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Musk vows no quick return for suspended accounts, angering former supporters

Nov. 2, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 2, 2022 at 12:39 p.m.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at court during the SolarCity trial in Wilmington, Del., on July 13, 2021.  (Samuel Corum/Bloomberg)
Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at court during the SolarCity trial in Wilmington, Del., on July 13, 2021. (Samuel Corum/Bloomberg)
By Naomi Nix,Drew Harwell and Cat Zakrzewski Washington Post

Elon Musk pledged early Wednesday after a Zoom meeting with civil rights groups that Twitter will not reinstate banned accounts until it has a clear process to do so, a vow that means suspended users including Donald Trump will not rejoin the site before the midterm elections.

Twitter will “continue to combat hate & harassment & enforce its election integrity policies,” Musk tweeted hours after meeting with the groups.

The news prompted immediate dismay from people who previously had hailed his takeover of the site.

“I was 100% wrong about @elonmusk changing Twitter,” the 900,000-follower meme account Catturd tweeted. Tim Pool, another right-wing influencer with 1 million Twitter followers used an epithet to describe the decision to postpone the reinstatement of suspended accounts. Musk “caved in less than a week,” Pool tweeted.

“I thought the conversation was respectful. It was not contentious,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, one of the groups on the Zoom call. The others were the NAACP, the Anti Defamation League, Free Press, LULAC, and The Asian American Foundation, Musk said in his tweet.

“We stressed what was important,” Robinson said. “He stressed his vision.”

“I think it’s important … he’s made these statements now publicly,” Robinson added.

The blowback from conservatives who had been Musk’s biggest cheerleaders throws a spotlight on the tightrope Musk must walk as he takes control of a financially shakey company whose purchase will require $1 billion in debt-service payments every year.

It also highlights the long-running conundrum for “free speech” platforms: By catering to fringe users eager to push the boundaries on acceptable speech, they often push away more moderate voices and advertisers.

Musk has sought to assuage big advertisers worried that changes to Twitter policy could stain Twitter feeds with more lies, crude images and hate speech. But even basic steps of moderation could stir up anger from users who see them as violating their entitlement to unchecked speech.

In describing their exchange with Musk, the civil rights activists said they made three main requests: that Twitter continue its election integrity policies until after the election results are certified, that he continue to hear from people who have been affected by hate speech, harassment and disinformation on Twitter, and that Musk not reinstate users who have been de-platformed without a transparent process.

“What we did say is that the rich, powerful and famous should have to play by the same rules as the rest of us,” said Free Press co-CEO Jessica González. “That’s just basic fairness and that the people who’ve been de-platformed, especially the richest, the most powerful and the most famous, have often broken Twitter’s rules repeatedly.”

She added that Musk assured the group that employees on the company’s trust and safety team who were locked out of some content moderation tools over the weekend would have access again by the end of the week.

Robinson said that during the meeting, which lasted a little under an hour, Trump was not mentioned specifically, though he confirmed the subject of people who repeatedly violated the platform’s rules was a topic of the conversation as was who would serve on a content moderation council that Musk has proposed, Robinson said.

Twitter has struggled to curb the spread of false claims of widespread voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election and to mitigate suggestions of fraud in the upcoming contests, and the civil rights groups stressed that those efforts must continue.

“Any content (or account) promoting election denial and other harmful lies about election results cannot be allowed to exist on his platform,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement after the meeting. “As long as hate, misinformation, and disinformation spread across Twitter, the bird cannot be free.”

The meeting came after nearly 50 organizations signed a letter to Twitter’s top advertisers this week asking them to cease spending on the social media site if “he follows through on his plans to undermine brand safety and community standards including gutting content moderation.”

The groups noted that they were concerned about the spike in hate and disinformation on the platform in the hours after Musk took ownership.

“Not only are extremists celebrating Musk’s takeover of Twitter, they are seeing it as a new opportunity to post the most abusive, harassing, and racist language and imagery,” the groups wrote.

Musk has sought to assuage big advertisers worried that changes to Twitter policy could stain Twitter feeds with more lies, crude images and hate speech. But even basic steps of moderation could stir up anger from users who see them as violating their entitlement to unchecked speech.

Musk’s assurances to the civil rights groups were only the latest step in conservatives’ loss of patience with Musk in the few days since he assumed control of the company.

Musk has decried the use of permanent bans and has said he would restore Trump’s account. Twitter banned him following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Musk explained his thinking at an event hosted by the Financial Times in May, calling the ban a “mistake” and saying it “was a morally bad decision, to be clear, and foolish in the extreme.”

Speaking generally, Musk said temporary suspensions could be appropriate in situations where such action may need to be taken. Musk has advocated for content moderation policies rooted in free speech, that do little beyond the demands of the law.

Musk has made efforts to build inroads with advertisers on his new platform – who typically do not want their promotions appearing alongside objectionable content – tweeting an open letter last week pledging Twitter will not become a “free-for-all hellscape.”

But Musk himself prompted questions with a tweet on Sunday that linked to a post from a questionable news source about the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul. Musk subsequently deleted his tweet.

That prompted the formerly supportive Catturd to tweet that Musk had “cave[d] to the liberal mob.”

Musk’s defense of Yoel Roth, a Twitter executive responsible for content moderation policy, also riled pro-Trump tweeters who have long portrayed him as one of Twitter’s most censorious boogeymen. Liz Wheeler, a right-wing commentator, called Roth “a nasty individual” who “should’ve been the first person fired.”

On Wednesday, Musk’s former backers were certain he is betraying them.

The Columbia Bugle, a pro-Trump account with 300,000 followers, tweeted, “You can not have a free speech platform and take the advice of the ADL.”

Another account with 361,000 followers, which calls itself “Christ is Lord,” shared Musk’s civil-society tweet and said “it’s so over MuskBros.”

“‘World’s richest man’ is still a slave to j*ws lol,” the account tweeted.

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