Elon Musk restored the Twitter account of former president Donald Trump on Saturday, a pivotal move that could help the platform’s once loudest, bluntest force regain online attention just as a new presidential election begins.
“The people have spoken,” Musk wrote in a tweet, nodding to the results of a Twitter poll that had just completed on whether to reinstate the former president.
Trump’s account was repopulating with old tweets and followers Saturday night, though the former president had not tweeted immediately after being restored. He said earlier Saturday he remained focused on his Twitter clone, Truth Social, signaling he would not return to the site right away.
Twitter users who participated in Musk’s poll voted roughly 52 percent to 48 percent to restore Trump’s account, according to the unscientific and non-representative Twitter poll. Musk has put multiple pivotal decisions up to a vote from his Twitter feed, including, last year, on whether to sell 10 percent of his Tesla stock.
Musk had previously said he disagreed with the ban and intended to restore Trump. But after purchasing Twitter for $44 billion late last month, he had also promised to install a content moderation council to make such decisions – saying the process would likely take weeks.
Trump had more than 88 million followers before Twitter suspended him after Jan. 6, 2021, citing fears of violent incitement in the days after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in riots that left five dead and hundreds injured.
Two former Twitter employees familiar with the process of account restoration, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said banned accounts can take up to a full day to be restored to their prior state.
Musk’s move, minutes after the conclusion of his poll, reversed one of the most consequential decisions in Twitter’s history. A self-described “free speech absolutist,” Musk has said permanent bans undermine Twitter’s role as an unrestricted haven for free expression.
It drew immediate criticism from the NAACP, which urged advertisers to pause all promotions on the platform Saturday night.
“In Elon Musk’s Twittersphere, you can incite an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which led to the deaths of multiple people, and still be allowed to spew hate speech and violent conspiracies on his platform,” it said in a statement. “If Elon Musk continues to run Twitter like this, using garbage polls that do not represent the American people and the needs of our democracy, God help us all.”
Musk has made a dramatic series of changes since taking over Twitter last month and installing himself as CEO, calling himself “Chief Twit.” He ousted the company’s old leadership, including the policy executive who oversaw instating the ban on Trump, and conducted steep layoffs that cut Twitter’s staff in half. A subsequent ultimatum by Musk to commit to a “hardcore” Twitter resulted in further attrition, decimating teams that run core functions such as user profiles.
On Friday he announced he had restored the accounts of conservative satire site, the Babylon Bee, and right-wing self-help guru Jordan Peterson, who had been suspended for anti-transgender posts. Comedian Kathy Griffin, who had mocked Musk, was also restored, he announced.
In a tweeted letter the day he completed his $44 billion acquisition, Musk pledged not to make Twitter “a free-for-all hellscape” and said he bought the platform “because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.”
But Musk’s rapid changes prompted concerns about the direction conversation on Twitter would take. The site was flooded with racist posts shortly after the deal closed to make Musk the new owner, as anonymous trolls spewed slurs and Nazi memes, arguing the old rules new longer applied.
Days after assuming owernship of the site, and following his reassurances to advertisers, Musk posted a conspiracy-laden article regarding the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul Pelosi. That led to additional consternation from advertisers.
The situation only got worse after the botched rollout of Musk first major product – Blue Verified – which let users who paid $7.99 a month obtain a blue checkmark icon, previously a signifier of public figures on the site.
Twitter was flooded with impersonation attempts that targeted large corporations, political officials and professional athletes, among others. Musk dialed back the feature and delayed its re-introduction for two weeks while Twitter assessed the damage.
Then Saturday night, Musk restored Trump’s account.
David Sacks, an investor and a Musk associate in the newly privatized Twitter, called the continued ban on Trump “an unjustified and unwarranted interference with the marketplace of ideas,” a tweet Musk said was well-put.
“Free speech is back in America,” Sacks wrote in an earlier tweet.
Right-wing figures – including members of the former Trump administration and political personalities aligned with the former president – celebrated Musk’s decision.
Before he was reinstated, Trump addressed Musk’s poll and the subject of his account during video-link remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition conference on Saturday in Las Vegas.
He reacted coolly to the prospect of rejoining the site, reiterating previous remarks that he would rather focus his attention on his clone website, Truth Social.
“I don’t see any reason for it,” Trump said of returning to Twitter, alluding to the social media network’s reported problems with bots and declining engagement. “Truth Social has taken the place for a lot of people, and I don’t see them going back onto Twitter.”
While Trump took the opportunity to promote his own website, he said he appreciated the poll and welcomed Musk’s purchase.
“I like that he bought it, I’ve always liked him,” Trump said. “He’s a character, but I tend to like characters.”
If he returns, Trump’s reinstatement at the dawn of the 2024 presidential race could cement the platform again as a hyperpolarized political battleground.
Trump used Twitter to great effect to grip the news cycle and tear down opponents – not only in the years before running for president but on the campaign trail and, later, in the White House.
Though Trump has said he wouldn’t rejoin Twitter even if he was asked, some of his advisers told The Washington Post this spring that they doubted his commitment. Twitter was Trump’s most dominant megaphone, allowing him to reach an audience of tens of millions of followers with dozens of messages a day.
In Trump’s contract with Truth Social, he agreed he would make his posts exclusively available on Truth Social for eight hours before he could share them elsewhere, The Post has reported. The agreement offered exceptions for “political messaging, political fundraising or get-out-the-vote efforts,” which he could do anywhere at any time.
Researchers and activists have argued that reinstating Trump will embolden rule-breakers and neutralize Twitter’s most potent tool for reducing harassment and lies: suspending someone’s account.
This will “open up the floodgates to incredibly obnoxious behavior,” said Joan Donovan, a research director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy who has studied disinformation.
Trump’s reinstatement, she said, will not only help the former president drive the public conversation and influence the most popular medium for journalists and news junkies. It will also help centralize a political outrage movement that has scattered across smaller right-wing corners of the web.
“This brings us back to 2020, where Trump understands the power that what he says in public and on Twitter can create mass hysteria,” she said. “The people he’s mobilizing have not gone away. They feel as strongly as ever that something is rotten in the government, and they need an actual savior.”
Trump will rejoin a Twitter that looks very different than it did when he sent his first tweet, in 2009, to urge people to watch his brief appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman.”
Unlike his first time on Twitter, his audience will likely know what to expect from him. It remains to be seen whether he can recapture his old audience.
After his Twitter ban, Trump began posting messages onto a widely ignored blog that he discarded after 29 days due to its small readership.
Trump later signed on with a small team of co-founders to build a Twitter clone, Truth Social, that launched earlier this year and promised to become a “media powerhouse.”
But Trump has only 4 million followers on the site, and his messages there receive only a tiny fraction of his previous Twitter engagement and response. The start-up running it, Trump Media & Technology Group, has also been undermined by bitter infighting, federal investigations and increasing investor unease.
Some critics expect that Trump’s reinstatement on Twitter could further kneecap Truth Social, which had counted on Trump’s involvement as its key differentiator in an increasingly crowded marketplace of right-wing social networks, meme pages and message boards.
Trump had pledged to use Truth Social exclusively and was given 90 percent ownership in the start-up. Its investment partner, Digital World Acquisition, saw its stock fall to near-record lows on Thursday due to concerns over Trump’s Twitter return.
On Truth Social, Trump has continued to lie about widespread fraud in the election and share conspiracy theories related to QAnon, the jumble of bogus claims suggesting Trump is leading a secret resistance against a global cabal of child-eating Satanists.
“He’s been dog-whistling QAnon on Truth Social hoping to get mainstream media attention, just sending out all these conspiracy beacons to get momentum and energy around his name,” Donovan said. “But there’s nothing new about it. A lot will depend on the lengths he will be willing to go to … get attention.”