A conspiracy theorist urging Americans to burn voting machines, an anti-Muslim activist posting a photo with a gun, a retired general who called for a coup — Elon Musk’s Twitter has reinstated thousands of once-banned accounts.
Twitter has turned into what campaigners call a cesspool of misinformation, hate-filled conspiracies and racial slurs amid what appears to be reduced content moderation in recent weeks following mass layoffs and an exodus of key staff focused on user safety.
Musk, a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist who completed his $44 billion buyout of the influential platform in October, has further stoked alarm by restoring what one expert estimates are over 27,000 accounts once suspended for fuelling falsehoods, harassment and violence.
“Restoring these accounts will make the platform a magnet for actors who want to spread misinformation,” Jonathan Nagler, co-director of the New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics, told AFP.
“And there will likely be less moderation of hate speech, making the platform less hospitable to many users.”
Those reinstated include far-right activists, anti-Muslim extremists as well as others peddling election conspiracies and Covid-19 misinformation, according to an analysis by the non-profit Media Matters of dozens of restored accounts with millions of combined followers.
Among those allowed back is former US President Donald Trump, who was handed a “permanent” ban by Twitter after his supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Trump has so far resisted the offer to return and remained on Truth Social, a platform he founded where his following pales in comparison to his Twitter account with 87.7 million followers.
– ‘Misinformation superspreaders’ –
Many other reinstated influencers have actively returned to the platform, including flamboyant anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller and Mindy Robinson, a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy movement whose first tweet after being restored included a picture of herself with a gun.
Also reinstated was controversial former kickboxer Andrew Tate, who is notorious for his misogynistic remarks. After a heated Twitter exchange with environmentalist Greta Thunberg, Tate was recently arrested in Romania for alleged human trafficking and rape.
After thanking Musk for restoring his account, election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell called on his followers to “melt down the electronic voting machines and turn them into prison bars.”
Former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who once appeared to endorse the idea for a Myanmar-style coup in the United States, also thanked Musk on Friday — the second anniversary of the January 6 insurrection — after his account was restored.
“Under Musk, misinformation superspreaders are emboldened, and readers have less information about the reliability of the sources feeding them news and information,” Jack Brewster, from the media watchdog NewsGuard, told AFP.
Musk’s interventions, he added, “have the effect of catering to the extreme — on both sides of the aisle — and obscuring readers’ path to high-quality information.”
Twitter has not publicly said how many accounts have been reinstated.
Several advocacy groups, including Media Matters and Accountable Tech, pointed to data gathered by Travis Brown, a software developer based in Berlin.
Brown has compiled an online list of more than 27,000 reinstated Twitter IDs since Musk’s takeover in late October. Brown told AFP that the list was incomplete and the actual number of restored accounts could be higher.
– ‘Dangerous decisions’ –
In a tweet in mid-December, the company said that “permanent suspension was a disproportionate action for breaking Twitter rules.”
“We recently started reinstating accounts that were suspended for violations of these policies and plan to expand to more accounts weekly over the next 30 days.”
Apparently seeking to allay the concerns of advertisers and users on the platform, it added that Twitter remained “fully committed to preventing harmful content and bad actors.”
But in a test of that commitment, the platform recently saw an explosion of anti-vaccine conspiracies after NFL player Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest during a match.
Tweets mentioning “died suddenly” –- a phrase that references an anti-vaccine film –- spiked on the platform, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).
Some of those peddling the conspiratorial phrase were once-banned accounts that have been restored, CCDH told AFP.
Musk has sought to shake up the money-losing company after his acquisition.
The South African-born billionaire has said his interventions at Twitter have saved the company and announced that he would step down as chief executive once he finds “someone foolish enough to take the job”.
“Fixing Twitter requires more than just replacing Musk,” Nora Benavidez, from the nonpartisan group Free Press, told AFP.
“It requires a series of measures to reverse dangerous policy decisions Musk has made, reinvest in content moderation and enforcement, and restructure the governance of the platform.”
Elon Musk, White House discuss electric vehicles
Tesla head Elon Musk met with senior White House officials Friday to discuss the Biden administration’s push to grow the electric vehicle market, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
“That meeting did happen today,” she told reporters.
Musk, who has had sometimes openly prickly relations with President Joe Biden, met infrastructure development coordinator Mitch Landrieu and clean energy advisor John Podesta.
They discussed “electrification and how the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act can advance EVs and increase the electrification more broadly,” Jean-Pierre said, referring to two major pieces of legislation passed under Biden providing subsidies and incentives to bolster clean energy, electric vehicles and general infrastructure.
Jean-Pierre said Biden did not meet with Musk, but “it’s important that senior members of his team had a meeting.”
The billionaire entrepreneur occupies an unusual place at the intersection of cutting edge industry and politics with ownership of the country’s most famous EV brand, space projects and Twitter.
He has often tangled with the Biden administration and has used Twitter to embrace right-wing talking points.
On Thursday, he said he met with Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries as Congress explores potential curbs on social media platforms.
Musk tweeted that he went to “discuss ensuring that this platform is fair to both parties.”
Hive ransomware: modern, efficient business model
The US Justice Department’s shutdown Thursday of the Hive ransomware operation — which extorted some $100 million from more than 1,5000 victims worldwide — highlights how hacking has become an ultra-efficient, specialized industry that can allow anyone to become a cyber-shakedown artist.
– Modern business model –
Hive operated in what cybersecurity experts call a “ransomware as a service” style, or RaaS — a business that leases it software and methods to others to use in extorting a target.
The model is central to the larger ransomware ecosystem, in which actors specialize in one skill or function to maximize efficiency.
According to Ariel Ropek, director of cyber threat intelligence at cybersecurity firm Avertium, this structure makes it possible for criminals with minimal computer fluency to get into the ransomware game by paying others for their expertise.
“There are quite a few of them,” Ropek said of RaaS operations.
“It is really a business model nowadays,” he said.
– How it works –
On the so-called dark web, providers of ransomware services and support pitch their products openly.
At one end are the initial access brokers, who specialize in breaking into corporate or institutional computer systems.
They then sell that access to the hacker, or ransomware operator.
But the operator depends on RaaS developers like Hive, which have the programming skills to create the malware needed to carry out the operation and avoid counter-security measures.
Typically, their programs — once inserted by the ransomware operator into the target’s IT systems — are manipulated to freeze, via encryption, the target’s files and data.
The programs also extract the data back to the ransomware operator.
RaaS developers like Hive offer a full service to the operators, for a large share of the ransom paid out, said Ropek.
“Their goal is to make the ransomware operation as turnkey as possible,” he said.
– Polite but firm –
When the ransomware is planted and activated, the target receives a message telling them how to correspond and how much to pay to get their data unencrypted.
That ransom can run from thousands to millions of dollars, usually depending on the financial strength of the target.
Inevitably the target tries to negotiate on the portal. They often don’t get very far.
Menlo Security, a cybersecurity firm, last year published the conversation between a target and Hive’s “Sales Department” that took place on Hive’s special portal for victims.
In it, the Hive operator courteously and professionally offered to prove the decryption would work with a test file.
But when the target repeatedly offered a fraction of the $200,000 demanded, Hive was firm, insisting the target could afford the total amount.
Eventually, the Hive agent gave in and offered a significant reduction — but drew the line there.
“The price is $50,000. It’s final. What else to say?” the Hive agent wrote.
If a target organization refuses to pay, the RaaS developers hold a backup position: they threaten to release the hacked confidential files online or sell them.
Hive maintained a separate website, HiveLeaks, to publish the data.
On the back end of the deal, according to Ropek, there are specialist operations to collect the money, making sure those taking part get their shares of the ransom.
Others, known as cryptocurrency tumblers, help launder the ransom for the hacker to use above-ground.
– Modest blow –
Thursday’s action against Hive was only a modest blow against the RaaS industry.
There are numerous other ransomware specialists similar to Hive still operating.
The biggest current threat is LockBit, which attacked Britain’s Royal Mail in early January and a Canadian children’s hospital in December.
In November, the Justice Department said LockBit had reaped tens of millions of dollars in ransoms from 1,000 victims.
And it isn’t hard for Hive’s operators to just start again.
“It’s a relatively simple process of setting up new servers, generating new encryption keys. Usually there’s some kind of rebrand,” said Ropek.
Madison Square Garden’s facial recognition blacklisting sparks outcry
The heated debate over facial recognition technology has a new flashpoint: Manhattan’s celebrated Madison Square Garden, home to the New York Knicks basketball team and countless Billy Joel concerts.
The operator of the arena, where Joe Frazier defeated Muhammad Ali in 1971’s “Fight of the Century,” is under fire for using the software to identify and eject certain lawyers from events at the venue — because they are associated with ongoing litigation involving MSG.
Local lawmakers want to halt the crackdown, which rights campaigners say is a gross abuse of a technology that is already raising fears about privacy and control from America to China.
“When the rich and powerful are free to use facial recognition to track the public it puts everyone else at risk,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of STOP, a non-profit that advocates for privacy.
“Here we see a chilling example of how petty the retaliation can be,” he told AFP.
Last October, Barbara Hart and her husband were approaching their seats at “The Garden” for a Brandi Carlile concert to celebrate their wedding anniversary when security guards stopped them.
She said the guards identified her without seeing her ID card, and despite the tickets being in her husband’s name, before removing the couple from the venue.
The attorney believes the guards used technology to match her face with an image of herself taken from her company’s website.
Hart said she was targeted because her firm is engaged in a lawsuit against the venue’s parent company, MSG Entertainment, even though she is not on the case.
“It was bewildering and upsetting. Bullying with fancy tools,” the 62-year-old told AFP.
Hart is among at least four lawyers removed recently from MSG Entertainment venues because their firms are locked in legal disputes with the company.
Kerry Conlon told local media she was refused entry to Radio City Music Hall in November while trying to see dancers the Rockettes with her 9-year-old daughter.
Two other attorneys said they were denied entry to MSG to watch the Knicks and NHL team the Rangers respectively.
Billionaire businessman James Dolan’s MSG Entertainment says it has a “straightforward policy that precludes attorneys from firms pursuing active litigation against the company from attending events at our venues until that litigation has been resolved.”
New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, warned him Tuesday that the policy “may violate” state civil rights legislation.
State senators this week proposed closing a loophole in the law, which prohibits the “wrongful refusal of admission” of patrons with a valid ticket to entertainment venues.
– ‘Orwellian’ –
For rights advocates, the proposed amendment, while welcomed, doesn’t deal with the crux of the issue — growing surveillance in the age of the algorithm.
Facial recognition technology is legal in New York. It is used by police and at airports.
In 2020, the state government temporarily banned its use in schools. Campaigners like Cahn support a total ban.
He says the Madison Square Garden example shows that private business can use facial recognition “to exclude anyone whose voice you want to silence.”
MSG has deployed facial recognition technology since 2018. A New York Times report that year said the venue uses an algorithm to compare images taken by a camera to a stored database of photographs.
“The facial recognition technology system does not retain images of individuals, with the exception of those who were previously advised they are prohibited from entering our venues, or whose previous misconduct in our venues has identified them as a security risk,” an MSG Entertainment spokesperson told AFP.
The United States and the European Union are among those grappling with how to regulate the use of biometric data, facial recognition and artificial intelligence.
Supporters say facial recognition bolsters security, but critics say the imperfect technology is prone to false matches among ethnic minorities and discriminatory.
Detractors also highlight Chinese police’s use of it to track down and detain recent protesters.
MSG’s use “paints an Orwellian picture of the society we’re in right now,” Daniel Schwarz of the New York Civil Liberties Union told AFP.
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