Beyond Trump, Twitter welcomes back purveyors of far-right disinformation

Elon Musk has been reinstating accounts associated with promoting disinformation at a rapid clip. (Brett Jordan / Flickr)

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Former President Donald Trump may be getting the gang back together — on Twitter. 

After Elon Musk reinstated Trump’s account over the weekend following an online poll, Twitter’s new owner has welcomed a slew of extreme conservative figures back onto the social media platform — ranging from Project Veritas, the activist media outlet, to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican congresswoman from Georgia most famous for promoting QAnon conspiracy theories.

Together, they make up key parts of a newly reconstituted online cohort with a history of amplifying the former president’s falsehoods and that researchers warn plays an important role in spreading lies that could cause real-world harm. 

“Elon has welcomed back parts of the ‘MAGA’ or hard-right political ecosystem, which had been banned for enforcement standards ranging from repeat offenses in spreading false information with real harm — for instance about COVID-19 — or outright online harassment,” Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said via email. 

Greene and Project Veritas were among the influential online voices helping spread Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was beset by fraud. Twitter ultimately suspended Greene from the platform for circulating false election fraud claims.

Project Veritas, the conservative group that has played a prominent role in spreading a variety of conspiracy theories and whose sting operation against a Democratic consulting firm recently resulted in a federal judge ruling that the group violated federal wiretapping laws, has promoted similar ideas, including by accusing Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat, of carrying out ballot harvesting

Musk’s decision to quickly welcome back far-right activists who had previously been removed could serve as a force multiplier for Trump, if he decides to return to the platform, allowing him to rely on sympathetic Twitter networks to serve as a megaphone for false narratives. “It’s certainly an ecosystem committed to amplifying itself and the same ideological narratives,” Brookie said.

These ideological narratives go beyond those most tightly associated with Trump, such as his allegations that the 2020 election was fraudulently decided. Musk has in recent days restored other Trump allies to the platform, such as accounts belonging to Babylon Bee and Jordan Petersonsuspended from Twitter for misgendering trans persons. 

Restoring these accounts will not only promote disinformation, but also could fuel a rise in hate crimes, says Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “There’s no more perfect symbolism of Trumpism in the Trump era than that activity on Twitter,” Hayden said. “If you’re going to bring Trump back in order to get full Trumpism you need his entire crew of supporters on there.”

Among the other suspended accounts that have regained access in recent days are James Lindsay, who bills himself as “America’s Top Christian Nationalist” and has promoted a range of anti-LGBTQ and anti-Semitic messages, and Alex Lorusso, a right-wing media figure who was thrown off the platform in April 2020 for promoting manipulated videos.

Lindsay marked his return to the Twitterverse with a Simon and Garfunkel reference: “Hello darkness, my old friend.”

Brookie said the “ad hoc” nature of Musk’s content moderation decisions is especially troubling.

Prior to Musk’s purchase of Twitter, the platform had well-staffed teams dedicated to curbing misinformation on the platform and removing accounts spreading false information. But in the aftermath of widespread layoffs, including at the trust and safety team responsible for addressing false information on the platform, Musk appears to have done away with these processes.

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disinformation, Elon Musk, information operations, Twitter
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