Since Elon Musk bought Twitter in October, the self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” has fought his way through the company’s moderation policies.
He first 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 whereabouts. (Many bans were later reversed.)
To assess how Mr. Musk’s content decisions influenced content on Twitter, 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 seemed eager to report their fiery takes on the social network. The data isn’t clear why users were initially suspended or why they were reinstated, though their posting histories suggest many were banned as Twitter cracked down on Covid-19 and election-related misinformation.
Imran Ahmed, founder and chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said the message Mr. Musk sent to previously suspended users was clear: “Welcome, welcome home.”
Inside Elon Musk’s Twitter
Twitter and Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.
“Finally got this account back after being banned for being a #Republican thank you @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’s some of what these users have said on Twitter since their return.
Misinformation about Covid-19 and doubts about vaccines
During the pandemic, Twitter introduced a policy prohibiting misinformation about the virus, suspending more than 11,000 accounts, including many prominent users, after spouting lies. But in November this year, after Mr Musk took control of the company, Twitter said it no longer apply this policy.
Several reinstated users who were banned after Covid-19 policies took effect have resumed posting about the virus and its vaccines. Some have questioned the effectiveness of vaccines or suggested, without evidence, that vaccines kill people.
Several articles mentioned “Suddenly Died,” a misleading documentary released this year that claimed people were dying from the vaccine. Others shared their own unsubstantiated anecdotes.
“If you’ve watched ‘Sudden Death’, here’s more confirmatory evidence,” one user tweeted, adding a link to a website titled “Covid Jab Side Effects.” Before being banned in January 2021, the Internet user had posted several times about Covid-19, including messages saying that the virus was not dangerous.
Twitter cracked down on voter fraud conspiracy theories after the 2020 election, suspending thousands of accounts that spread false and misleading ideas about the election results. Hundreds of users have since returned to Twitter, again pushing these ideas.
Many reinstated users focused on close races in the midterm elections, including the gubernatorial race in Arizona and the Senate race in Pennsylvania. Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, lost her race but refused to concede, citing problems with the voting process and alleging fraud. Many reinstated users echoed his insights.
These tweets recycled lies 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. “This is no longer the case.”
QAnon, the online conspiracy theory, appeared to peak on January 6, 2021, when hundreds of Mr. Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building. Twitter then suspended more than 70,000 accounts linked to the group. But many of the movement’s core ideas have continued to play an important role in the far-right imagination.
On Twitter, reinstated users returned to familiar themes in QAnon lore, raising questions about prominent Democrats and their association with Jeffrey Epstein, a former financier who has been accused of child sex trafficking and is a central figure in QAnon’s plots.
They claimed without evidence that Democrats and Hollywood figures engaged in widespread sex trafficking and pedophilia. And they’ve also repeatedly claimed that liberals “cure” children using drag performances and sex education.
“I just got reinstated today after 2 years of permanent suspension,” wrote one reinstated user with “QAnon” in their username. “I guess I owe it to the new owner, thank you Elon Musk.”