On Thursday, October 27, 2022, Elon Musk officially closed his $44 billion deal to purchase the social media site Twitter. In the following weeks, he fired several of Twitter’s top financial and legal executives, instated and then retracted a new plan for buying verification checkmarks, and laid off half of Twitter’s employees, including those who publicly criticized him on the site. One of the most significant things Musk has done since purchasing Twitter is reinstate the accounts of right-wing politicians and political figures, including former President Donald Trump, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, and public figure Ye, formerly known as Kanye West. This action, promoted as furthering democracy, actually helps erode it by giving these populists a greater platform.
To understand exactly why this is, one must establish three central points: first, that Twitter is a viable and influential form of media; second, that the individuals allowed to return to their platforms are right-wing populists; and third, that free speech is not a guaranteed protection for democracy.
According to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, 23% of American adults use Twitter, and that number jumps to 42% in the 18-29 age range. 69% of U.S. Twitter users say that they get news from the site, and of those users, 70% of them turn to Twitter first for breaking news. The majority of all users report that Twitter has increased their understanding of current events and how politically engaged they feel. It is also of note that U.S.-based journalists favor Twitter as a social media site. Given Twitter’s wide use as a primary platform for political figures, journalists, and news-consumers, it is considered in this analysis to be a part of the free press, one of the key institutions essential to a functioning democracy.
In this analysis, we must also interrogate which accounts have been reinstated since Musk’s takeover, namely popular right-wing politicians former President Donald Trump and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and political hopeful Ye. Trump was permanently banned in January 2021 due to “risk of further incitement of violence” following the January 6th insurrection and has not returned to the site; as reported on Fox News, he remains on his own social networking site, Truth Social. Here, he appeals directly to a polarized extremist audience, but the impact of this site is significantly lesser than that of Twitter. On the other hand, after Greene was permanently banned in 2022 for breaking Twitter’s policy of spreading COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, she returned to posting inflammatory cries against the political left and promoting her legislation for “Vaccine Victims.” This past October, music artist and producer Ye was banned from Twitter for tweeting antisemetic threats and comments; since his account was reinstated, he has returned to the site and launched a 2024 U.S. presidential bid. Each of these political figures are known for encouraging ideological and affective political polarization through incendiary language, promoting hyper-partisan legislation, and defending the attempted antidemocratic coup d’etat that occurred on January 6, 2021.
Defenders of the decision to allow these users back onto Twitter claim that it is a matter of free speech and protecting democracy, including Musk himself, but this argument does not address the potential of unfettered free speech to erode democracy. As Huq and Ginsburg establish in “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy,” free speech protections do not prevent attacks on democratic institutions like the legal system and the free press, the spread of false information, and the nondisclosure of information. This is particularly of note when looking at the case of the January 6th insurrection, an attempted coup d’etat supported and directly encouraged by Trump, Greene, and Ye to this day. The latter two continue to promote and defend these insurrectionists on their newly-reinstated Twitter accounts, as well as promote and create very biased, polarizing content. Biased media affects voters’ political preferences, and in cases like that of these politicians, the persuasion rate will be even greater due to its extremist nature. This is particularly dangerous when you consider the long-term effects of exposure to far-right media: as examined by Barrera, Guriev, Henry, and Zhuravskaya, this exposure to rhetoric and misinformation can increase voting intentions for far-right extremist leaders, even when confronted with the truth. This deepens polarization, which during a time when the United States is dangerously divided, further erodes the country’s democracy.