America’s political and media players woke up Friday to a new reality: One of the country’s most outspoken, often divisive, business figures is now the moderator of its most obsessive political conversation.
Elon Musk, after formally taking control of Twitter and firing four key executives, tweeted “the bird is freed” — touching off a wave of both anxiety and relief in different corners of the political world.
Conservatives, especially on the Trumpist right, view Musk as something of a savior, liberating Twitter from what they see as a progressive-liberal approach to what content is allowed, and what’s prohibited.
Liberals worry about what happens to a key information platform without a gatekeeper, less than two weeks before the midterms — especially if Musk allows Donald Trump back onto the platform that injected his thoughts and misinformation directly into the political bloodstream for years.
“I think it’s an earthquake,” said Abhi Rahman, a Democratic strategist, inviting Trump if he runs for president again in 2024 to “spread any lies he wants about the election, voting machines, etc.”
Said one adviser to major Democratic donors, bluntly: “Huge and terrible ramifications.”
On Friday afternoon, Musk tweeted that he’ll be forming a “content moderation council” — stating “no major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes.”
As of now, Trump isn’t back on the platform. Twitter didn’t respond when asked if Trump had been invited back on, and Trump’s personal account (@realDonaldTrump) is still suspended as of Friday afternoon. In a post on his own platform, Truth Social, he wrote, “I am very happy that Twitter is now in sane hands.” He told Fox News on Friday, “I am staying on Truth. I like it better, I like the way it works, I like Elon, but I’m staying on Truth.”
Many of the closest observers of Twitter, both left and right, focused on the departure of Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s top lawyer and policy chief, who Musk reportedly fired last night. (Gadde has not commented, but her Twitter bio no longer lists her at the company.)
Over the past few years, Gadde had emerged as the face of the platform’s free-speech and content-moderation policies, infuriating conservatives who thought she unfairly de-platformed Trump — while reassuring liberals with her views on the importance of maintaining civil discourse.
Gadde’s removal is a “long-term catastrophe,” said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of watchdog nonprofit Accountable Tech. “She’s the moral compass and clear-eyed leader of the sort of decision making team there on everything from standing up to laws that violate human rights from authoritarian regimes … to making decisions on election integrity violations and hate speech in the U.S.”
Civil rights groups raised alarms on the timing of her removal — just 11 days before the midterms. “That we could predict it doesn’t make it any less concerning,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “Leaving Twitter without someone in this critical role when it’s arguably needed most is really worrisome.”
With Musk’s assurance that he wouldn’t make “major” changes prior to establishing the moderation board he also promised prior to the deal closing on Thursday that the site wouldn’t become a “free-for-all hellscape,” in a post aimed at worried advertisers. Yet, he’s also said he wants fewer rules over what people can say and do on the platform.
Technical experts say it’s unlikely Twitter’s content moderation systems will change quickly, even without its former policy chief. Katie Harbath, the former public policy director at Facebook who oversaw their elections work, said it’s not that easy to turn off some of the algorithms that are set to proactively detect and remove misinformation and hate speech.
“You can’t turn and change these classifiers on a dime – you can turn them off – but you can’t really adjust. That takes time to do,” Harbath said.
Even so, there are signs Musk’s takeover has liberated some darker impulses in the American conversation. The Network Contagion Research Institute, an independent center that tracks online trends, says it has measured an uptick in the use of at least one racial slur in the 12 hours since the Musk buyout.
The new owner is also attracting attention on Capitol Hill.
“As Mr. Musk takes the reins, I will be watching to see if the company maintains its commitment to promote healthy dialogue, free from disinformation and harassment,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce panel on consumer protection. “Mr. Musk has a lot to prove because just this week, we saw the Department of Justice open an investigation into his other venture, Tesla.”
In the hours since Musk’s takeover, MAGA-world has celebrated an owner it sees as a potential savior of “free speech.” Several MAGA-related accounts called on Musk to remove alleged “shadow-bans” — which they claim have prevented them from posting. For instance, Musk tweeted on Friday he’d look into claims from a user called “Catturd2” — who was previously retweeted by Trump for spreading election lies and supporting the former president. The user said their supposed “search ban” was lifted today.
The biggest potential game-changer, of course, would be the return of Trump himself, who previously had more than 88 million followers.
For the former president, it’s now a more complicated question, since he runs — and is a key draw for — Truth Social, launched the year after Twitter banned his account. That platform is friendlier to his ideas and supporters but has far fewer followers, and less reach.
“In Trumpworld a lot of people go back and forth on whether he should or shouldn’t [return to Twitter],” said a person who speaks to Trump regularly, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.
“It’s like if reporters share his Truths on Twitter, what’s the point of going back on Twitter? That’s the prevailing thought, there’s really no need to get back on.”
In the small ecosystem of right-leaning social platforms, which stand to lose users if Musk makes Twitter feel friendlier to the Trump movement, leaders pushed back at the idea that the entrepreneur would be able to quickly change Twitter’s culture and standards.
“So far it’s only free speech lip service from Elon Musk. Come back to me when he reinstates President Trump,” said GETTR CEO and former Trump adviser Jason Miller in an interview. He later added, “Unless Elon Musk fires every coder, every engineer and every moderator in the entire company and starts all over, political discrimination is going to persist at Twitter. It’s too fundamentally rooted in their culture.”
George Farmer, CEO of Parler, the platform that was recently sold to Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, said Musk’s acquisition showed that his attempt to make Twitter a “freewheeling platform” came at a “significant price,” noting the $44 billion price tag. He said Twitter won’t stop Parler’s efforts to build a “truly uncancelable ecosystem.”
For Democrats, the announcement could hardly have come at a worse time — with Republicans likely to take the House next month and Trump widely expected to run for president again.
Trump looms large in their worries — “The minute he’s back on Twitter, he immediately has the attention of tens of tens of millions of followers, tens of millions of people, and every media person who I believe will stay on Twitter,” said Adam Loewy, a Texas lawyer and Democratic donor, said Friday — but he’s not the whole story.
Musk, who has described himself as a “free speech absolutist,” doesn’t hide where he’s coming from politically, which has significant implications for the left.
On Twitter in May, Musk called the Democratic Party “the party of division & hate.” And Twitter, though smaller than some other social media platforms, is an influential place for the billionaire SpaceX and Tesla CEO to be saying that kind of thing.
Never mind the overall user base, which Pew Research Center puts at about a quarter of U.S. adults. Rather, it’s who’s watching: Politicians, campaign strategists, activists and, perhaps most importantly, news producers and editors. Campaigns use the platform to test messages they later launch on TV. One attack ad against Republican Herschel Walker in Georgia’s U.S. Senate race features a narrator reading from a post on Twitter by Walker’s son.
“It’s certainly useful in setting the narrative with reporters, and also getting influencers who have their own separate platforms, email lists, intrigued with something, whatever you’re pushing at the moment,” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country. “I look at Twitter like a petri dish. It’s where ideas can go to die or grow. It’s where message themes can die or grow.”
Right now, despite all the hand-wringing about abusive speech or censorship, the overwhelming majority of the political world is on it — hard-right stars like Rep. Matt Gaetz are just as much a presence as the Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes of the world.
If a partisan, highly volatile owner steps in and changes things, it may become less appealing to the reporters, activists and politicians who now call it home.
“At least on Twitter, as much as we fight as Americans, we’re on the same platform,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who was a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
“It’s not like we’re having a healthy exchange of ideas. We’re calling each other pedophiles, racists and grifters, but at least we’re doing it on the same platform. Without Twitter, what is there?”
Madrid, like many observers, was initially doubtful that the sale would go through. But now that it has, he said, “it’s really the next step in the partisanship of the public square.”