Apparently “Vox Populi” did it spoken, and they want former President Trump back on Twitter. A narrow majority of 51.8 percent out of 15 million poll respondents (most likely including bots) voted for Trump’s return.
Since buying Twitter, Musk has moved at lightning speed, oblivious to the consequences. Immediately after raising himself to self-proclaimed chief jerk, Musk shoved Chief Legal Officer Vijaya Gadde, the head of all things trust and safety, out of office. Musk then fired 3,000 people who put Gadde’s policies into practice: the “behind-the-screen” contractors who dealt with reports of hate speech, harassment, stalking, threats, non-consensual intimate images, spam, and other violations of Twitter’s rules . In one fell swoop, content moderation on Twitter was gutted.
Before we dive into what it might mean if Trump starts tweeting again, it’s helpful to know what Musk has dismantled and what he’ll likely be trying to put back together once the dangers become clear and advertisers flee.
Over the years, Twitter has invested significant resources in fighting online harm. However, those efforts got off to a frustratingly slow start. In 2009, Twitter only banned spam, impersonation, and copyright infringement. Then the lone security guard, Del Harvey, recruited one of us (Citron) to write a memo about threats, cyberstalking, and damage suffered by those who were attacked. Harvey wanted to address that damage, but the C-Suite resisted in the name of being the “free speech wing of the Free Speech Party.”
Twitter largely stuck to that script until 2014, when cybermobs began shoving women off the platform in a campaign called Gamergate. At this point, advertisers decided that their products should not appear alongside rape and death threats and non-consensual pornography. Gadde built an impressive trust and security team and tripled the number of his staff. Harvey, Sarah Hoyle, and John Starr drafted policies prohibiting cyberstalking, threats, hate speech, and non-consensual pornography. On the product side, Michelle Haq put these guidelines into practice. Thousands of moderators have been hired; Product managers worked to make reporting processes more efficient and responsive.
That was just the beginning. In 2015, Gadde, Harvey and Hoyle formed a Trust and Safety Council made up of global civil rights and civil rights groups. (We have since served on that council on behalf of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, where we serve on the board and in leadership positions.) That same year, Jack Dorsey returned as CEO and made trust and security a priority. This was particularly evident after the 2016 election. In response to the disinformation and hate speech that plagued the platform during election season, Dorsey and Gadde gathered a small kitchen cabinet (Citron, former New York Times editor Bill Keller, and the dean of the Berkeley School of Journalism, Tom Goldstein) to find a way forward to ensure the platform encourages public discourse rather than destroys it.
On December 2, 2016, Dorsey — along with Gadde and Harvey — sat down with this group to discuss how Twitter could best tackle the disinformation that has been eroding trust in democracies around the world. Those gathered didn’t have all the answers, but it was clear the company was on high alert and would devote resources to dealing with destructive online behavior.
Over the next two years, the council met to discuss new products and services. After Harvey and Hoyle moved on in 2018, Gadde brought Nick Pickles on board. This team tackled new problems, including deepfakes and other digitally manipulated images. They worked on the Healthy Conversations initiative, which sought feedback to promote civil dialogue. Gadde’s team has updated the hate speech policy to ban “dehumanizing speech”. (Of course, this is an abridged history of Twitter’s work on content moderation.)
Crucial is Twitter’s blind spot when it comes to rule-breaking: officials. Trump (and others) have been given free reign in violation of company rules to spread hate speech, harassment, election lies and health disinformation. Twitter and others stuck to the position that officials “were different,” contrary to our mantra that “with great power comes more—not less—responsibility.”
When a mob besieged the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, many called for Trump’s long-overdue removal, prompting Gadde Dorsey to persuade and Trump’s account to be temporarily suspended.
On February 6, 2021, we wrote together to support Trump’s permanent ban on social media. In our view, “enough was enough”: Trump had used his social media presence to downplay and politicize the deadly pandemic; He also used it to incite a mob that left five dead and countless seriously injured, shaking the nation and the world. Better late than never, Twitter and other social media companies have taken away Trump’s online megaphone.
Now Musk has invited him back, but the former president has indicated he’s not interested. He has a new place to post where the rules are literally made for him: In February 2022, Trump founded Truth Social. With fewer than 2 million users, his reach is anemic, but that hasn’t stopped him from using it to spread conspiracy theories, election lies, hate, and anti-Semitic tropes.
Despite his protests, Trump will certainly be tempted to return to Twitter to reconnect with his 86 million followers. But the platform he could return to is very different from the one he left in February 2021 when we opposed his return. That would have been bad enough. Now Trump will return to a platform with a decimated trust and security team. What could possibly go wrong?
Since his acquisition, Musk has bulldozed and tracked content moderation in real time. He introduced a verification system without committing to its original purpose: protecting against identity theft for those most likely to face it. Now he is trying to fix this error. He will soon find that tearing down a whole edifice of trust and security will cause real harm to users and scare off (more) advertisers. However, unlike some of his previous mistakes, he will also learn that reconstructing an entire team that took more than a decade to build will not be easy.
Musk probably adopts the interpretation that “Vox populi, vox Dei” implies that people are always right, but one of the earliest references to this phrase comes from a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne in 798: “And to these people should not one hear those who keep saying that the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the tumult of the crowd always comes very close to madness.”
When the guard rails are removed, these words ring TRUE.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, public policy and society.