As soon as Elon Musk finishes buying Twitter, people who study hate speech and false information are getting ready for Donald Trump to come back to the site.
The social media site permanently removed Trump in January 2021, saying the former president’s tweets were “highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts that took place at the US Capitol on 6, 2021”.
However, earlier this year, Musk said he would reverse that ban, calling Twitter “left-biased”, and on Thursday he reportedly sacked the executive responsibly.
“I do think it was not correct to ban Donald Trump,” the Tesla chief executive told a Financial Times conference in May. “I think that was a mistake.” It alienated the country and did not result in Donald Trump’s not having a voice. I think it was a morally bad decision and foolish in the extreme. ”
Within hours of taking charge of Twitter, and before the completed acquisition was even formally confirmed, Musk had reportedly taken the first step towards welcoming the former president back. According to multiple reports, he sacked Vijaya Gadde, the head of legal and policy, alongside Twitter’s chief executive officer, chief financial officer and general counsel.
Gadde, who joined the company in 2011 as general counsel, had risen to become the most powerful woman at the site, with a remit that covered moderation, public policy and legal affairs. As such, she is the staff member most identified with the suspension of Trump, and her exit speaks to Musk’s future plans.
Civil rights advocates warn that the billionaire’s proposed changes, which are thus far vague but focus on moderating content less closely in the name of “freedom of speech”, risk making the platform “a supercharged engine of radicalisation”. Allowing Trump to return in particular could have a huge impact on content.
In his time on the platform, the former president amassed more than 88 million followers. He shared strange and crude missives as well as troubling apparent calls for violence against media, market-moving tweets about companies, and threats of nuclear war. Allowing him to return would amplify his reach at a time when social media firms are already struggling to tamp down election misinformation, experts say.
“Musk made it clear that he would roll back Twitter’s community standards and safety guidelines, reinstate Donald Trump along with scores of other accounts suspended for violence and abuse, and open the floodgates of disinformation,” said Angelo Carusone, the president of the advocacy group Media Matters for America.
Media Matters and a coalition of 26 other human rights groups have published a letter asking Twitter advertisers to boycott the platform if Musk’s acquisition leads to more lax policies on hate speech and misinformation, warning that the takeover “will further toxify our information ecosystem and be a direct threat to public safety”.
In the hours leading up to the completion of the deal, Musk tried to contact advertisers and reassure them that his desire to promote free speech would not result in the company becoming a “free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences”.
He added: “In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all, where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences, just as you can choose, for example, to see movies or play video games ranging from all ages to mature.”
A withdrawal of advertisers could have a big impact on the platform, as they currently provide 90% of its revenue. Companies have already hinted at moving their advertising dollars elsewhere if Musk changes the platform’s safety and misinformation policies. That threat comes as ad spending is down across the social media industry because of inflation and other outside factors.
Allowing Trump back on Twitter could also create an exodus of users, leading to further revenue loss for the company. Musk has expressed a desire to move away from advertising-based revenue on Twitter, preferring a subscription business model, which some have called “a risky bet”.
Twitter was the only social media company to permanently ban Trump after the 2021 Capitol riot, as Facebook and YouTube only did so on a temporary but indefinite basis. Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said he is charged with the final decision on Trump’s reinstatement to Facebook and will make a ruling by 7 January 2023. YouTube has not put forward a timeline on Trump’s ban but said it will be lifted “when the risk of violence decreases”