Elon Musk appears to have outsourced decisions about who to ban from Twitter to the platform’s right-wing extremists.
Elon Musk claims to be “fighting for free speech in America” but the social network’s new owner appears to be overseeing a purge of left-wing activists from the platform.
Several prominent antifascist organizers and journalists have had their accounts suspended in the past week, after right-wing operatives appealed directly to Musk to ban them and far-right internet trolls flooded Twitter’s complaints system with false reports about terms of service violations.
As the Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin noted on Twitter, the suspended users include Chad Loder, an antifascist researcher whose open-source investigation of the U.S. Capitol riot led to the identification and arrest of a masked Proud Boy who attacked police officers. The account of video journalist Vishal Pratap Singh, who reports on far-right protests in Southern California, has also been suspended.
Twitter is silencing people who document extremism, alt-right violence & police abuse in LA.@chadloder and @vps_reports were suspended after alt-right requests -- while Twitter is reinstating people who promote racism & incite anti-trans violence.— Mike Bonin (@mikebonin) November 26, 2022
This is ugly and dangerous. pic.twitter.com/7cnhItUY8T
Among the other prominent accounts suspended were the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club, an antifascist group that provides armed security for LGBTQ+ events in North Texas, and CrimethInc, an anarchist collective that has published and distributed anarchist and anti-authoritarian zines, books, posters, and podcasts since the mid-1990s.
All four accounts had been singled out for criticism by Andy Ngo, a far-right writer whose conspiratorial, error-riddled reporting on left-wing protests and social movements has fueled the mass delusion that antifa is not just a handful of small antifascist groups that counter right-wing threats, which it is, but a shadow army of domestic terrorists, which it is not. Musk is apparently among those who have mistaken Ngo’s largely fictional reporting for fact. In a public exchange on Twitter on Friday, Musk invited Ngo to report “Antifa accounts” that should be suspended directly to him.
“Andy Ngo’s bizarre vision of ‘antifa’ seems to be the metric used to delete the accounts of journalists and publications, most of which engaged in verifiably good journalism and done so completely above board and TOS observant ways,” Shane Burley, editor of the anthology “¡No Pasarán!: Antifascist Dispatches From a World in Crisis,” observed on Twitter. “Paranoid delusions about antifa are driving it.”
As The Intercept reported last year, Ngo had previously tried and failed to have Loder suspended from Twitter, and also joined a botched attempt to have a court order the researcher to stop tweeting about one of the Proud Boys who took part in the Capitol riot.
In a phone interview on Monday, Loder, a tech company founder and cybersecurity expert, told The Intercept that their @chadloder account was initially suspended last week about 90 minutes after Musk had replied to Ngo on Twitter. After briefly regaining access to the account, Loder was suspended again and accused by Twitter of having used another account to evade the ban.
Loder said that they do have access to another dormant account, @masksfordocs — which was set up in early 2020 as part of an effort by a group of activists to donate N95 masks to doctors during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic — but had not used it for ban evasion. (Ngo had drawn attention to the @masksfordocs account on Twitter, describing it as Loder’s “alt.”)
“What I believe happened is that I and other accounts have been mass reported for the last few weeks by a dedicated group of far-right extremists who want to erase archived evidence of their past misdeeds and to neutralize our ability to expose them in the future,” Loder said. “What I suspect happened is that Twitter’s automatic systems flagged my account for some reason and no human being is reviewing these.”
Since Loder’s account was on a list being passed around by right-wing activists as part of a coordinated campaign to mass-report fabricated violations by left-wing Twitter users, it could have been suspended as a result of that activity. Loder shared screenshots with The Intercept showing that Telegram channels with tens of thousands of followers, including QAnon adherents and Proud Boys, had coordinated a spate of complaints about Loder’s tweets and celebrated Loder’s suspension.
Although Twitter’s Trust and Safety team was made aware of the organized false-reporting campaign against Loder earlier this month — and such coordinated bulk reporting and false-flagging of accounts are violations of Twitter’s pre-Musk policy against “platform manipulation” — that team was subsequently depleted by mass resignations on November 17.
Still, in a post on the open-source social network Mastodon, Loder joked about the idea that Musk was simply doing Ngo’s bidding.
Whatever the reason for the suspension, Loder said it’s clear that Twitter is “no longer a viable platform” for antifascist and security researchers.
“If I get my account back,” Loder said, “it’s only a matter of time before I get mass reported again.”
Loder, who has shifted to Mastodon, said that for social networks, “the product you’re selling is content moderation.” Now that Musk appears to be reworking content moderation to tilt the playing field in favor of far-right extremists, Loder added, Twitter “is going to turn into Gab with crypto scams.”
For social networks, “the product you’re selling is content moderation.”
Loder also said that some of the right’s criticism of content moderation decisions made by pre-Musk Twitter was fair. “I also agree that Twitter shouldn’t have censored the Hunter Biden laptop story,” Loder said. “We just don’t want outright Nazis posting our home addresses.”
But, Loder said, the sweeping changes made by Musk, like the increased tolerance for far-right hate speech, mean that Twitter will probably keep functioning as a website and an app for some time, but be slowly hollowed out as a place to find varying views on matters of public importance, or a space for online organizing against far-right extremism.
“Twitter is communities of people who choose to organize online,” Loder said, noting how the site has been used by labor organizers and racial justice protesters in recent years to drive real-world change, and by the so-called sedition hunters who have used the platform to crowd-source visual investigations to identify rioters who took part in the failed coup at the Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021.
Twitter was a place where communities could gather, despite harassment, because the worst hate speech was banned through content moderation. “Musk has made it clear that’s no longer part of the product,” Loder said. “The entire Twitter information security community has moved to Mastodon.” Some activists who helped create Black Twitter are already talking about how to rebuild their community on that site too.
“Twitter was never a healthy ‘public square’ for most of us. Let’s not rewrite history while eulogizing the hellsite,” Loder wrote on Mastodon on Sunday. “Twitter was a frightening battleground where we managed barely to claw out an uneasy existence amidst the worst violent neo-Nazi extremists who constantly published our home addresses, threatened our kids’ lives, and sent hordes of racist trolls into our mentions.”
On Mastodon, they added, “The same principles that allowed us to survive uneasily on Twitter will be required here. Community defense, thoughtful pressure on moderation policies, and eternal vigilance. There are no safe spaces but those we make safe through constant effort. We keep us safe.” Twitter, Loder says, will take a long time to die and disappear entirely, “like a rotting whale carcass.”
“I’ll have to repair nearly every article I’ve ever written since my tweets got wiped out,” journalist and videographer Vishal Singh wrote on Mastodon on Monday, after being banned from Twitter. “Hundreds of articles written by countless journalists used my tweets. From all sides of the political spectrum. Academic papers that cited my tweets. These links and embeds are now all broken.”
Days before Singh’s account was suspended, Ngo had posted screenshots of some of the journalist’s angry tweets along with this misleading, factually incorrect summary: “Vishal Singh, an #Antifa far-left violent extremist in Los Angeles who identifies as a journalist, is calling for deadly violence again.” Singh is a left-wing journalist but did not call for violence in the tweets shared by Ngo, and is not violent. Last year, after Singh was attacked twice by far-right anti-vaccine protesters and lashed out in self-defense, Ngo posted a misleadingly captioned video and falsely accused Singh of being the aggressor.
On Mastodon, Singh shared screenshots of emails from Twitter, showing that while reports had been filed against their account for the same tweets that Ngo had posted as screenshots, the company concluded that none of those tweets violated official policies.
On Monday, Singh was also suspended from Instagram. “The mass false report campaign by the far-right has not stopped against my social media accounts,” they wrote on Mastodon. “The goal is to suppress all of my journalism.”
Last Friday, Twitter also suspended the account of CrimethInc, an anarchist collective and publisher. The group takes its name from “thoughtcrime,” a term coined by George Orwell in the dystopian novel “1984.”
In the 14 years that CrimethInc has been on Twitter, the account has never violated Twitter policies and has never been suspended. This changed last week after a Twitter exchange between Musk and Ngo.
.@crimethinc, an Antifa collective, makes riot guides, texts to radicalize people into criminal militancy, & propaganda that is shared via Twitter for people to distribute. They've claimed a number of attacks & give instructions on how to form cells, what riot gear to bring, etc. pic.twitter.com/dlNouwlt5v— Andy Ngô ???? (@MrAndyNgo) November 25, 2022
Ngo asked Musk to suspend the CrimethInc account, calling it an “Antifa collective” and falsely claiming the group had “claimed a number of attacks.” Within hours of Ngo’s request to Musk, and without citing any specific violations of policies, Twitter suspended the @crimethinc account.
After the CrimethInc suspension, Ngo claimed, with typically wild and incorrect hyperbole, that the “group operates like ISIS: makes propaganda & training material to radicalize militants toward violence.” He also complained that a dozen affiliated accounts had not yet been suspended. Three days later, almost all of the additional accounts Ngo pointed to had also been suspended by Twitter.
“Musk’s goal in acquiring Twitter had nothing to do with ‘free speech’ — it was a partisan move to silence opposition, paving the way for fascist violence,” CrimethInc said in a statement sent to The Intercept.
The collective also explained that, on the morning of the suspension, it received an email from Twitter saying the company had “received a complaint regarding your account,” but had “investigated the reported content and have found that it is not subject to removal under the Twitter Rules.”
The group said it had received no further emails from Twitter to explain or justify the ban. “This suggests that the decision to ban our account shortly thereafter was dictated by Musk himself, without regard for the Twitter Rules or any other protocol other than his own apparent allegiance to the far right.”
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
As the investigative journalist Steven Monacelli reported last week, two days after a gunman killed five people and injured 25 others in a mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Twitter suspended the account of the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club, an antifascist group in Texas that provides armed security for LGBTQ+ gatherings.
The John Brown Gun Club — named after the white abolitionist leader John Brown who, in 1859, led an armed anti-slavery revolt — assists marginalized communities in defending themselves against white supremacist violence. LGBTQ+ events in Texas, such as a family-friendly drag brunch Monacelli covered in August, frequently attract the attention of armed far-right protesters from the Proud Boys and neo-Nazi groups like Patriot Front and Aryan Freedom Network.
Twitter’s reason for suspending the account, according to the suspension report, was two tweets that supposably violated Twitter’s rules against “hateful conduct.” One was a reply to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection tweet with the text “@CBP Mugging at gun point,” and another was a joke about pronouns with the text “Every queer a riflethem.” Without being willfully misread or taken out of context, neither of those tweets constitute hateful conduct.
Since its Twitter account was suspended last week, the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club has been tweeting from a separate account, @elmforkJBGC, which has not yet been suspended. The group has also started posting on Mastodon.
“The irony isn’t lost on us that our suspension coincides with a coordinated effort to reinstate the most vile antisemitic, transphobic hate accounts,” the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club said in a statement to The Intercept. “Whether this is an indication of the future of leadership of Elon Musk’s running of Twitter, we cannot say but we can say that the timing and reasoning is deliberate and targeted.”
Updated: November 29, 2022, 6:05 pm ET
This article was updated to add a quote from Chad Loder in which the antifascist researcher criticized Twitter for having blocked links to a report on Hunter Biden’s laptop before the 2020 presidential election.