Inside Twitter’s Decision to Cut Off Trump

The Four Percent

SAN FRANCISCO — Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, was working remotely on a private island in French Polynesia frequented by celebrities escaping the paparazzi when a phone call interrupted him on Jan. 6.

On the line was Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s top lawyer and safety expert, with an update from the real world. She said she and other company executives had decided to lock President Trump’s account, temporarily, to prevent him from posting statements that might provoke more violence after a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol that day.

Mr. Dorsey was concerned about the move, said two people with knowledge of the call. For four years, he had resisted demands by liberals and others that Twitter terminate Mr. Trump’s account, arguing that the platform was a place where world leaders could speak, even if their views were heinous. But he had delegated moderation decisions to Ms. Gadde, 46, and usually deferred to her — and he did so again.

Mr. Dorsey, 44, did not make his misgivings public. The next day, he liked and shared several tweets urging caution against a permanent ban of Mr. Trump. Then, over the next 36 hours, Twitter veered from lifting Mr. Trump’s suspension to shutting down his account permanently, cutting off the president from a platform he had used to communicate, unfiltered, with not just his 88 million followers but the world.

The decision was a punctuation mark on the Trump presidency that immediately drew accusations of political bias and fresh scrutiny of the tech industry’s power over public discourse. Interviews with a dozen current and former Twitter insiders over the past week opened a window into how it was made — driven by a group of Mr. Dorsey’s lieutenants who overcame their boss’s reservations, but only after a deadly rampage at the Capitol.

Having lifted the suspension the next day, Twitter monitored the response to Mr. Trump’s tweets across the internet, and executives briefed Mr. Dorsey that Mr. Trump’s followers had seized on his latest messages to call for more violence. In one post on the alternative social networking site Parler, members of Twitter’s safety team saw a Trump fan urge militias to stop President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. from entering the White House and to fight anyone who tried to halt them. The potential for more real-world unrest, they said, was too high.

Twitter was also under pressure from its employees, who had for years agitated to remove Mr. Trump from the service, as well as lawmakers, tech investors and others. But while more than 300 employees signed a letter saying Mr. Trump’s account must be stopped, the decision to bar the president was made before the letter was delivered to executives, two of the people said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Dorsey alluded to the tensions inside Twitter. In a string of 13 tweets, he wrote that he did “not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump” because “a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation.”

But Mr. Dorsey added: “This was the right decision for Twitter. We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety.”

Then came the Capitol storming.

On Jan. 6, as Congress met to certify the election, Twitter executives celebrated their acquisition of Ueno, a branding and design firm. Mr. Dorsey, who has often gone on retreats, had traveled to the South Pacific island, said the people with knowledge of his location.

When Mr. Trump used Twitter to lash out at Vice President Mike Pence and question the election result, the company added warnings to his tweets. Then as violence erupted at the Capitol, people urged Twitter and Facebook to take Mr. Trump offline entirely.

That led to virtual discussions among some of Mr. Dorsey’s lieutenants. The group included Ms. Gadde, a lawyer who had joined Twitter in 2011; Del Harvey, vice president of trust and safety; and Yoel Roth, the head of site integrity. Ms. Harvey and Mr. Roth had helped build the company’s responses to spam, harassment and election interference.

The executives decided to suspend Mr. Trump because his comments appeared to incite the mob, said the people with knowledge of the discussions. Ms. Gadde then called Mr. Dorsey, who was not pleased, they said.

Mr. Trump was not barred completely. If he deleted several tweets that had stoked the mob, there would be a 12-hour cooling-off period. Then he could post again.

After Twitter locked Mr. Trump’s account, Facebook did the same. Snapchat, Twitch and others also placed limits on Mr. Trump.

But Mr. Dorsey was not sold on a permanent ban of Mr. Trump. He emailed employees the next day, saying it was important for the company to remain consistent with its policies, including letting a user return after a suspension.

After the meeting, Mr. Dorsey and other executives agreed that Mr. Trump’s tweets that morning — and the responses they had provoked — had crossed that line, the people said. The employee letter asking for Mr. Trump’s removal was later delivered, they said.

An hour later, Mr. Dorsey tweeted his discomfort about the removal of Mr. Trump’s online accounts. It “sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation,” he wrote.

But he concluded, “Everything we learn in this moment will better our effort, and push us to be what we are: one humanity working together.”

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