Elon Musk escalated his battle of words with previous managers of Twitter into risky new territory over the weekend, allying himself with far-right crusaders against a purported epidemic of child sex abuse and implying that the company’s former head of trust and safety had a permissive view of sexual activity by minors.
Musk told more than 30,000 listeners in a live Twitter Spaces audio session Friday night that he recently discovered that child sex abuse material was a severe problem on Twitter and that fighting it would be his top priority.
In follow-up tweets Saturday, he misrepresented a section of a graduate thesis from recently departed safety chief Yoel Roth. “Looks like Yoel is arguing in favor of children being able to access adult Internet services in his PhD thesis,” he wrote.
The attached snippet instead showed Roth suggesting that since teenagers were accessing apps and websites that they were not supposed to use, as they always have, those services should consider offering toned-down content alongside adult fare.
Musk also commented on an old tweet in which Roth wrote, “Can high school students ever meaningfully consent to sex with their teachers?” Roth did not answer his own question, merely linking to an article about a Washington state supreme court ruling that found a teacher could be convicted of a crime for having sex with a student who was over the age of 18. The age of consent in Washington is 16, but a majority of the court ruled that Washington state lawmakers intended to criminalize teacher-student sexual contact for all students, even those over 18. Twenty-one is the age limit for high school in the state.
“This explains a lot,” Musk wrote to his more than 100 million followers. Roth’s two-year-old tweet about students then drew new replies calling for him to be jailed.
Several internet safety experts said that Musk’s comments put Roth at grave risk. Roth, who is openly gay, worked past Musk’s October takeover. He then resigned and said Musk’s hands-off approach to moderation was increasing danger to users.
“He’s putting Yoel’s life in danger and he knows it,” tweeted Alejandra Caraballo, an instructor at Harvard Law School. Roth did not respond to a request for comment.
In imputing nefarious motives to Twitter’s former managers and saying a crime had been committed, Musk adopted techniques used by the QAnon conspiracy movement, which falsely claims that Democrats and elites are running child sex abuse networks. Promoted by Alex Jones and other far-right operatives, QAnon inspired a shooting at Comet Pizza in Northwest Washington, when a follower of the theory searched the restaurant intending to rescue any children trapped in a basement that did not exist. The incident became known as “Pizzagate.”
In the past year, right-wing activists have harnessed some of the fervor of that theory to tar drag queens, transgender people, gay teachers, and others as “groomers,” or adults bent on seducing children. This has fed into threats and real-world violence: A recent five-fatality shooting at a gay bar in Colorado with transgender victims is being charged as a hate crime.
Musk has accused critics of pedophilia in the past, most notably Vernon Unsworth, who helped rescue children from a Thailand cave and faulted Musk’s much-hyped contribution to the effort. Unsworth sued Musk for tweeting that he was a “pedo guy,” but lost the case after Musk testified that he only meant to insult Unsworth and did not mean to accuse him literally of pedophilia.
Musk’s weekend statements appeared intended to counter criticism of his early stewardship of Twitter. The number of moderators who are on the lookout for inappropriate content on the social media site has been slashed, and just a few experts on child exploitation remain, according to media reports.
Three members of Twitter’s long-standing Trust and Safety Council advisory board resigned last week, citing a rise in tweets with hate speech against Black Americans, gay men and Jews. Over the weekend, Musk fans accused the three of responsibility for child exploitation.
Twitter has invited the more than 50 remaining members of the council to a meeting with executives this week.
“I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say, because like a lot of people I have concerns about the direction of the company,” said council member Larry Magid, who runs ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit that offers advice to teens on using the internet safely.
Allegations that child porn could be found easily on Twitter arose even before Musk assumed control of the company, unnerving advertisers and hurting pre-Musk plans for the site to develop an adult feature to challenge the adult-themed OnlyFans website. Two former employees told The Washington Post they agreed that previous chief executives had not devoted enough resources to that issue. Twitter, unlike its social media rivals Facebook and Instagram, permits adult sexual content.
But experts more frequently cite other platforms as hunting grounds for child sex abuse victims. A report last year by Thorn, a nonprofit founded by actors Ashston Kutcher and Demi Moore to combat child sexual abuse, said minors it surveyed reported more “potentially harmful online experiences” of all kinds on Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and Messenger than on Twitter.
Musk and his allies have said that since Musk’s takeover, the company has suspended many more accounts for abusive material than it had before, but the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a congressionally chartered nonprofit, told The Post that it “has seen no noticeable changes on the reporting front compared to previous months.”
Musk’s criticism of Twitter’s allegedly inadequate child protection actions came as Twitter continued to release internal emails and chats that Musk and others claim show the company intentionally censored conservative voices and stories.
In the Spaces session late Friday, Musk seemed to agree with a host known as Eliza Bleu that Roth and his staff had been too busy censoring conservatives to provide resources to identify and block abusive child sex material. Bleu is an activist podcaster who wrote three columns this year on conspiracy promoter Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze. One of those columns cited a child sexual abuse case that Oklahoma police credit Twitter with reporting.
Bleu, who last year tweeted a photo of herself with Pizzagate promoter and alt-right provocateur Mike Cernovich, was joined on the Spaces session by Ella Irwin, who was hired by Twitter in June and was promoted to trust and safety head after Roth’s departure.
“As these folks like Ella are out here begging for the resources and funding to remove child sexual abuse material, the platform prioritized the removal of words, non-illegal words, thoughts and ideas, and the censorship of innocent citizens,” Bleu said.
When Musk called in, she repeated: “Twitter was censoring innocent citizen’s speech, words, thoughts, ideas while refusing to remove the human rights violation of child sexual abuse, material exploitation at scale. You know?”
“Yeah. I mean, that’s unbelievable,” Musk responded. “Frankly, it’s terrible.”
Bleu later quote-tweeted the old Roth tweet about teachers and students that drew Musk’s response.
In response Sunday to questions she said she’d received about her own claim of having been trafficked, which she has not detailed, Bleu tweeted that she had reluctantly come forward as a public advocate in 2020 by speaking to conservative Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire.
She has helped raise money for Operation Underground Railroad, which performs stings against suspected traffickers in other countries. Some police departments have declined to accept donations from the group amid questions about its fundraising and its appeals to QAnon followers. Bleu also spoke at a fundraiser and rally of hundreds of Tesla owners in Atlanta two years ago and told the blog Teslarati that Tesla could end child trafficking if its programmers adapted artificial intelligence programs and designed better ways to filter child sexual images on the internet. Musk is Tesla’s CEO.
On the Spaces, Bleu said: “Twitter will lead the way, and the rest of the internet will have to level up as a result. One of the ways that you can help Twitter is by using the platform. The more we use the platform, the more advertisers will come back, the more money they’ll have to throw into these issues.”
Bleu did not reply to an email from The Post seeking further comment, instead tagging the reporter in a tweeted obscenity.
Bleu’s fellow Spaces speakers included Irwin and Italian security researcher Andrea Stroppa, who recently reported hundreds of Twitter accounts spreading child sex abuse material. Irwin tweeted that she had not been able to replace staff working on child exploitation before Musk’s takeover.
Two former employees disputed that, including ex-executive Rumman Chowdhury, who tweeted that Irwin turned down her offer of engineering and research help.
Another former employee, speaking to The Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss company business, said that Irwin had joined amid a hiring slowdown and created more than 10 new roles, none of them in child protection.
Neither Irwin nor Twitter’s communications staff responded to emails seeking comment Sunday.