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Elon Musk has some new super fans: Russia, China and the Islamic State.
After the world’s richest man bought Twitter for $44 billion last month, officials and journalists linked to Russia and China — and even some jihadists — urged him to lift restrictions on their use of the platform.
So far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. But the repeated requests — including from high-profile figures like Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry — are part of efforts by these individuals to use Musk’s takeover as a chance to make a comeback on Twitter.
Right-wing extremist groups in the West have already heralded Musk’s ownership as a signal that they can post hate-filled and potentially illegal content online with little, or no, resistance.
Now, Russian and Chinese state-backed Twitter accounts have taken up the same free speech argument, demanding the platform reinstate them, remove labels that identify these accounts as linked to Beijing or Moscow, and allow them to post more freely, including on hot-button topics like the war in Ukraine.
“They are doing this to jump on the bandwagon now that the right-wing community are putting pressure on Musk,” said Felix Kartte, a senior adviser at Reset, a technology accountability lobbying group. “They are pushing it because everyone else is pushing Musk, too.”
A representative for Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. The company has previously said its policies regarding online hate content have not changed since Musk’s takeover.
The pressure is a crucial early test of Musk’s willingness to police his new platform. Fears are already mounting that under his leadership, Twitter could be reshaped to make it a more toxic place for political debate — and potentially even incite an increase in violent extremism or foreign interference within Western democracies.
The resurgence of interest from the state-backed and jihadist accounts comes as Twitter undergoes a fundamental shift under Musk. The South African-born billionaire laid off half of the company’s employees on Friday, including many in senior public policy and content moderation roles.
After Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine, the European Union imposed sanctions banning content from the likes of Russia’s RT and Sputnik, a move that forced Twitter to adopt its own restrictions, which it expanded beyond the borders of the 27-country bloc. Now senior figures at RT — and Kremlin officials — are demanding Musk lift those measures.
Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, and other prominent RT journalists, messaged Musk in the days before and after the acquisition to urge him to end the so-called shadow bans against their state-affiliated news organization. Those restrictions include RT’s content not appearing when people search on Twitter.
George Galloway, a former British politician who now hosts a show on RT, called on Musk to remove the “Russia state-affiliated media” label that had been placed on his account.
Chinese accounts also jumped on the bandwagon. While Beijing blocks Twitter for its domestic audience, the country’s officials and state media have repeatedly used the platform to spread propaganda and attack other users who criticize the Chinese Communist Party.
In August 2020, Twitter began labeling these accounts as state-affiliated, and since then, there has been a significant drop in engagement, including likes and shares, of those accounts, according to an analysis by the China Media Project, a research group at the University of Hong Kong.
Ever since Musk bought Twitter, Chinese officials and state-backed journalists have been urging him to live by his free speech beliefs. He must “remove all those McCarthyist discriminatory” policies for Chinese accounts, according to a Twitter post from Chen Weihua, the European bureau chief of the state-run China Daily newspaper.
“Can you please free the warning to Chinese media to give us a better and pleasant experience? Thank you,” added Zhang Heqing, an official in the Chinese embassy in Pakistan in response to Musk when he said Twitter would become a bastion for free speech.
It’s not just authoritarian governments. Islamic State supporters are also pushing to get back on the platform.
Within jihadist online communities, Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been welcomed as an opportunity to return.
Before 2015, Islamic State-related accounts had posted indiscriminately, including videos and images of beheadings and other acts of violence. Over the last seven years, Twitter’s content moderation tools had forced such activity to go underground.
Yet the number of Islamic State-affiliated accounts on Twitter has seen a sharp rise, compared to the previous 11-day period before Musk’s acquisition on October 27. The activity includes jihadist-supporting accounts likening the global clampdown they face to Musk’s own statements that both the left and right of politics are attacking him. In the last week, Islamic State-related Twitter users have also held so-called Twitter Spaces, or online voice conversations, with at least one of the sessions called “The Islamic Caliphate is remaining and expanding.”
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, said the company’s policies toward hateful content and so-called online trolls have not changed since Musk’s takeover. Twitter’s “core moderation capabilities” have not been hampered by the recent layoffs, which saw about 15 percent of Twitter’s global trust and safety team fired, Roth added.
Not everyone is convinced. “Through the changing of the guard, it seems as if Islamic State accounts have gotten more brazen,” according to Moustafa Ayad, executive director for Africa, the Middle East and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism. “If you make others feel like the group is back, it ultimately creates a sense of relief, or that it’s alright to post again as the Islamic State.”
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