When Elon Musk lodged his attempt to take over Twitter, which he has since renamed X and rebuilt in his own image, he was clear about his purpose. Musk, a self-described “free speech maximalist”, felt that the platform had become too interventionist – and too liberal – in suppressing some voices.
The evidence behind that claim was always shaky: Twitter’s own research, conducted in 2021, shows that the platform had a tendency to amplify voices on the right of the political spectrum more than any other. Nevertheless, Musk had a goal.
In November 2022, he lifted a ban levied on former US president Donald Trump – though the once-prolific tweeter didn’t return. And in recent days, he has quietly reinstated the accounts of activist Tommy Robinson and political commentator Katie Hopkins, who had been banned since 2018 and 2020 respectively.
Both have thanked Musk for reinstating their accounts on the platform – but those who worked on political misinformation and content moderation at Twitter before being fired by Musk after his takeover, alongside social media experts, say that the decision is a dangerous one.
“It’s incredibly disturbing that these two accounts, which were so closely linked with abuse and harassment have been reinstated,” said Melissa Ingle, who previously worked as a senior data scientist in the content moderation team at Twitter. “Contrary to some people’s opinions, Twitter prior to Musk did not make these decisions lightly.”
Ingle told i that the decision to ban both personalities years ago was a deliberate one, based on evidence that they had breached the terms of Twitter repeatedly. “In the case of Hopkins and Robinson, both were banned because multiple mechanisms flagged them multiple times.
“Accounts of that size could not be automatically banned but had to be referred up to higher management, who were very reluctant to ban and – this is important – would only ban accounts of that size after repeated violations. That’s why Hopkins and Robinson didn’t know exactly why they were banned – there were too many reasons.”
X did not respond to a request for comment on why the bans on Robinson and Hopkins had been lifted. However, their invitation to return appears to be a statement by Musk, and X, that an increasing plurality of views – even those that many would find unpleasant – is welcome on the platform.
“We need to remind ourselves that the days of Twitter are gone,” said social media expert Matt Navarra. “We’re now in the era of X. And X is for ‘extreme’.”
Navarra said that means a step change in approaches to issues including what is and isn’t acceptable speech. “What we now have with X is a platform that champions free speech, and which means bringing back some of the worst and most toxic characters to the platform.”
But that has issues. Hate speech has risen sharply on X since Musk bought the company in October 2022 for $44bn (£36bn), according to academics. Nearly 20 per cent of more than 1,000 accounts reinstated by Musk immediately after his takeover were promoting hate and violence, according to a BBC analysis.
That matters in part because of X’s position as the “de facto public square” that Musk described it as prior to his takeover – and the ability to shift the conversation towards a more hateful tone – and in part because it imperils the future of the platform.
Advertisers have told reporters that hate speech has put them off spending to promote their goods on X, while Elon Musk himself now values X at less than half what he bought it for just over a year ago.
But it’s the impact on society that worries those who saw the decision-making process behind banning the likes of Robinson and Hopkins in the first place. “We’ve already seen multiple reports from researchers around the globe who’ve confirmed a rise in hate speech and violence on X since Musk’s takeover,” said Ingle.
“It’s extremely bad that we are allowing them back.”