By Sheila Dang
(Reuters) – Billionaire Elon Musk said Tuesday he would reverse Twitter’s ban on former U.S. President Donald Trump when he buys the social media platform, the clearest signal of Musk’s intention to cut moderation of the site.
Musk, the world’s richest person and chief executive of Tesla Inc, has inked a $44-billion deal to buy Twitter. He has called himself a “free speech absolutist” but given few specific details of his plans.
Musk is expected to become Twitter’s temporary CEO after closing the deal, Reuters previously reported according to a source familiar with the matter.
The question of reinstating Trump has been seen as a litmus test of how far Musk will go in making changes.
Musk, speaking to the Financial Times Future of the Car conference, added that he and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey believe permanent bans should be “extremely rare” and reserved for accounts that operate bots or spread spam.
Musk said the decision to ban Trump amplified Trump’s views among people on the political right, and he called the ban “morally wrong and flat-out stupid.”
The suspension of Trump’s account, which had more than 88 million followers, silenced his primary megaphone days before the end of his term and follows years of debate about how social media companies should moderate the accounts of powerful global leaders.
Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter shortly after the Jan. 6 riot on the U.S. Capitol. Twitter cited “the risk of further incitement of violence” in its decision.
Musk has also said the platform must limit speech as required by law, and he told a European Union official on Monday that EU policy was “exactly aligned” with his own thinking, referring to a new law that levies hefty fines on companies that do not control illegal content such as advertising aimed at children.
‘OUGHT TO BE EVERYWHERE’
Conservatives, who have accused San Francisco-based Twitter of bias against right-leaning views, have cheered the prospect of Trump’s return.
“He (Trump) ought to be everywhere he can,” Republican Senator Rick Scott told reporters when asked about Musk’s comments. “We shouldn’t have social media companies that are restricting people’s ability to get their message out.”
Democrats have said Trump’s potential reinstatement could constitute a threat to democracy, although some hope that a frequently-tweeting Trump could upset their base and rev up turnout in the November midterm congressional elections.
Twitter declined to comment.
Trump had previously told Fox News that he would not return to Twitter if allowed, preferring his own social media app, Truth Social, a Twitter-like platform that launched on the Apple app store in lat February and in which users post “truths” instead of tweets.
Trump has revved up his messaging on the new platform after a slow start, posting about 50 times, mostly in the last week, to his 2.7 million followers. He averaged 18 tweets a day when he was president.
There was no immediate comment from a Trump spokesperson.
Trump is chairman of the company that owns Truth Social, which is merging with blank-check acquisition firm Digital World Acquisition Corp.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday Twitter’s ban on Trump was a matter for the company to decide. The Biden administration wants online platforms to protect freedom of speech but also ensure they are not forums for disinformation, she said.
During the conference, Musk said the deal to acquire Twitter could be done in two to three months in the “best case scenario.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Twitter shares fell to a level that indicated the stock market believed it was unlikely that Musk would make the acquisition for $44 billion, as he originally agreed.
Musk’s decision to go after Twitter has concerned some Tesla investors and put pressure on the stock. Musk on Tuesday added that he would stay at Tesla “as long as I can be useful.”
(Reporting by Sheila Dang in Dallas; additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer, David Morgan, Eva Mathews, Jeff Mason, Nandita Bose, Greg Roumeliotis and Peter Henderson; Editing by Nick Zieminski)