Twitter has a problem with white supremacist and neo-Nazi content proliferating on the platform—and Elon Musk is making that problem worse.
In recent days, the platform’s new CEO has reactivated the accounts of known neo-Nazis; shared a picture of a white supremacist who said he’d like Trump to be more like Hitler; failed to prevent users from posting videos of the Christchurch massacre; tweeted a popular alt-right meme; used a known antisemitic trope; and, inadvertently or not, shared a dogwhistle that white supremacists interpreted as praise for Hitler.
Musk’s apparent embrace of the white supremacist community has already led to a rise in hate speech on the platform, and it’s about to get even darker. In far-right forums, extremists of all stripes are salivating at the prospect of being able to share their hateful ideologies on a platform with much greater reach when Musk reinstates accounts that were banned for spreading hate speech.
“As soon as he took over Twitter, we saw extremists trying to exploit the platform, we’ve seen hate of all kinds increase, so these messages that he’s sending have to be understood in the context of what is happening to that platform,” Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told VICE News. “As it’s becoming a hellscape for antisemitism and racism and bigotry, it just so happens that he is putting out the type of language that is appreciated by those who are doing that.”
Musk’s pattern of normalizing far-right content stretches back to well before his takeover of Twitter. Last February, Musk tweeted a meme that compared Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Hitler. The tweet, which he deleted within 12 hours of being posted, showed support for the truckers who were protesting vaccine mandates.
But since he took control of Twitter late last month, Musk has welcomed white supremacists back onto the platform, engaged with them on his timeline, and over the last few days, he’s posted multiple tweets that appeal directly to them.
On Saturday Musk responded to a random account with the username @Rainmaker1973 that tweeted that the unique biodiversity of Madagascar is the result of being isolated from other land masses for 88 million years,
Musk, who hadn’t been tagged in the post, responded by asking: “I wonder what Earth will be like 88 million years from now.”
While it’s unclear if Musk knows that in extremist circles, 88 is a well-known code for “Heil Hitler” (H being the 8th letter of the alphabet), his followers certainly took his use of the number as a sign he was speaking to them.
The use of the number 14 in many of the replies to Musk’s tweet is a reference to the so-called “14 Words,” a white-supremacist slogan that reads: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
But Musk’s use of the figure 88 was just one of multiple recent instances of his posts exciting Twitter’s white supremacist userbase.
The next day, Musk got into a Twitter dispute with retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who had posted a message criticizing Musk’s management of the platform. In response, Musk called Vindman “both puppet & puppeteer.” As the Anti-Defamation League pointed out last month: “Even if no antisemitic insinuation is intended, casting a Jewish individual as a puppet master who manipulates national events perpetuates antisemitic tropes.”
On Monday, Musk tweeted a picture of Anthime Gionet, a notorious far-right troll and white supremacist known online as Baked Alaska, saluting a McDonald’s flag. Once someone pointed out to Musk who was in the picture, he deleted the tweet.
Gionet has said he wished Trump had been more like Hitler and took part in the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. He also took part in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and will be sentenced next year.
Here’s Gionet explaining what the phrase “14 words” and the number 88 signify to white supremacists:
Hours after Musk deleted the picture of Gionet, he posted a Pepe the Frog meme which suggested a “psy-op” was underway to undermine his control of Twitter. Pepe the Frog is a character that was created in an online cartoon in 2005, but in recent years it has been coopted by the alt-right as a hate symbol used in racist and antisemitic memes.
Though, Musk could argue that he didn’t realize what he was posting, Segal argues that even if it’s not intentional, Musk should still be aware of what he’s doing—just by looking at his replies.
“When we’re trying to assess whether he knows what he’s doing, is he truly trying to send dog whistles or messages to the extremist, we have to also look at the context there,” Segal said.“The only context we have is that now there is a pattern of memes and numeric symbols, and tropes, that extremists are excited about online. And at minimum, he should know that, he just has to look at his Twitter feed. And if he knows that, then you would think maybe he might want to stop if he doesn’t support that type of content.”
And now that Musk controls Twitter, white supremacists have been allowed back onto the platform and seem to view it as their personal playground.
Over the weekend multiple users uploaded copies of the video filmed by the Australian white supremacist as he murdered 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch in 2019. The video, which is illegal to share in New Zealand, was not caught by Twitter’s automatic moderation tools, and was only removed after the New Zealand government alerted Twitter to the problem.
Musk has said he will grant a general amnesty to banned accounts as long as they haven’t broken the law, and the process of reinstating these accounts has already begun, according to Platformer which reported Monday that 62,000 accounts with over 10,000 followers have already been assessed for reinstatement.
But Musk’s Twitter has alreadyalso reinstated some known white supremacist accounts and given them added authority by giving them a blue check mark by letting them sign up for the $8-a-month Twitter Blue subscription service. Among those who have blue checks are white nationalist Jason Kessler, organizer of the Unite the Right rally, and Richard Spencer, another well-known white nationalist, who like Kessler was found guilty of engaging in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence related to the Charlottesville rally.
Among the accounts already back on Twitter since Musk took control is Brett Stevens, a far-right racist who praised the 2011 mass murder of 77 people in Norway by a convicted terrorist who gave a Nazi salute in court earlier this year.
Since returning to the platform, Stevens has been openly advocating for genocide against non-white ethnic groups.
And in another example of how white supremacists view Twitter under Musk as a place to do and say whatever they like, there is now an account using the screen name “Day of the Rope,” which is a white supremacist concept taken from The Turner Diaries, a fictionalized blueprint for a white supremacist revolution written in 1978 by neo-Nazi leader William Pierce. Twitter says the account does not violate their policies.
For experts who track hate speech online, the most concerning aspect of Musk’s behavior is not whether he is doing all of this intentionally, but that extremists who lionize him believe he is now firmly on their side.
“It’s unclear whether Musk is consciously nodding toward extremists,” Jared Holt, senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told VICE News. “What is clear is that extremists think he is. Since Musk purchased and took over Twitter, far-right communities have celebrated Musk’s perceived sympathies to their causes. Musk has done little to dissuade these impressions. Rather, he has spent his time engaging with far-right personalities, recycling their tropes, and entertaining their grievances.”
After being banned from Twitter and other mainstream platforms, many extremist communities were relegated to smaller platforms with less reach like Gab and Telegram.
But the thought of getting back on Twitter has excited these communities in recent weeks.
“Musk’s statements indicating he may reinstate previously banned accounts has also energized far-right communities, who have interpreted Musk’s tweets as a hall pass to engage in more intense trolling and hate,” Holt said. “Whether Musk is consciously doing this or not, it has the same end effect: agitating and exciting toxic internet subcultures.”
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.