Hours after Elon Musk bought Twitter, conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson returned to the platform following a suspension for “hateful conduct” in tweets insisting a transgender senior Administration official was a man. When Twitter reopened Carlson’s account on Monday, the host published a simple tweet: “We’re back.”
With Musk calling for more “free speech” on Twitter, the next question is, how long before Twitter unlocks Donald Trump’s account as well? Twitter permanently suspended Trump two days after the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol building over concerns that Trump’s tweets to his 88 million followers risked “further incitement of violence.” Trump had repeatedly praised his supporters who stormed the Capitol building and peddled lies that the 2020 election had been stolen and Vice President Mike Pence had the power to reverse the legitimate results. At the time, Trump was also suspended from YouTube and Facebook.
When Trump was banned from Twitter, he resorted to putting out email press releases and trying to launch his own social media platform. Coinciding with his ouster from the Oval Office, Trump largely lost his unique ability to manipulate the news cycle with a single tweet. If Trump is allowed back on Twitter under Musk’s ownership, it would reactivate one of the most powerful accounts the platform has ever hosted. He’d have more ability to dominate the news again, mobilize his followers and detractors alike, and exert significant influence over the midterms and 2024 presidential election—whether or not he runs himself.
For his part, Trump told Fox News he didn’t want to get back on Twitter and instead he would be putting out messages on his beleaguered social media platform, TRUTH Social. “I am not going on Twitter, I am going to stay on TRUTH,” Trump told Fox News after Twitter took Musk’s $44 billion leveraged buyout offer to take Twitter private. But Trump may not stick to that promise given the challenges TRUTH Social has had building an audience—and given the power he once wielded on Twitter.
As President, Trump used his Twitter account to stoke division, spread misinformation, insult rivals, inform his own government of policy decisions he’d made, pressure prosecutors to punish his political enemies, and berate judges who ruled against his allies. No single person has had as much impact on a social media platform as when Trump was on Twitter, says Leysia Palen, an information science professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Palen has worked with a team of researchers to study how Trump used Twitter and track the way his tweets would reverberate and touch nearly every way information was consumed on the Internet. Whenever Trump tweeted, he would “thrash” the online discussion around whatever topic he was weighing into, Palen says, because of his large number of followers and the frequency with which he was tweeting. When Trump tweets, “it makes the information world we are leaning on even more unreliable, even more erratic,” Palen says.
A Trump Twitter effect could potentially also be seen in upcoming elections, experts say. Unlike other platforms, Twitter gave Trump access to a large part of his base at “any moment, any time, day or night,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. If Twitter decides to restore Trump’s full account and his list of followers, Trump would have immediate access to large numbers of people who have already identified themselves as interested in him. That’s very valuable political communications real estate, Jamieson says. “If he wants to intervene on behalf of a candidate he has now endorsed in the midterm elections, being able to reach that number of people with messages supporting those candidates is a way of essentially getting free advertising time to reach people who are more likely to vote as a result of getting a signal from Donald Trump,” Jamieson says.
Returning to Twitter could help Trump reconnect with his base, but others argue there could also be a backlash: Trump could further mobilize those who disagree with him. Trump being on Twitter may be a “a gift” for President Joe Biden, “because when Donald Trump tweets, he’s saying things that alienate a lot of people,” says Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University. Wright says going back on Twitter would give Trump another megaphone, but given how well known he already is, it may bring him only a marginal benefit and could spark more blowback. “He’s continued to say these things that the majority of the American public don’t agree with, so that may not be good for his political support,” she says.
Since being kicked off Twitter, Trump’s turned to press releases and rallies to get his message out. He’s blasted investigators looking into his financial dealings and promoted the candidacies of politicians who are willing to parrot his lies about voter fraud costing him the election. He’s also used his presidential title to promote his properties and applauded himself for a hole-in-one on the golf course. Those could be more signs of what may come if Trump decides to tweet again.