Twitter tries to stem tide of hatemongers flooding back in wake of Musk takeover, to little avail
The white nationalists’ optimism was fueled by Musk’s insistence that he intended to emphasize a “free speech” approach to managing the platform. “I can freely express how much I hate n—–s … now, thank you elon,” tweeted one anonymous account. “Elon now controls twitter. Unleash the racial slurs. K—S AND N—–S,” tweeted another.
Fuentes has been itching to get back on Twitter for a long time, and has often complained bitterly on his podcast about how unfair his ban is. He has in fact continued to make irregular appearances on the platform, using pseudonyms that usually are exposed within a matter of days and suspended permanently. His previous ID before the current spate was “@visionaryjenyus,” which was suspended Oct. 10.
Fuentes’ most recent efforts, involving a pair of pseudonyms under which he posted over 100 tweets, came wrapped in a Halloween theme. First he showed up on Oct. 23 as “@halloweenghoul8,” mostly continuing his current theme of exuberantly defending and promoting Kanye West’s recent antisemitic diatribes. The next day, Fuentes initiated an exchanged with SPLC investigative reporter Michael Edison Hayden by mocking a tweet about a holiday observance at Hayden’s home. Hayden fired back by pressing Fuentes about an incident he had reported on previously.
In a June SPLC piece examining the growing fissures within Fuentes’ often cultish organization, America First, Hayden reported that one of Fuentes’ longtime lieutenants, Jaden McNeil, a livestreamer who had served as his sidekick at multiple events, had disavowed Fuentes and America First. On another white nationalist podcast, “McNeil specifically claimed that Fuentes opposed his having a girlfriend and boasted about searching his furniture with a blacklight to look for semen stains.”
“This guy is a sick person who wants to destroy young men’s lives,” McNeil told Tess Owen of VICE. “He’s threatening all these underage people, young men, that are willing to put their lives on the line, their identity on the line, for him.”
On Twitter, Hayden pressed Fuentes for details. “You got maybe these 138 anime cat incels wrapped around your finger but lotta the other guys … they’re like wait he really looked for Jaden’s cum stains with a blacklight? Fr?” he tweeted. Fuentes responded by assuring Hayden that his children would become white supremacist haters like him.
One of Hayden’s colleagues, Hannah Gais, kept pressing Fuentes: “ok would it be safe to say the blacklight thing is true then? Sounds like a confession to me tbh,” she tweeted. Fuentes responded by spewing fake sex talk at her. (On his podcasts, Fuentes has said he is a virgin who has never had a girlfriend, and earlier this year told his audience that “having sex with women is gay.”)
Fuentes attacked numerous other Twitter users with racial and antisemitic epithets, and eventually was given a 12-hour suspension, then banned at the end of the day on Oct. 25. The next day, he popped up with a new handle—“@spookygoblin8”—with which he continued to spew his crude white supremacist hate. With this account, he also preemptively blocked Hayden and Gais.
Fuentes became particularly excited on Oct. 27 about Musk’s purchase of Twitter, retweeting Musk’s post announcing the takeover—“the bird is freed”—and calling “2022 the year of the second chance.” Among his many celebratory tweets, he noted the surge in racist tweets, and proclaimed: “now that elon is in control nobody is holding back anymore.”
However, contrary to their perfervid fantasies, in the real world, Musk immediately ran into the realities of what he had purchased. Twitter is a company fueled by advertising dollars, reliant on a short list of deep-pocketed large corporations like General Motors and Amazon—who have no desire to see their brands associated with a platform where neo-Nazi hate speech is spewed freely and cockamamie conspiracy theories are the coin of the realm. After meeting with those advertisers, Musk clarified that speech on Twitter would have to comply with local laws in other countries that do not have American-style ironclad free speech protections, such as Germany and the UK. Musk tweeted that he doesn’t want “a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, also tweeted out assurances: “Bottom line up front: Twitter’s policies haven’t changed. Hateful conduct has no place here. And we’re taking steps to put a stop to an organized effort to make people think we have,” Roth wrote in a Sunday tweet.
“Over the last 48 hours, we’ve seen a small number of accounts post a ton of Tweets that include slurs and other derogatory terms. To give you a sense of scale: More than 50,000 Tweets repeatedly using a particular slur came from just 300 accounts,” he added.
“Nearly all of these accounts are inauthentic. We’ve taken action to ban the users involved in this trolling campaign—and are going to continue working to address this in the days to come.”
There was also a flood of formerly banned accounts attempting a return like Fuentes. Hayden noted that a notorious neo-Nazi named Norman Ara Garrison III—a onetime local news reporter in Texas who used the byline Trey Garrison, but went underground in 2014 and began posting volumes of white supremacist propaganda—had also attempted to return to Twitter under his longtime pseudonym, “Spectre,” from his new home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. However, by Monday, the new “Spectre” account had also been deleted.
The same was apparently true of white nationalist Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, who created a pseudonym to get back onto Twitter—“@pawg_reloaded,” which promptly attracted 1,200 followers—and commented, “I’m assuming it’s gonna be awhile until we can actually speak freely on this site. No worries just gotta have some patience bros. God is in control!” Gionet’s account was suspended the next day.
However, some have managed to remain on Twitter after their return, most notably Tony Hovater, a longtime organizer and top lieutenant in the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Workers Party. Hovater was a prominent figure in the alt-right of 2016-17, but has become siloed at the chat platform Telegram, where he currently holds forth.
Hovater’s current Twitter account is full of white supremacist and neo-Nazi propaganda, such as a recent retweet of a Finnish neo-Nazi who posted: “The fall of Third Reich and its consequences have been a disaster for the natural world.” Hovater’s been enthusiastic about returning to Twitter: “Me being able to use slurs on Twitter is infinitely more important than world hunger,” he recently posted.
But the chief shortfall at Twitter, insofar as achieving Roth’s goal of “making Twitter safe and welcoming for everyone,” has directly involved Musk himself. On the day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, was brutally assaulted at their San Francisco home by a right-wing extremist ginned up on conspiracy theories, Musk responded to a Hillary Clinton tweet condemning the violence by writing: “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” attached to a retweeted piece claiming that the attacker actually was Paul Pelosi’s gay lover.
The site whose article he retweeted, the “Santa Monica Observer,” is a notorious fake-news site. In the past, as the Los Angeles Times has documented, the Observer has claimed that Hillary Clinton had actually died and a body double had faked her appearance in debate with Donald Trump; that Trump appointed Kanye West to a high-level position in the Interior Department; and that sunlight could be a remedy for COVID-19 sufferers. Musk later deleted the tweet, but when The New York Times wrote about it, he responded with all the verve of a spoiled frat kid, essentially calling The Times “fake news.”
There are also serious concerns about how welcoming and safe Twitter will become for transgender people. According to Bloomberg News, Musk has asked his corporate transition team at Twitter to review the platform’s hateful conduct policy—specifically a section stipulating that users can be penalized for “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.” It’s not clear whether Musk intends to rewrite the policies or just end those restrictions altogether.
Mike Ananny, an associate professor of communication and journalism at USC, told the LA Times that all of these unfolding scenarios dramatically illustrate the problem with having a single wealthy and powerful person controlling a large and widely used public platform such as Twitter.
“Regulation needs to catch up super fast to the reality of how media power works online, how online media environs work,” Ananny said. “It’s not about whether [Musk] tweets fake news. Fake news is always there. Why is that guy having that power to both own this platform and decide idiosyncratically what he wants to appear?”