Hate speech has dramatically increased on Twitter in the short time since Elon Musk took over the social media platform. Credit: Gregory Bull, / AP

Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter has gotten off to a bad start. He’s already had a public battle with writer Stephen King and fired the company’s board of directors, saying he’d make decisions on his own.

Beyond this public dysfunction, there are real and worrisome concerns about the content that Musk has allowed to quickly proliferate on Twitter.

Musk became a darling of many conservatives when he pledged to turn Twitter into a forum for free speech. It turns out, however, that many people were apparently looking for a place to share their hate speech.

Since Musk’s takeover late last week, the use of racial and antisemitic slurs on the social media site has skyrocketed. Without more thoughtful — and quick — consideration from Musk, this can turn Twitter into a dangerous proliferator of hate rather than a vaunted free speech platform. We won’t pretend that Twitter, which has more than 200 million users worldwide, was problem-free before Musk bought it. While many so-called trolls — entities that push false or incomplete information online — were on the site, a system of moderation tried to dampen the worst postings. Donald Trump was barred from the site shortly after the Jan. 6, 2021 riots at the U.S. Capitol to reduce “the risk of further incitement of violence.”

That ban helped fuel distrust of the site by Trump supporters and those on the far right, many of whom cheered Musk’s takeover of Twitter.

But, the quick proliferation of hate speech under his ownership will not only test Musk’s management skills, it puts groups who are the target of the hateful rhetoric in danger of real-life violence from those who act on online encouragement of violence and conspiracy theories.

Researchers at Montclair State University found an immediate spike in racist, sexist and hateful speech after Musk took over as Twitter’s CEO last week.

Another group, Network Contagion Research Institute, which analyzes hundreds of millions of messages across social media, said — via Twitter — the use of the N-word on the app spiked nearly 500 percent just in the 12 hours after Musk’s takeover was formalized.

There was also an immediate increase in anti-LGBTQ slurs and the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism said on Friday that it had identified a coordinated effort to spread antisemitic content on Twitter.

Some users gloated about posting racist and sexist slurs, and encouraged others to do so.

“The character of what Twitter will look like with Musk as the head remains speculative, despite his stated intentions. What is not speculative, however, is the extent to which his date of formal acquisition was celebrated by racist and extremist users on the platform,” the Montclair State researchers wrote.

This isn’t about making liberals cry, as Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio boasted. It is about creating an atmosphere that is increasingly hostile to people of color, LGBTQ people, Jews and other groups.

It does not take imagination to understand that hostile rhetoric like what is now more easily shared on Twitter can have dangerous consequences. Last week’s attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would seem to prove it. The Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol certainly prove it.

Hate crimes, politically motivated or not, are already on the rise. Turning Twitter into a forum where it is easier to amplify and share hate and conspiracy theories is not a triumph of free speech. It is a further descent into the sewers of society, which can have very damaging consequences, especially for those groups targeted by that speech.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...