The Twitter CEO did not respond Thursday to a request for comment from The Washington Post. The poll garnered more than 3 million votes.
The mass return of users who had been banned for such offenses as violent threats, harassment, abuse and misinformation would have a significant impact on the platform, experts said. And many questioned how such a resurrection would be handled, given that it’s unclear what Musk means by “egregious spam” and the difficulty of separating out users who have “broken the law,” which vary widely by jurisdiction and country.
“Apple and Google need to seriously start exploring booting Twitter off the app store,” said Alejandra Caraballo, clinical instructor at Harvard Law’s cyberlaw clinic. “What Musk is doing is existentially dangerous for various marginalized communities. It’s like opening the gates of hell in terms of the havoc it will cause. People who engaged in direct targeted harassment can come back and engage in doxing, targeted harassment, vicious bullying, calls for violence, celebration of violence. I can’t even begin to state how dangerous this will be.”
This is the second time in a week that Musk has used a Twitter poll to seemingly make a major decision related to the platform. On Nov. 18, he restored former president Donald Trump’s account after 52 percent of a poll’s respondents said he should do so. “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Musk tweeted, Latin for “the voice of the people is the voice of God.”
On that day, he also unilaterally reinstated at least 11 high-profile far-right Twitter accounts, including Jordan Peterson, a professor who was banned from Twitter for misgendering a trans person, and the Babylon Bee, a conservative media company. He also restored Project Veritas, a site that was frequently accused of misrepresenting events it commented on and banned “for repeated violations of Twitter’s private information policy,” and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s personal account, which had been banned since January for violating the platform’s covid-19 misinformation policies and pushing violent and extreme rhetoric.
Experts say that bots and bad actors can easily skew the results of a Twitter poll, and so basing decisions on one is irresponsible. “A Twitter poll can be manipulated, there’s nothing scientific or rigorous in any way about what he’s doing,” said Sarah T. Roberts, an associate professor at UCLA and faculty director for UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, who previously worked at Twitter researching content moderation processes.
“Before Elon took over,” Roberts added, “there were entire teams of people who did market and user research, who followed rigorous protocols established to conduct this kind of research. Suddenly, he’s running Twitter off of completely unscientific polls that are polling unknown people, and certainly not any kind of demographically representative swath of people.”
Many predicted reinstating banned accounts would have very bad outcomes and help bring on the “free-for-all hellscape” that Musk had promised advertisers would not come to pass in a letter posted to Twitter on the day he took possession of the platform.
“This would be a major disaster especially in Africa where State sponsored Ghost accounts were suspended for endangering human rights activists & journalists,” Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist in Africa tweeted. “You would have allowed vile people to put our lives in danger as journalists! You will have blood on your hands @elonmusk.”
Whether Musk can do what the Twitter poll seeks is a matter of debate. He has laid off leaders of the trust and safety team, which would normally handle the logistics of reactivating the accounts. And separating out those who “broke the law” is entirely dependent on whether Twitter has detailed documentation for each suspension that include what local laws the tweet violated. Without such a legal filter, which would be dependent on state and local laws for each tweet, every account would require a detailed review. Laws also vary widely by country and region.
Madeleine Burkholder, a senior technical solutions engineer who has worked on consumer products managing spam, said Musk’s ask is nonsensical. “Egregious spamming is not a technical term,” she said, and most record keeping at major tech companies doesn’t include questions of local…