Since Elon Musk bought Twitter in October, the self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” has ad-libbed his way through the company’s moderation policies.
He initially argued that bans should be reserved for spam accounts, offering “amnesty” to thousands of suspended users and reinstating former president Donald J. Trump. Last week, he suspended several journalists, claiming they had shared public flight data revealing his private location. (Many of the bans were later reversed.)
To gauge how Mr. Musk’s content decisions influenced Twitter’s content, The New York Times analyzed tweets from more than 1,000 users whose accounts were recently reinstated. The posts were collected for The Times by Bright Data, a social media tracking company, using a list of reinstated users identified by Travis Brown, a Berlin-based software developer who has tracked extremism on Twitter.
Most of the reinstated accounts were deeply partisan — often vocal supporters of Mr. Trump — and they appeared eager to bring their fiery takes back to the social network. It was not clear from the data why the users were originally suspended or why they were reinstated, though their post histories suggest many were banned as Twitter cracked down on Covid-19 and election-related misinformation.
Imran Ahmed, the founder and chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said the message Mr. Musk sent to the formerly suspended users was clear: “‘Welcome back, welcome home.”
Inside Elon Musk’s Twitter
- A Management Guru?: To many, Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter may look like an unmitigated disaster. But his unsparing style has still made him a hero to leaders in Silicon Valley.
- Rival Platforms: Twitter rolled out a new policy to prevent users from sharing links and user names from rival social platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Mastodon. After a backlash from users, the policy was curtailed.
- Account Suspensions: Twitter’s decision to suspend (and later reinstate) the accounts of several journalists set off a heated debate about free speech and online censorship.
- A Flood of Bots: People protesting China’s Covid rules shared their demonstrations on Twitter. But despite Mr. Musk’s vow to remove bots, spam accounts drowned out their posts.
Twitter and Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.
“I finally got this account back after being banned for being a #Republican thanks @elonmusk,” one user tweeted. Just 10 minutes later, the same person wrote: “Joe Biden is an illegitimate president and the 2020 election was stolen.”
Here is some of what these users have been saying on Twitter since their return.
Covid-19 misinformation and vaccine doubts
During the pandemic, Twitter introduced a policy that banned misinformation about the virus, suspending over 11,000 accounts, including many prominent users, after they pushed falsehoods. But in November of this year, after Mr. Musk took control of the company, Twitter said that it would no longer enforce that policy.
Several reinstated users who were banned after the Covid-19 policies went into effect started posting again about the virus and its vaccines. Some raised doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines or suggested, without evidence, that vaccines kill people.
Several posts mentioned “Died Suddenly,” a misleading documentary released this year that claimed people were dying from the vaccine. Others shared their own unsupported anecdotes.
“If you watched ‘Died Suddenly’ here is more confirming evidence,” one user tweeted, adding a link to a website titled “Covid Jab Side Effects.” Before being banned in January 2021, the user had posted several times about Covid-19, including posts that the virus was not dangerous.
Twitter cracked down on election fraud conspiracy theories after the 2020 election, suspending thousands of accounts that pushed false and misleading ideas about the election results. Hundreds of users have since returned to Twitter, pushing those ideas once again.
Many reinstated users focused on close races in the midterm elections, including the governor’s race in Arizona and the Senate race in Pennsylvania. Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, lost her race but has refused to concede, citing problems with the voting process and claiming fraud. Many reinstated users echoed her ideas.
Those tweets recycled falsehoods and conspiracy theories from the 2020 election, including that voting machines were rigged to influence the outcome.
“Voters, not voting machines, used to decide elections in Arizona,” one reinstated user tweeted. “That’s no longer the case.”
QAnon, the online conspiracy theory, appeared to reach its peak on Jan. 6, 2021, when hundreds of Mr. Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol Building. Twitter suspended over 70,000 accounts linked to the group afterward. But many of the movement’s core ideas have continued playing a significant role in the far-right imagination.
On Twitter, reinstated users have returned to familiar themes in QAnon lore, raising questions about prominent Democrats and their association with Jeffrey Epstein, a former financier who was charged with child sex trafficking and is a central figure in QAnon conspiracies.
They have claimed without evidence that Democrats and Hollywood personalities are engaged in widespread sex trafficking and pedophilia. And they have also repeated claims that liberals are “grooming” children using drag performances and sex education.
“I just was reinstated today after 2 years of permanent suspension,” wrote one reinstated user with “QAnon” in his user name. “I guess I owe that to the new owner thank you Elon Musk.”