Elon Musk’s apparent decision to restore former President Donald Trump’s privileges to post on Twitter if his purchase of the company closes is a dangerous one for American democracy. And there’s one group that has by far the best chance to prevent it from happening and that must organize and act: Twitter’s employees.
Musk told an interviewer Tuesday at an automobile conference that it was a mistake to ban Trump after his comments egging on rioters on Jan. 6, 2021, while he was working to overturn the 2020 election from the White House. “I do think that it was not correct to ban Donald Trump. 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,” Musk said, articulating his reasons to undo a Trump ban. “He is now going to be on Truth Social, as will a large part of the right, in the United States, and so I think this could end up being, frankly, worse than having a single forum where everyone could debate. I guess the answer is that I would reverse the permanent ban.” When pressed on whether it was wrong to ban Trump after Trump encouraged the violence of Jan. 6, Musk said: “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, not a permanent ban.”
Put aside the fact that Musk’s statements suggest he recognizes a need for content moderation, at odds with other recent statements suggesting that any statement not illegal should be included on the platform. Musk is wrong about the Twitter ban.
I’ve already explained in the Washington Post and in my book Cheap Speech why restoring Trump to the online platforms of Twitter and Facebook would be dangerous for American democracy. Here’s what I wrote in the Post:
Trump’s lies have had long-lasting deleterious consequences for American democracy. An ABC-Ipsos poll in January found that most Republican voters believed the false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. … This Trumpian base of the GOP has pressured Republican state legislators to pass new laws that make it harder to register and vote, all in the name of preventing phantom voter fraud. Already in Texas, at least hundreds of voters who have regularly voted by mail face the risk of disenfranchisement because of unnecessary new laws passed in the last year. Some Republican candidates running for secretary of state have embraced the “big lie” and made it part of their platform, raising the risk that if they are elected and announce election results, Democrats, too, will lose confidence in the fairness of the election process. Arizona conducted a faux “forensic audit” that produced nothing but more vacuous doubt. When people stop believing in the fairness of the election process or in official election results, it undermines the entire edifice of a democratic society.
So what can be done about Musk’s likely decision to restore Trump, should Trump decide to come back?
To begin with, the First Amendment properly understood prevents laws that require either the platforming or deplatforming of politicians on social media platforms. Meta and Twitter are private companies that are not constrained by the First Amendment. The government should not have the right to tell them which content to include or exclude any more than the government can tell Slate or Fox News what content to include or exclude. (For this reason, laws like those passed recently in Florida and Texas that would seek to force Trump’s restoration to social media platforms should be held unconstitutional. Lower courts have held these laws likely unconstitutional, and the 5th Circuit held arguments on Texas’ law earlier this week.) So there is no legal obligation for Musk to make the decision he’s reached.
What could alter his course? Public pressure is a possibility. A decision to restore Trump to Twitter could lead to people leaving Twitter in protest. But there are network effects of social media platforms that make leaving professionally or personally difficult. For me, if most journalists and scholars writing about elections remain on Twitter, it would be hard for me to leave in protest. I expect I would leave if Trump begins posting again, but many others may not follow suit. So while public pressure is possible and desirable, it might not be enough to make a difference if too many people view the cost of leaving as too high.
But Twitter employee action could make a real difference. Engineers and others who work at tech companies are in high demand. There’s lots of competition among the leading companies to bring in and retain the best talent. Employees can organize and seek to pressure Twitter’s likely new owner to do the right thing; they can threaten to leave if he doesn’t.
We already know that employees at Meta were instrumental in helping to make change at Facebook. Documents leaked to the Wall Street Journal by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen spurred criticism and change. Leaked documents showed how Facebook, and especially Facebook Groups, facilitated organizing for political violence. Other showed lenient treatment of conservatives who violated Facebook’s misinformation policies. Facebook employees protested internally when Trump was allowed to spread election lies. No doubt those employee voices weighed heavily on Mark Zuckerberg as he decided to remove Trump from Facebook after the Jan. 6 insurrection—and they will weigh on him now as Facebook’s ban on Trump is set to expire on Jan. 7, 2023, unless otherwise extended under Facebook’s policies on grounds that Trump remains a threat to democracy. There’s no reason that Twitter’s employees can’t have the same influence on Musk, if he takes over the company.
What would action by Twitter employees look like? Those in high enough positions can threaten to quit, though that could come at a potentially large personal cost. To make the threats credible, other social media companies with pro-democracy policies can invite these employees to apply for jobs with open arms. All employees could try to unionize to have greater power to push against anti-democratic moves by the company. Individual employees can leak information about what Twitter knows about the relationship of Trump’s tweets to threats to American democracy. At the very least, employees can make their views known within the company and seek to put pressure on managers to bring concerns to Musk.
As private actors not bound by the First Amendment any more than Twitter or Facebook, social media platform employees have a choice. They can help promote democracy. Or they can help to facilitate its demise.