Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover has already emboldened the trolls

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It’s been less than a day since Elon Musk began his takeover of Twitter, but his move to the top of the company is already impacting the platform. Following the news that the deal was completed, and that he had begun purging some of the company’s executive staff, some groups opted to test Twitter’s moderation rules.

The Washington Post also reported that “racial slurs were posted rampantly overnight,” in the hours immediately after Musk’s takeover. The Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), a nonprofit organization that studies disinformation on social platforms, said Friday morning that it had observed a sharp uptick in the n-word on Twitter.

“Evidence suggests that bad actors are trying to test the limits on @Twitter,” the group said. “Several posts on 4chan encourage users to amplify derogatory slurs.”

A Twitter spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment. As both The Post and NCRI point out, much of this seems to be organized on platforms like 4Chan and TheDonald, where users are encouraging each other to spread hate.

For now, it’s unclear how widespread these efforts are. As with past harassment campaigns, a small group of trolls can have an outsize impact, particularly at a moment of upheaval for the company. Musk, who according to Bloomberg has temporarily assumed CEO duties at the company, said Friday that he would not be reinstating any banned accounts or making “major” changes to the company’s content policies until he could for a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints.”

He also responded to a Twitter account called Catturd, which had complained about shadowbans and losing followers, that he would be “digging in more.” Musk has previously said that he wants to do away with permanent bans on the platform and that he would “err on the side of, if in doubt, let the speech exist.”

Notably, the uptick in racist slurs comes one day after Musk appealed to Twitter’s advertisers, saying that he didn’t want to turn the platform into a “free-for-all hellscape where anything can be said with no consequences.”

But the increase in hate speech has further fueled concerns that Twitter’s years-long effort to clean up its platforms could be reversed under Musk. Already, he has fired the company’s top policy executive, Vijaya Gadde, who played a central role in shaping the company’s content rules. That’s concerning, says Paul Barrett, deputy director of NYU’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

“The danger here is that in the name of ‘free speech,’ Musk will turn back the clock and make Twitter into a more potent engine of hatred, divisiveness, and misinformation about elections, public health policy, and international affairs,” Barrett said in a statement. “This is not going to be pretty.”