New Twitter leadership sparks fears that it could become a ‘superspreader’ of hate speech

(Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images, Getty Images (6))
(Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images, Getty Images (6)) (AFP via Getty Images)

On Friday, Twitter, which has over 200 million active users, temporarily closed its offices, as it informed thousands of employees of mass layoffs under the firm's new leadership. Aakash Raina, who was employed by Twitter to report tweets that included abusive content, was one of many people who lost their jobs, according to a tweet he posted.

While the company makes drastic cuts, experts say content moderation on the platform has become a major concern.

Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, bought the social media giant for $44 billion on Oct. 27, and since he took over, researchers have noted a surge in hate speech on Twitter.

On acquiring the social media platform, which was founded in 2006, Musk tweeted, “The bird is free.”

It’s no secret that Musk has strong views about free speech. He declared in a statement in April: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

“When he was talking about ‘I'm going to free the bird,’ [he was] referring to the fact that Twitter has been kind of constrained, and he's going to make it unconstrained,” Bond Benton, associate professor of communications of Montclair State University, told Yahoo News.

With a backdrop of sago palms, Elon Musk, wearing a black T-shirt, talks into a microphone.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk speaks at a T-Mobile and SpaceX joint event on Aug. 25 in Boca Chica Beach, Texas. (Michael Gonzalez/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

“There was real excitement among certain portions of the online community that were probably going to try to take advantage of it. So we started watching,” Benton said.

On the day after the transaction, Benton and a team of faculty members at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., released a study on the impact of Musk’s ownership.

“Within the first nine hours of the date that Musk took over as CEO, we saw 4,778 instances of specific hate speech being shared,” Benton said.

“In the week before, looking at the seven-year average, [hate speech] was never more than 84 times in an hour. So this was just a massive jump,” he added.

The study analyzed the use of specific terms that would usually be flagged or objected to on the platform. Overall, the researchers saw an uptick in racial slurs, religious terms used to offend Jews, and negative slurs against the LGBTQ community.

“And sort of like clockwork, when he took over as CEO, all of those terms spiked,” Benton said.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The use of the N-word on Twitter also surged by over 500%, according to research by the cyber research organization National Contagion Research Institute.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People quickly responded and met with Musk to express their concerns about the “life-threatening hate and conspiracies that have proliferated under his watch,” Derrick Johnson, president of NAACP, said in a tweet.

“I think it was a positive meeting. There was agreement, and points that were raised, and as the civil rights and social justice community, we are cautiously optimistic,” Johnson told Yahoo News. “But the real question here is, what is he going to do? He said all the right things, now we're waiting to see what's actually going to take place.”

According to Johnson, several issues were discussed, including free speech, maintaining the election integrity unit and conducting thorough reviews before allowing people to return to the platform.

“And he agreed that [the] issues that were raised were based on concerns around the rise in racial hatred, ethnic hatred, demonization based on one's religious belief and the platform [becoming] a superspreader [that] could actually create an atmosphere to cause communities and individuals harm,” Johnson said.

Derrick Johnson at the microphone.
Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, at the National Press Club on March 28, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

“We're optimistic that we walked out of the meeting with a positive tone of agreement. But we're cautious to see what that means in terms of implementing the necessary safeguards to protect people and to protect communities,” Johnson added.

However, some high-profile users say it's too late, and that they plan to leave the platform altogether. In a tweet on Oct. 28, the Grammy-award winning artist Toni Braxton stated: “I'm shocked and appalled at some of the ‘free speech’ I've seen on this platform since its acquisition. Hate speech under the veil of ‘free speech’ is unacceptable; therefore I am choosing to stay off Twitter, as it is no longer a safe space for myself, my sons and other POC (people of color)."

LeBron James also acknowledged the negativity that has surfaced on the platform in a tweet on Oct. 29: “I don't know Elon Musk and, tbh [to be honest], I could care less who owns twitter. But I will say that if this is true, I hope he and his people take this very seriously because this is scary AF. So many damn unfit people saying hate speech is free speech.”

According to the social media platform, Twitter has made no changes to its content moderation. However, researchers believe that some users used Musk’s arrival as CEO as a call to spread hate online.

“They're saying (Twitter) that for the most part, this spike and these terms was a prank,” Benton said. “That’s what they're speculating. It was a prank where a large number of users, several hundred, decided to go on Twitter or create multiple accounts and just spam these words.”

Traffic passes the corner of the Twitter building.
Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on Nov. 4. (Samantha Laurey/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

Montclair State University researchers found that the majority of accounts that used hate speech were unverified accounts. But the level of hate speech on the platform has still not dropped to the levels that were typical before Musk's arrival.

Benton described this as “a little bit of a red flag." "If they're claiming that moderation is taking care of this," he said, "we should be seeing hate speech levels return to their previous levels. We're not seeing that.”

As the culture of Twitter shifts, advertisements are being cut back. Reuters reported Friday that Volkswagen had recommended that its brands pause paid advertising on Twitter until further notice.

Responding to the backlash the company is facing, Musk posted on Twitter that the company “has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists. Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America.”