With his decision on Saturday to restore the personal Twitter account of former President Donald Trump nearly two years after it was permanently banned, Elon Musk could plunge Twitter deeper into chaos — and that may be the point.
In the weeks since Musk completed his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter, the influential social network has shed so much staff that users and employees have raised concerns about its ability to continue operating. It has also suffered a “massive drop in revenue,” according to Musk, as a growing number of brands pause advertising amid uncertainty about the direction and stability of the platform.
Trump’s return won’t help either issue.
The company’s servers are “being put through quite the stress test by @elonmusk right now,” tweeted Sriram Krishnan, a general partner at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz and former Twitter employee who is working with Musk to manage the company. (He also noted Trump’s return comes a day before the World Cup is set to kick off, a high-traffic event for the platform.)
Also on Saturday, NAACP president Derrick Johnson sent an urgent warning to companies still doing business with Twitter: “Any advertiser still funding Twitter should immediately pause all advertising.”
Some advertisers had previously indicated they could halt spending on the platform if Trump were to be reinstated, potentially dealing a further blow to a company that generates nearly all of its revenue from advertising.
Before buying Twitter, Musk had repeatedly said he would reinstate Trump’s account and rethink the platform’s approach to permanent bans as part of his maximalist vision for “free speech.” But Musk also sought to reassure brands and users that he would establish a “content moderation council” to determine whether Trump and other banned account holders would be brought back on the platform.
There is no indication that group was even established, let alone involved in the decision to restore Trump. Instead, Musk tweeted a poll Friday, asking followers to vote whether or not to restore Trump’s account. “Yes” won, and Musk tweeted Saturday: “The people have spoken. Trump will be reinstated. Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Latin for “the voice of the people is the voice of God.”
If Musk has any strategy behind the decision and its timing, it appears to be betting that chaos makes for a good show.
Through all the mass layoffs and staff departures, the controversial paid verification option introduced and withdrawn, the prominent brands and celebrities pulling back from the platform, and the widespread criticism of his incendiary remarks, Musk has repeatedly stressed that Twitter is hitting all-time highs in user numbers.
Now, add Trump to the mix.
Throughout his time as president, Trump was the most high-profile and often the most controversial user on the platform, forcing Twitter to think about how it should handle a sitting world leader taunting North Korea with threats of nuclear destruction (allowed) and encouraging a violent pro-Trump mob to attack the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 (which got him banned).
But Trump also made Twitter into the center of the known media and political universe. His tweets made headlines, moved markets and shaped the agenda in Washington. Celebrities, world leaders, and a long list of critics and supporters often engaged with Trump directly on Twitter. The world could not look away.
It remains unclear whether Trump will tweet as often, or at all, now that he has his own social network, Truth Social. And if he does, his tweets may not get quite as much attention as when he was the sitting president. But Musk’s decision to bring Trump back also comes days after Trump announced he would run for president again, raising the likelihood that Trump’s remarks and his tweets, if he posts them, won’t be ignored.
Musk is clearly still in the early days of setting up his so-called Twitter 2.0. Apart from reorganizing staff and racing to bolster Twitter’s bottom line through subscription products, he also has yet to formalize his policies around bans and suspensions.
But one answer seems clear: Musk appears to be betting that if users can’t turn away from the platform, neither can advertisers. And with enough eyeballs on the site, he may just be able to find new ways to make money from them.
All he has to do is find a way to keep the lights on.