New York (CNN Business) In the days following the January 6 Capitol riot, Twitter became the first major social media platform to permanently suspend then-President Donald Trump for violating its rules against inciting violence. It was a huge step and one that instantly put pressure on other big platforms to take action.
Within days, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitch had all either banned or indefinitely suspended Trump's accounts. It marked a sweeping and unprecedented set of actions against a sitting world leader by platforms that had previously taken only limited actions against Trump as he repeatedly pushed the limits of their rules.
Less than two years later, it appears Twitter (TWTR) could be poised to take a similar role in reversing the bans on Trump. Elon Musk on Tuesday confirmed what many in the tech, media and political spaces have been predicting for weeks: If his deal to acquire Twitter succeeds, he plans to restore Trump's account.
Although Trump has suggested he wouldn't return to Twitter and will instead remain on his struggling social platform Truth Social, it's not hard to imagine him changing his mind. Even before he was elected, Twitter was central to Trump's image, providing him a platform to rally his base, criticize opponents, discuss policy plans and bypass the traditional media to explain his (sometimes untruthful) version of events to tens of millions of followers.
Musk's acquisition of Twitter is still far from set in stone. There have been questions about the Tesla CEO's ability to finance the deal if his car company's stock keeps falling, and Twitter's share price has hovered well below Musk's offer price of $54.20. On Friday, Musk said the deal was "temporarily on hold" pending details about the number of spam accounts on the platform. Still, Musk said Friday he remains "committed to acquisition."
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.
Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the time that Twitter's ban on Trump was "problematic." And on Tuesday, after Musk said he would restore Trump's account, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero lauded the plan.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a more steadfast opponent of Trump and his policies than the ACLU, but Elon Musk's decision to re-platform President Trump is the right call," Romero said in a statement. "Like it or not, President Trump is one of the most important political figures in this country, and the public has a strong interest in hearing his speech."
Twitter founder and then-CEO Jack Dorsey said at the time of the ban that permanently suspending Trump was a difficult decision that came in response to "extraordinary" circumstances. The decision, which was quickly praised by a number of civil rights groups, was made "with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter" and after a clear warning to Trump, he said.
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.
Facebook, in particular, is set to review its Trump ban early next year. After the company initially suspended Trump indefinitely, it faced pushback from its oversight board. The company decided it would maintain the suspension until at least January 7, 2023 — two years after Trump was initially removed. Nick Clegg, now the president of global affairs at Facebook-parent Meta, previously said that once the two years ended, Facebook would "look to experts to assess whether the risk to public safety has receded" to decide whether to restore Trump's account.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has also said that its suspension on Trump's account — which was initially implemented for one week and then extended to an indefinite ban — would eventually be lifted when any "risk of violence" had subsided.
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.
Twitter on Tuesday declined to comment on Musk's plans to restore Trump's account. Musk said on Twitter Thursday that, "even though I think a less divisive candidate would be better in 2024, I still think Trump should be restored to Twitter."
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.
Trump had for years pushed the limits of social media platforms' content moderation rules before the issue came to a head following January 6. In the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, Twitter suspended Trump for 12 hours before letting him post again and then ultimately banning him. (Facebook and Instagram, similarly, blocked Trump for 24 hours before indefinitely suspending him.)
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.