Wed. Jun 7th, 2023

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SAN FRANCISCO — Elon Musk said he would reverse Twitter’s ban on former president Donald Trump, articulating for the first time his approach on one of the most consequential decisions before him at the social media site he is acquiring.

Twitter’s decision to ban Trump from the platform early last year was a mistake, the Tesla CEO said during a virtual event Tuesday. The decision to do so alienated much of the country, and Trump still has a voice. And Trump has launched his own social media platform in the meantime, potentially prompting even greater problems, he added.

“I think it was a morally bad decision to be clear and foolish in the extreme,” he said at the event hosted by the Financial Times.

What Elon Musk has said about Twitter

Twitter banned Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6 riots, citing the risk of further violence.

Musk has agreed to purchase Twitter for roughly $44 billion, and has said he wants to promote free speech on the platform. Musk began investing in Twitter earlier this year and spent much of the month of March opining on the necessity of an open forum — unfettered by moderation — on social media, at one point asking whether a new platform was needed. By April as Musk’s investment became public, his interest in Twitter became clear.

He has seized on the platform’s importance to democracy and global debate and criticized what he has described as a left-wing bias in moderation decisions. Twitter has countered that its efforts have been aimed at minimizing harm and improving the user experience by limiting exposure to hate speech and harassment.

Musk’s view on the Trump issue is his clearest shot yet at Twitter’s current management, which has sought to eliminate the harms of hate speech and the potential to incite violence on the site. Musk has criticized that approach as heavy-handed and rooted in left-wing bias. Musk is expected to dial back those moves and potentially replace the executives who have ushered them in if the deal closes.

Twitter’s top lawyer long weighed safety and free speech. Then Elon Musk called her out.

Twitter declined to comment. A Trump spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump was once a prolific Twitter user, tweeting an average of 58 times a day during his first impeachment, and during his campaign and presidency he used the tweets to great effect to dominate the American news cycle and political debate.

Shortly after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Twitter banned his account, citing the “risk of further incitement of violence.” A month before the riots, he had tweeted, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

Trump has no plans to rejoin Twitter and has not talked to Musk, though he agrees with Musk’s summary of the episode, said a Trump adviser on Tuesday who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue.

Trump advisers have worried that if Trump did rejoin Twitter, he would instantly depress the value of his company’s recently launched Twitter clone, Truth Social, which he is still eager to reap financial benefits from.

Musk said Trump’s move to Truth Social was evidence of the failure of the permanent ban.

He said the result could be a forum that is “frankly worse,” where debate becomes splintered rather than unified on a platform he has described as a “de facto town square.”

Musk did not go so far as to say bans should not exist, but specified they should be exceptionally rare, and reserved for bots and scam accounts.

Asked whether Trump’s behavior merited action, Musk said, generally, “a temporary suspension is appropriate but not a permanent ban.”

Elon Musk wants free speech on Twitter. But for whom?

“Banning Trump from Twitter didn’t end Trump’s voice — it will amplify it from the right,” he said. “This is why it is morally wrong and flat-out stupid.”

Though Musk claimed Trump’s Twitter ban actually amplified him, online discussion about Trump plunged after his Twitter ban to a five-year low, according to data from the online-analytics firms BuzzSumo and Zignal Labs.

Trump was banned just before he exited the White House, limiting his ability to influence current events. But his first attempt to match his online audience after the Twitter ban — a blog he called “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” — was so unpopular he ordered his advisers to end it in after 29 days.

Trump has urged people to use Truth Social, which he has actively started posting to in the last week, dispensing more than 50 “truths” and “retruths” — the site’s names for tweets and retweets.

But his engagement there is still small compared to his lost Twitter presence, where many of his tweets often received hundreds of thousands of likes, retweets and responses.

Trump’s Truth Social in trouble as financial, technical woes mount

Trump now has just over 2 million followers on Truth Social — a tiny shred of the 88 million followers he had accumulated on Twitter before the ban.

Musk also hedged that the Twitter deal was not yet complete and there were still issues to be worked out.

Still, he said, “I guess the answer is I would reverse the permanent ban,” before adding, “I don’t own Twitter yet.”

Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.

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