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Far-right figures appear to be testing Twitter's boundaries for anti-LGBTQ speech

Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, has billed himself as a champion of free speech and vowed to prevent Twitter from becoming a “free-for-all hellscape.”
Elon Musk
Elon Musk speaks in Washington, D.C., in 2020.Susan Walsh / AP file

In the fews days since Elon Musk closed his deal to buy Twitter, far-right users have started to celebrate what they hope will be the ability to freely use homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and make threats on the social media platform.

On Saturday, former UFC fighter Jake Shields, who has over 340,000 Twitter followers, appeared to be testing the boundaries of the company's moderation apparatus by posting a photo of a drag queen smiling at a young drag performer with the caption, "This is a groomer."

Shields added, "I was suspended for this exact tweet a month ago so we will see if Twitter is now free."

The word “grooming” has long been associated with mischaracterizing LGBTQ people, particularly gay men and transgender women, as child sex abusers.

On Friday, conservative podcaster Matt Walsh, who describes himself as a theocratic fascist, lauded Musk's acquisition of the company and encouraged his over one million followers to start misgendering trans people.

"We have made huge strides against the trans agenda," Walsh tweeted. "In just a year we’ve recovered many years worth of ground conservatives had previously surrendered. The liberation of Twitter couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Now we can ramp up our efforts even more."

"Laws are changing and public opinion is changing," Walsh, who held an anti-trans protest in Nashville, Tennessee, attended by thousands last month, continued. "We have done all of this intentionally. It was all part of the plan we laid out and executed."

The day before, within hours of Musk's Twitter acquisition, the far-right account Libs of TikTok — which has over 1.4 million Twitter followers and has largely built its following by mocking liberals — tweeted out a post with the word "groomer" written over a dozen times.

When asked by NBC News to comment on the post, Libs of TikTok said in message: "Hi Matt, unfortunately you have pronouns in your Twitter bio which automatically tells me I can’t take you seriously. Good luck with your story!"

The far-right celebration comes as homophobic and transphobic slurs and rhetoric have had a resurgence within Republican politics this year. Conservative lawmakers and pundits have repeatedly accused supporters of LGBTQ rights, critics of legislation like Florida's Parental Rights in Education law (dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law) and drag performers of trying to "groom" or "indoctrinate" children.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment concerning several of the more high-profile tweets that included anti-LGBTQ slurs or sentiments.

Since the start of his takeover bid in April, Musk has emphasized that he will allow for looser rules over what people can say on the platform. In May, he announced that he would repeal the permanent ban on former President Donald Trump's account. (The former president was banned from the site in the days following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.)

For Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic who is trans and has over 57,000 Twitter followers, the effects of Musk's takeover were immediate. Caraballo said she and several of her friends received a flood of transphobic messages within hours of Musk's takeover Thursday.

"You have several multimillion-follower accounts basically declaring open season on trans people," Caraballo said. "They're immediately taking glee and joy in the fact of bullying trans people on the site, and they think that, that's going to be OK now because Elon's in charge."

"This was never about free speech," she added. "This is literally about their ability to bully people on the site, harass them and then direct their followers who they know are going to launch death threats."

LGBTQ people already face disproportionate rates of online harassment. Roughly 1.5 million, or 15 percent, of 10 million online posts analyzed between 2016 to 2019 were transphobic, according to a 2019 report by anti-bullying organization Ditch the Label and its analytics partner, Brandwatch.

The report did, however, find that larger social platforms like Twitter and Instagram had the “lowest ratio of abuse to general discussion around trans issues, suggesting that people are using these platforms to spark a conversation and educate.” For Twitter specifically, the report found 12% of the discussion volume was transphobic, compared to 78% for YouTube.

Google, YouTube's parent company, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Researchers from the Anti-Defamation League found that throughout 2020 and 2021, 64 percent of LGBTQ respondents said they experienced online hate and harassment, compared to 46 percent of Muslims, 36 percent of Jews and about a third of Black, Latino and Asian American respondents. 

Caraballo admitted that “there really hasn’t ever been great moderation on Twitter.” However, she added, the company has better policies than most social media companies, including Gab and Parler, which are popular among conservatives. 

"My worry is what we'll see a gradual degradation of the moderation policy," she said. "Even if nothing formal is changed, I can imagine in coming weeks or so it starts to get increasingly worse as changes and policies are starting to be implemented internally."

Despite concerns, Musk vowed on Thursday that he would prevent Twitter from becoming a "free-for-all hellscape" and make it "warm and welcoming to all." Musk also announced on Friday that the company would be “forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints” and will make “no major content decisions or account reinstatements” before the council convenes.

By Sunday, however, he tweeted and deleted what many described as an anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband. The unfounded theory, which originated from a website that has a history of publishing false information, suggested that Pelosi's assailant was actually a “male nudist hippie prostitute.”

Caraballo said that going forward, her biggest fear is that most Americans will become "exhausted" by what she predicts will become a "nonstop drumbeat" of anti-LGBTQ tweets.

"In a lot of ways, apathy is probably the most dangerous emotion at this point," she said.

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