Like the monster miraculously resuscitated to terrorize the heroes in a horror-movie sequel, Donald Trump is back.
No, I’m not talking about his November 15 announcement of his third campaign for president of the United States. Instead I have in mind something far more important: Twitter.
On the evening of November 17, Elon Musk—the richest man in the world and Twitter’s new owner—posted a poll asking users of the site whether he should “Reinstate former President Trump,” who was banned from the platform after his instigation of the insurrection on January 6. Musk’s followers voted in favor, though there’s no guarantee that the poll wasn’t manipulated by the same bots that Musk has spent the past several months railing against. “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Musk tweeted, and Trump’s account was magicked back into existence.
This entire incident is terrifically stupid. The story revolves around the whims of two wealthy and self-involved men who enjoy nothing more than public attention. It is an enormous waste of everyone’s time, and I resent having to think about it.
During Trump’s 22-month “permanent suspension” from Twitter, the account was obscured from anyone who tried to look for it: Typing @realDonaldTrump into Twitter produced a blank gray screen that simply announced, “Account suspended.” Now, however, Trump’s old tweets are back, preserved like the citizens of Pompeii frozen amid the ashes of Mount Vesuvius. His most recent tweet dates to January 8, 2021, the day he was banned: “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.” If you want a reminder of what led Twitter to block him from its platform due to “the risk of further incitement of violence,” you can scroll through the former president’s other tweets from the day of the insurrection. (But not his tweets egging on the Capitol rioters’ rage against Vice President Mike Pence or calling the insurrectionists “great patriots”—he deleted those posts before the account’s deactivation.)
Musk, though, is clearly unconcerned about the risk of future violence. His decision, the childishness of its implementation aside, isn’t particularly surprising. In May, while Musk was still locked in a legal battle over his attempt to back out of purchasing Twitter, he called the site’s decision to ban Trump “foolish in the extreme” and suggested that he would reinstate the former president.
When Musk announced his decision, some Twitter users, predictably, freaked out. A number of people announced that they would be leaving the platform. Doom and gloom proliferated. Representative Liz Cheney of the January 6 committee posted a tweet of her own suggesting that Twitter users might be interested in watching the committee’s hearing documenting how Trump’s tweets contributed to the violence of the insurrection.
One person, though, has been notably quiet: Trump himself. He has not yet tweeted—and his contractual obligations to Truth Social, the platform created to act as Trump’s alternative online home during his Twitter ban, may actually limit what he can post to his newly revived account. In public remarks after Musk issued his poll, Trump said he didn’t “see any reason” to return to Twitter: “Truth Social has taken the place for a lot of people, and I don’t see them going back onto Twitter.”
That said, Truth Social is a far smaller platform than Twitter: Trump’s following there (4.6 million) is dwarfed by his following on Twitter (88 million). And Trump is not known for honoring his word. His return wouldn’t be surprising. A world with Trump back on Twitter, once more campaigning for office and newly able to broadcast his hatreds and destabilizing whims, is likely riskier than a world with Trump banned from Twitter. In a time of rising political violence, handing a megaphone back to this man is a dangerous thing.
But as David A. Graham wrote in The Atlantic when Musk first took over Twitter, there is no guarantee that the former president will be able to recapture the magic. The political situation has shifted. Most saliently, Trump is, well, no longer president. The unique power of his tweets always lay in the fact that he could reorient the direction of the U.S. government with his words alone. That power is no longer his—which is exactly the truth he attempted to undo when he sicced rioters on Congress on January 6.
There are a million lenses through which to understand Trump’s potential return to Twitter. Consider the ramifications for social-media platforms alone. What will happen to Trump’s suspended Facebook account? What might Trump’s sojourn at Truth Social show researchers about the impact of “deplatforming”—the banishing of toxic users from a social-media website? Truth Social runs on Mastodon, the decentralized social-media network that many Twitter users are now treating as a life raft. If Trump stays on Truth Social, and onetime Twitter aficionados flee to Mastodon, what could that signal about the growth of smaller, less-centralized networks as a possible future for social media?
Ultimately, though, I find something absurd and even insulting about having to consider these questions at all. You are reading this, and I am writing it, because a very rich man who desperately wants people to pay attention to him posted an easily rigged poll on the website he’d just bought for $44 billion. The answers to many of the questions I have just posed will depend on the fancies of another rich man who desperately wants people to pay attention to him. There’s an indignity to having one’s attention jerked around this way.
Demanding that people simply ignore these bumbling titans is too simplistic: Their flailing has a tendency to wreck the world that the rest of us live in. But we can at least be more discerning in what kind of attention we pay them, and why. Throughout the Trump administration, journalists struggled to provide the public with crucial information without simply amplifying Trump’s absurdities or giving him the attention he so craved. The press was not entirely successful, but recent news coverage of Trump’s 2024 run suggests that journalists have learned some lessons. In their stories on Trump’s presidential announcement, for example, The Washington Post and NPR chose not to focus on his latest provocations, instead highlighting Trump’s role in the insurrection and the threat he poses to democracy.
If Trump rejoins Twitter, the press must hold on to this approach rather than reverting to the breathless, substance-free coverage that often took hold during Trump’s time in office. And because journalists learned the hard way how—and how not—to cover Trump, they should apply some of those lessons to the public discussion about Musk as well. He cannot, unfortunately, be tuned out entirely. (I can attest to this: I muted Musk on Twitter in a fit of pique more than a year ago, but it turns out that all this does nowadays is make it extremely difficult to follow what’s happening on the platform.) But we can refuse to allow him to entirely reshape the scope of our attention.
For journalists, that means thinking more critically about how to cover Musk, perhaps widening the aperture to consider not just the man himself but the larger forces that made his Twitter takeover possible, and the effects of his actions on the broader world. For the average Twitter user, that might simply mean not panicking too much about Musk’s decision to reinstate Trump just yet. There will be plenty of time to do that if, and when, Twitter’s most notorious poster reopens the bird app. And if it does come to that, you can always find me on Mastodon.