Though long overdue, it seems that Twitter is more frequently acting on reports of accounts that break its anti-hate policy – or at the very least has finally stopped ignoring such reports altogether. And yet, working against the aims of this important process, many high-profile accounts once banned for spreading dangerous disinformation are being restored – including those directing hate at Ukraine.
Draining the Twitter Swamp
Ironically, the Twitter Donald Trump long championed as his preferred method of reaching the masses to spread his calls to “drain the swamp,” has been, and to a vast extent still is, a swamp in desperate need of draining.
Trump himself was banned during the 2020 elections for spreading disinformation that in part contributed to the incitement and subsequent rioting of people at Capitol Hill. This event, heavily fuelled by extremist conspiracy groups pushing propaganda on social media, led to a conspiracy-addled young woman losing her life, brainwashed in part by paranoia-inducing posts amplified by Russian bots.
A wild west of toxic tongues, Twitter has long been the breeding ground for mind-groomers, pay-per-click YouTubers, and shock jocks with little care for the impact of their words.
Though the pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, the keyboard has proven itself to be a modern-day weapon of nuclear proportions.
The recent noticeable shift in Twitter’s anti-hate-speech stance – from rejecting or ignoring genuine reports from users about accounts engaging in racism, bullying and defamation, to now seeming to finally be banning accounts breaking its clearly written policy on anti-hate - is promising yet accompanied with a feeling of doubt or, at the very least, caution.
It also comes after the justifiable ongoing public outrage over antisemitic tweets by seemingly maddening-by-the-day rapper Kanye West.
West’s rightly suspension from Twitter followed by his wrongly reinstatement by its new owner, was followed in recent days by yet another suspension.
His disgraceful words were this time delivered on far-right and fake news website Infowars, beside its owner, the vein-popping, red-faced ranting, bellowing-yet-now-applying-for-bankruptcy Alex Jones, an influential conspiracy theorist from America. Jones is best known for his online video-based brainwashing whereby millions of his followers, along with, eventually, their chums, are barraged with complex cocktails of conspiracy and paranoia: Pizzagate. QAnon. Chemtrails. Covid conspiracies. And “crisis actors” – one of Jones’ frequent, false revelations that recently led to him losing a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit filed by parents of children shot dead in the Sandy hook massacre after he lied to the world that the act was a “false flag operation,” that the children weren’t killed, and that the genuine grief of their parents was acting.
Leading to the hounding of the grieving parents as his false claims went viral on social media, his words incited members of the public to turn up at the parent’s homes, accusing them of inventing their beloved sons or daughters, and, in some cases, even sending them death threats in the mail.
Conspiracy as a political weapon
As in the case of perhaps the majority of conspiracy promoters, Jones said these words because they gained him attention and because his true, or perhaps slightly staged, on-camera persona is that of the stereotypical staunch Republican. Afterall, the stereotypical Republican man is a so-called real man. “Over these dead hands” will he allow “the deep state” to break the Constitution’s Second Amendment and take away his assault rifle.
The stereotypical staunch Republican understands that the amendment can, contrary to logic and the very nature and meaning of the term amendment, never be scrapped or amended.
The document enshrined the supposedly sacred Constitutional promise of “the right to bear arms.” Its signatories scribbled their quills on the parchment in 1791, in an age of unreliable, low-powered pistols and muskets that fired single-shot and took around 30 seconds to reload (enough time for a group of children to escape from a classroom).
Yet, to the average American Republican, the bearing of arms, 233 years later, must surely translate as the founding fathers saying it’s a good idea to have a multiple-bullets-per-second gun in his garage capable of slaying half an army. And if the blessing of the founding fathers isn’t enough, QAnon-loving Senators Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene are always there to serve up the final proof puddings – a meme or two and a solid “protect the second amendment” slogan spooned on the daily right into the back of every available slack-jawed mouth.
As a result of social media’s negligence in tackling the dissemination of conspiracy theories – many of which have been proven to be amplified by Russian bot farms to divide the West and intoxicate minds - similar shootings to that of Sandy Hook have taken place, with many perpetrators found to have been partly motivated by the dangerous disinformation freely available with a click and a scroll.
Kanye West has once again been booted from the platform, yet other dangerous entities have returned, including, in recent days, influential political commentators and anti-Ukraine, pro-Russia conspiracy theorists. The majority of these accounts belong to staunch Republicans and right-wing populists and it appears that - with Elon Musk’s views on freedom of speech and almost daily display of support for Conservative ideologies - they now feel invincible.
While Elon Musk giddily tweets out QAnon slogans such as “follow the white rabbit” and “swallow the red pill,” and was, just last month, slammed for sharing a conspiracy theory from an antisemitic website, it seems that the serious real time consequences of such disinformation have been quickly forgotten.
When conspiracy kills
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre, with former U.S. President Barak Obama branding it the “single darkest day of my presidency.”
But it also marks the anniversary of another chilling event.
On Dec. 4, 2016, everyday American Edgar Maddison Welch burst into a Washington pizza parlour brandishing a deadly assault rifle.
Brainwashed on Twitter and other platforms by a pro-Republican conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate, Welch frantically began searching for the establishment’s basement. It was this underground room that he and millions of others had been led to believe was being used by leading Democrats, including then-presidential-candidate Hillary Clinton, to sacrifice children to the Devil and drink their blood. Yes, really, that’s what he believed.
He believed this because the so-called evidence – as blatantly false as it was – had been delivered by social media users in a fiercely divided political climate filled with paranoia and confirmation bias.
Such conspiracy theories, often dripping in antisemitism and hate, have deep roots. Throughout history, blood libel and child abuse narratives have been adapted and modernized to serve the political or personal agendas of their peddlars.
Before being cuffed and sent to prison, Welch failed to find the pizza house’s barbaric basement – mainly due to the fact that the pizza house didn’t have one to begin with. But that didn’t stop Pizzagate (partly thanks to its promotion by Russian bot farms seeking to turn western society against itself) from morphing into the now infamous QAnon movement.
Told that Donald Trump was a Messiah-like figure who had been delivered by God to “drain the swamp” of corrupt politicians, mythical illuminati-like string-pullers, and child-chomping devil worshippers, QAnon was highly influential in turning public minds against the Democratic Party. This is exactly what its promoters had hoped for – and they didn’t care whose lives had to be destroyed in the process.
“I got a text message one morning telling me to look at Twitter,” Kim Noble, a British artist who became a target of thousands of Pizzagate and QAnon followers, told Kyiv Post. “So I went on there and immediately saw that people were saying I’d sold work to Comet Ping Pong [the pizza parlour targeted by Welch], which was completely untrue.
“From there it just escalated. Posts. Videos. In one of them on YouTube it said ‘Kim Noble is a b----, kill the b----.’ I got loads of death threats, emails all the time. It went out of control and was quite disturbing.
“I tried to explain to them the truth but, no matter what I said, nothing was good enough.
“One guy posted a viral video where he said he had shotguns and wanted to come and shoot me. He was found to be selling guns on eBay. He threatened to come and get me ‘and blow your head off.’ They would say they knew where I lived.”
As Pizzagate and QAnon slowly fell from favor, the conspiracy-theory-minded among us turned to other bizarre topics to fill their days, including the mobile network 5G and the pandemic. Paranoia caused by the threat of the virus, and the alien, surreal situation they found the world around them now placed in, made some unsure of who or what to believe. Brainwashing from lockdown-induced overexposure to online conspiracy theories and rapidly growing alternative media sources became a pandemic of its own.
Then the pandemic finally ended and those same conspiracy theorists, in need of constant escapism and outrage, shifted their focus onto the conflict in Ukraine.
Moscow couldn’t have been happier.
“Russian state media routinely amplify Western voices whose opinions align with those of the Kremlin,” Olga Robinson, Assistant Editor at BBC Monitoring told Kyiv Post. “These voices often include obscure bloggers and self-styled journalists who use their exposure in Russian media to boost their popularity online. Presented as truth seekers and independent voices, these personalities help create the impression that there’s wide support in the West for Russian narratives and conspiracy theories.”
From batty (and highly offensive) claims that the invasion of Ukraine is a hoax, to baseless viral tweets stating that President Zelensky is a neo-Nazi puppet of the conspiracy theorist’s latest bogeyman the World Economic Forum, pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian conspiracy theories continue to be widely spread on Twitter. And though it might be tempting to simply dismiss such ridiculous beliefs as folly, they, in fact, have serious implications.
While the targets of Pizzagate thankfully were unharmed, others tangled up in conspiracy theories haven’t been as fortunate.
Complex conspiracy theories have tricked Constitution-loving, democracy-devoted citizens into continuing to worship Donald Trump, despite him recently saying that the Constitution should be trampled over in order to undermine the democracy of the United States and overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election. But others, both modern and old, have led to deadly consequences.
Anti-vax conspiracy theories on Facebook and Twitter led to a 4-year-old boy in Colorado dying from pneumonia after his mother was brainwashed into believing professional help would cause him harm and that he could be cured with thyme and elderberries.
Antisemitic conspiracy theories helped the Nazi Party persecute and subsequently murder millions of Jews.
Anti-West conspiracy theories have been instrumental in brainwashing North Koreans and keeping them under oppression, helped Russia invade Ukraine, and, in 2001, helped convince two men, on a typical sunny September morning in New York, to fly hijacked planes filled with fellow human beings into the twin towers.
Conspiracy theories don’t only cost lives in high school massacres, shootings in synagogues, or in pandemics and terrorist attacks. They can also claim lives during times of war, including here in Ukraine, with the influence of unchallenged lies and Kremlin-pushed propaganda potentially leading to some across the world pressuring their peers and politicians to turn their backs on helping Ukraine – hindering the saving of innocent lives: men, women and children who are being tortured, raped, and killed here by Russian invaders.
Is Putin Rubbing His Hands While Musk Shrugs His Shoulders?
Last week, Mykhailo Podolyak, Advisor to the Head of the Office of President Zelensky, was one of many to tweet out their concerns over Twitter allegedly silencing Ukrainian voices, and potentially preventing Ukrainians from joining the platform.
Though it’s unclear if the issue has been resolved, meanwhile, other pro-Ukraine accounts have been suspended.
However, on the other hand, reports for hate speech seem to be picking up the pace – something that Twitter has woefully slacked on over the years.
So, although sending mixed messages with the irresponsible reinstatement of conspiracy theorists (including the recent reinstatement of Tracy Diaz, aka ‘Tracy Beanz’, one of QAnon’s biggest promoters), perhaps Twitter is finally taking the serious matter of hate and disinformation seriously.
Or perhaps, if I’m thinking cynically, a small team of soon-to-be resigning or fired members of the anti-disinformation department have gone a bit rogue, working their spiteful socks off to protect the public from hate with one last-minute desperate act of goodwill and a two-fingered gesture to their new marmite manager.
Or perhaps that’s just a conspiracy theory.
Nothing’s quite certain anymore in the Mad Hatter Twittersphere of Mr. Musk.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.