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Elon Musk allows Donald Trump back on Twitter

A tweet by former President Donald Trump is displayed on a screen during a hearing held by the House Jan. 6 committee on June 9.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
A tweet by former President Donald Trump is displayed on a screen during a hearing held by the House Jan. 6 committee on June 9.

Former President Donald Trump's Twitter account has been reinstated under the social media company's owner, billionaire Elon Musk.

Musk polled Twitter users on Friday and Saturday asking them whether Trump should be reinstated, and a narrow majority voted for Trump. On Saturday evening, Musk tweeted, "The people have spoken. Trump will be reinstated. Vox Populi, Vox Dei." The Latin phrase means "the voice of the people is the voice of god."

Musk had previously said he would not make any "major content decisions or account reinstatements" before convening a "content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints."

Twitter was the first platform to ban Trump after his supporters breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, saying his tweets broke its rules against glorifying violence. That move was quickly followed by similar ones from Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitch and other internet companies.

Now, Twitter has become the first to reinstate the former president's account, giving him access once again to the powerful megaphone he used for years to attack political enemies, whip up fans and drive daily news cycles, as well as reach an audience of nearly 90 million followers and even more as his tweets were amplified across Twitter and into mainstream media outlets.

Trump's last tweet was from Jan. 8, 2021. Whether Trump will accept the invitation to return to Twitter is another matter. During a Saturday address to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump poured cold water on the idea of returning to Twitter, saying, "I don't see any reason for it," according to Bloomberg News. After his exile from mainstream social media, Trump and some of his allies launched a rival social media site called Truth Social.

Musk, who bought Twitter for $44 billion after months of legal wrangling over whether he would go through with the deal, has vowed to "unlock" the company's potential by advancing free speech. Prior to his purchase, Musk had criticized the platform's rules against harassment, hate speech and false claims about elections and public health, saying it should allow all legal speech.

In the first chaotic weeks of Musk's ownership of Twitter, many of the employees and contractors who are responsible for making sure that toxic and illegal content doesn't take over the platform were either laid off or quit.

Musk has also said he opposes the idea of permanent bans on social media, and at a conference in May, he described Twitter's decision to ban Trump as "morally bad" and "foolish in the extreme."

"I think that was a mistake because it alienated a large part of the country and did not ultimately result in Donald Trump not having a voice," he said.

Still, Musk has insisted that the site will deemphasize what he called "negative/hate tweets." He's already reversed bans on other controversial accounts, including right-wing author and podcaster Jordan Peterson and conservative satire website The Babylon Bee.

Trump's reinstatement on Twitter comes at a moment of heightened worries over the potential for political violence stoked by growing polarization and increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Republicans who continue to deny that Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.

That includes Trump himself, who has turned to Truth Social to rail about election fraud and openly embrace the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. While Trump reaches a far smaller audience there — 4.5 million followers — screenshots and quotes of his Truth Social posts still spread on the platforms that have banned him as well as other alternative social media sites popular with the right.

"His rhetoric has really escalated in the time that he has been relegated to his own social media platform, and we have no reason to think he would tone it down at all or rein it in at all if he gets back onto one of these major platforms," Nicole Gill, executive director of Accountable Tech, a progressive advocacy group, said in an interview ahead of Twitter's announcement. "He's fueling the 'Big Lie' from wherever he can."

Twitter's move could also have an impact beyond its own platform, especially with Trump's announcement that he is running for president again in 2024.

Facebook is considering whether to lift its own suspension of the former president when that suspension expires in January 2023, and the company has said it is talking to outside experts and considering "signals related to real-world harm" in making that decision. YouTube has said it will allow Trump to post videos again when the risk of violence drops, but it has not given any timeline.

It's also unclear what a return of Trump to Twitter would mean for Truth Social.

According to a regulatory filing, Trump has an agreement with Truth Social to post there first and refrain from publishing the same content on any other social media site for six hours — with an exception for political messaging, political fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts, which he can post anywhere at any time.

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.