If Musk’s deal is completed, restoring Trump’s Twitter account could give the former President back his online megaphone ahead of another possible run for the White House. Even more than that, such a move would also likely open the door for other platforms to follow suit.
Beyond the issue of Trump’s own accounts, reversing the ban could reignite a series of other thorny debates for Twitter and its rival platforms, including whether permanent bans should ever be used as a moderation tactic and if public figures or elected officials should be subject to different rules than other people.
Reversing the Trump bans
Even before Musk made his stunning bid to buy Twitter, there was pushback in some quarters, including from those politically at odds with Trump, for banning a sitting world leader.
In the nearly 18 months since then, there has been widespread speculation that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other platforms would eventually review their suspensions of Trump, especially if he decides to launch another bid for the White House in 2024. Unlike Twitter, Facebook and YouTube had implemented indefinite, but not necessarily permanent, suspensions.
Musk’s deal to acquire Twitter is set to close by the end of this year, and if he acts quickly to reverse the Trump ban, it could give Meta and YouTube an opportunity to observe potential fallout from users and advertisers. Perhaps more importantly, it could also give the rival platforms political cover to make the same move.
Tech platforms tend to move in packs on everything from tricky policy decisions to new features. And this may be especially true when Twitter is leading the way.
Although far from perfect, Twitter has, at least historically, been viewed as “more nuanced in their content moderation” and as “trying to do the right thing more often than other platforms,” said Kristin Martin, professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame. “So I do think that whether they reverse the ban or start to allow certain content through, it will make a difference in the industry because they’re leaders.”
Meta and YouTube declined to comment on this story.
Moving away from ‘perma-bans’
Restoring Trump’s account could be the start of a broader shift for Twitter under Musk’s ownership — and for any other platforms that may choose to follow its example on content moderation.
Many of the platforms have also banned far-right figures such as Milo Yiannopolous and Alex Jones for violating their policies against hateful or abusive behavior, and have removed other accounts — some prominent, some not — for repeatedly sharing conspiracy theories or misinformation.
Unbanning Trump would likely raise questions about whether others should be brought back, and how the companies should handle accounts for whom smaller penalties don’t appear to discourage policy violations. Currently, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all rely on some form of a strike policy for users who violate their rules various warnings and short-term suspensions before permanently removing repeat offenders.
Musk, who has repeatedly said his goal is to bolster free speech on Twitter, has expressed a general opposition to the idea of permanent bans for all content except that which violates applicable laws. He said Tuesday that “permanent bans should be extremely rare” and reserved for “bots or spam, scam accounts where there’s just no legitimacy to the account at all.”
But high-profile suspensions make up only a small portion of the moderation decisions Twitter and other platforms must make. Much more often, they’re dealing with regular users who get suspended or banned for things like frequent harassment or spreading of misinformation, behavior that doesn’t necessarily break any laws but nonetheless makes for an unpleasant experience on the platform for other users.
If Musk does bring Trump back, online safety experts say it will be important for him to articulate a clear policy around why the decision was made and how the company will handle future violations, with or without a permanent ban as an option. Musk said Tuesday that the Trump ban was a mistake because it “alienated a large part of the country” and did not stop the former President from posting elsewhere online.
“Trump used Twitter to foment a violent attack on Congress,” said Katie Paul, director of the online safety advocacy group Tech Transparency Project. “Others were prevented from using the platform to spread medical misinformation that cost countless lives, from organizing violent militias, inciting violence or persecuting victims of tragedies like Sandy Hook. If he succeeds in buying Twitter, Elon Musk cannot simply shirk the responsibility to ensure that his products don’t kill people.”
Musk is well known for making grand promises, working out the details as he goes, if at all. The same appears to be happening with his thinking on moderation. While generally positioning himself as a free speech absolutist, Musk has so far offered only vague explanations of how he would handle violative content — whether it be from the President or an everyday user — without using permanent bans. “I think if there are tweets that are wrong and bad, those should be either deleted or made invisible, and a suspension, a temporary suspension is appropriate but not a permanent ban,” Musk said Tuesday.