WWhy bother restoring Donald Trump’s Twitter account? Twitter owner Elon Musk, with said that no such decisions would be made until a Content Moderation Council was established, made the decision after a quick Twitter poll. He also reactivated the accounts of Kanye West, who was dumped by advertisers after delusional anti-Semitic comments, and Andrew Tate, the misogynist “influencer” who was banned in 2017 for violating terms of service.
This puts already nervous advertisers, who account for about 90% of the company’s revenue, in a precarious position. The NAACP has urged major companies to stop advertising on Twitter. Many of them have already done so. The Trump decision also risks a broader political backlash for the platform, especially among users. Musk is already being investigated nationwide for his behavior during the takeover.
Despite Musk being the richest man alive, very little of what he’s done since buying Twitter even remotely resembles good business sense. Some of this is down to his leadership style, which plays out in a more public forum: he notoriously rules out fear, breaking the law, busting unions and firing employees who criticize him. He seems intent on establishing the same pattern on Twitter, based on his seemingly unassailable belief that he knows best. But his interest in Twitter isn’t just commercial. He makes it clear that he believes the old Twitter management was left-leaning and that he would like to restore a friendly climate for right-wing agitators. The goal seems to be to redesign Twitter and change its perceived politics.
So Musk bought a platform he knew little about how it worked and began “moving fast and destroying things,” to use the Silicon Valley motto. The purchase itself, which added $13 billion to the company’s debt, was the first financial wound inflicted on the company. The second was staffing, which made advertisers nervous and drew the wrath of the Federal Trade Commission. He fired an enormous number of employees, beginning with a purge of about half the staff before imploring some of them to return. Meanwhile, a senior Twitter exec made clear how little appreciated those who returned and how quickly they would get the boot back. In leaked Slack messages, he called them “weak, lazy and unmotivated” and said they could easily be fired again.
Musk has ousted an additional estimated 1,200 employees, including engineers responsible for managing content and ironing out bugs, after taking a de facto oath of loyalty. He’s asked engineers to bring him examples of their own coding work to determine its value to the company – odd considering the code is written collectively – and he has 50 Tesla employees with no apparent experience with social media Software or theme designed to look at Twitter code. After recently getting into a Twitter argument with an engineer who knew more about the platform’s performance issues than he did, he fired him via tweet.
Its online behavior makes the company look terrible. Twitter’s fact-checking service humiliatingly corrected him after he mistakenly tweeted that Twitter drives “an enormous number of clicks” on other websites and is “by far the largest click driver on the web”.
However, nothing about Musk’s behavior suggests that the Twitter chaos is primarily about business. According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Musk’s acquisition was promoted not only by deposed executive Jack Dorsey, but also by a network of right-wing libertarian billionaires close to Musk, including PayPal founder Peter Thiel. They argued that Twitter should be run as a private company.
One reason libertarians were interested in Musk, the WSJ says, may have been his political history. Though he was once a centrist who supported Andrew Yang, he vehemently opposed Trump’s ban, believed Twitter’s content moderation policies were driven by politics, and claimed Twitter was “left-leaning.” (That’s quite false: Twitter’s own internal research shows it amplifies right-wing content.) It has become a purveyor of disinformation, including about Covid-19 and the attack on Paul Pelosi (husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ). As Twitter CEO, he used the platform to encourage voters to support Republicans in the US midterm elections and, when they lost, promoted a conspiracy theory that Sam Bankman-Fried was laundering money for Democrats. Though hardly a Trumper, he happily verges on the culture war policies of the American far right.
This would suggest that the multi-billion dollar takeover was in part a political move aimed at “disrupting” communications networks, which the American right has repeatedly claimed is biased against. As a political entity, Twitter punches far beyond its commercial weight. In its early days, it thrived on its association with the Obama White House and its alleged role in “Twitter revolutions” (a term coined by the State Department). It was seen as a means of projecting US influence abroad. It didn’t cause these revolutions any more than the Trump presidency or Black Lives Matter, but it was central to these political struggles because activists, politicians and reporters used the platform. Although it has far fewer users than Facebook or TikTok, it has been and still is a powerful tool for shaping public discourse. Whoever controls it, whether they know what they are doing or not, wields real political power.
Despite what Musk thinks, Twitter’s old board didn’t wield that power for the left, or even for the liberals. Their content moderation policies have evolved over time to placate advertisers and governments. They didn’t want to get rid of the various fascist micro-celebrities and far-right disinfotainers, let alone the lucrative big beasts of the far right like Trump and Alex Jones: they were forced to. Now Twitter is being realigned under Musk’s one-man rule. This is partly for Musk’s own recovery. He likes to “trigger the liberals” and lure the purveyors of hate speech, disinformation and far-right propaganda onto his platform. But it’s also about further balancing online information ecologies in favor of the right.
Restoring Trump’s account won’t bring back the days when the former president was worth $2 billion on Twitter in a single year. But it’s an indication of where Musk wants the platform to go.