk’s Twitter labelled the National Public Radio (NPR) as ‘state-affiliated media’, which was later changed to ‘Government Funded’ after a long email exchange between NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn and Elon Musk. During this period, the platform also stopped enforcing policies designed to limit the reach of Chinese and Russian propaganda.

Twitter continued to globally label several accounts as ‘Government Funded’ based on a Wikipedia list, among which was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). The organisation argued that it was ‘less than 70% government funded’, after which Twitter labelled it as ‘69% Government Funded’. Both NPR and CBC have stopped using Twitter over the false label.

As of April 21, Twitter has removed labels from all accounts, including those belonging to Russia and China. Upon being enquired, Musk told reporters that all media labels were dropped based on a suggestion by Walter Isaacson, the former president and CEO of the Aspen Institute.

The news of state-controlled media experiencing sudden Twitter gains without any announcement of the change in platform policy was confirmed by DFR Lab’s research. Twitter removed all legacy verified accounts on April 20, 2023. Taking advantage of this change, within a few hours, a fake account subscribed to Twitter Blue claiming to represent the paramilitary group fighting for control of Sudan falsely claimed its leader had died in the fighting. A verified Twitter Blue account also tweeted that Turkish President Erdogan was poisoned while meeting a Russian official without providing any reliable citations, as pointed out by Twitter Community Notes volunteers.

Recently, Twitter also announced an update about its ‘enforcement philosophy’, wherein it was said that based on the existing policy of visibility filtering, additional details would be provided via publicly visible labels to tweets that are in violation of Twitter’s policy on ‘Hateful Conduct’. Twitter refers to this move as “Freedom of speech, not reach“. It took Twitter less than 10 days to fail at enforcing this policy. When civil rights attorney and clinical instructor Alejandra Caraballo posted a collage of screenshots of verified accounts calling for the execution of trans people and their allies, Twitter not only removed those tweets by verified handles but also took action on the tweet of Caraballo, which now only shows a blank panel. The tweet by Caraballo does not have any labels that indicate it has been limited.

It has also been reported that Twitter will not be publishing a transparency report for the year 2022 and has “also chosen to stop publishing routine disclosures of copyright and government takedown requests on the Lumen Database — Twitter doesn’t appear to have disclosed any Indian takedown requests since April 9, and even copyright request disclosures globally haven’t been forthcoming since April 15”. Since Musk took over, Twitter has complied with 971 requests from governments and courts. In fact, in its self-reports, Twitter under Musk shows that it did not challenge even one single request made by courts and governments. More importantly, the compliance rate in the year before the acquisition hovered around 50%. At present, the figure has jumped to 83%. When Twitter fails to challenge such take-down requests in countries like India, it becomes virtually impossible for the end user to legally challenge these take-downs.

To sum up, with the reinstatement of deplatformed accounts & a policy muddle at its worst, Musk’s Twitter has become exactly what he promised it won’t — a ‘free-for-all hellscape’. Below is a list of additional developments that happened in the last few weeks:

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About the Author

Kalim is a journalist with a keen interest in tech, misinformation, culture, etc