Before the news that the billionaire Elon Musk was buying Twitter was even confirmed, the speculation had started. Would Musk, who has repeatedly talked up his commitment to free speech, let Donald Trump back on the platform? The former US president, after all, was a notoriously avid Twitter user. Trump was kicked off the platform following accusations that he used Twitter to incite the riot at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, and has since founded his own social media platform, Truth. But he hasn’t posted on there since February and, given his penchant for posting, his recent protestations that he won’t come back to Twitter ring hollow.
So will he return? And, if he does, what will that mean for his 2024 presidential election fortunes?
My prediction for the former question is, probably. On the latter question, it’s less clear. It’s true, Trump used Twitter effectively to dictate the headlines of the day throughout his initial campaign and presidency. (Notably, Musk himself, with his nearly 85 million Twitter followers, has done the same.) With one outlandish 280-character missive after another Trump could dictate the news agenda of the day. Yet there’s also the possibility that his return to Twitter would remind the average voter of the sheer chaos and instability that he brought not only to social media but to politics.
Perhaps the more interesting question, then, is what will Musk’s reign mean for far-right figures who were not once president of the United States?
As current users of Twitter will know, the platform’s terms and conditions — such as the prohibition on hate speech — are not uniformly enforced. Reporting a tweet for a violation can often feel like flipping a coin. But, occasionally, a tweet will be determined to be violent or hateful, or flagged for containing misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic or the 2020 US election’s integrity, and the tweeter will be censored. Some view this as a just comeuppance; others see it as a silencing. Research from New York University last year showed that right-wing social media users were not, in fact, being silenced, but this has become a mantra, one that is held up as proof that free speech is being violated.
So the issue is not that Musk’s Twitter will be defined by its haphazard enforcement of terms and conditions violations; that’s the current state of the site. But because Musk has decided to position himself as a defender of free speech, there is a real risk that there will be no consequences for being violently hateful toward someone else on Twitter, and that bad actors will capitalise on this. Sites that position themselves as absolutists on free speech — such as Gab, an American microblogging platform founded in 2016 — tend to quickly become best known for their far-right users.
There is a certain line of thought which goes that the best way to counter an argument is with a better argument. Yet anyone with experience of social media knows that a Holocaust denier, for example, is less likely to be convinced by a good line of debate than they are to scream their own delusions; a homophobe is less likely to come around on gay rights than to harass gay and trans social media users. This is the direction in which we should expect Twitter to trend.
Of course, it is not as simple as determining whether Musk’s purchase will be good for the right and bad for marginalised people or those on the left, since not every issue falls cleanly on one side of the political divide or the other. And free speech will probably not, in practice, be the only concern for Musk, who will perhaps, at some point, become concerned with Twitter’s business model. Yet a social media site that welcomes Trump back — tweeting threats about nuclear war, conspiracies about rigged elections or innuendo about his political opponents — and allows harassment and vile attacks to become even more rife than they are now will probably be, if nothing else, a far less pleasant platform to be on. Ordinary users might not leave in droves, as they’re currently threatening to do, but it’s hard to imagine such a site retaining a large, mainstream user base over the long term, which could in turn diminish its impact on news and culture. Twitter will still exist in some form. It just might no longer exist as something Elon Musk would consider worth buying.