The partisan fury that consumed Twitter during much of Jack Dorsey’s tenure as CEO immediately transferred to his hand-picked successor on Monday — especially from the right.
Conservative activists and lawmakers heaped attacks on new CEO Parag Agrawal for a caustic 11-year-old tweet condemning anti-Muslim bigotry and some of his past remarks about free speech. Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, said they’re still looking for the company to clean up its handling of ills such as disinformation, hate speech and invasions of privacy.
Whatever direction Twitter takes post-Dorsey, the social media platform that he founded in 2006 as a forum for “short burst[s]” of seemingly “inconsequential information” promises to continue having an outsize impact on American politics in 2022 and beyond, even without a co-founder at the helm.
Dorsey made waves in Washington as he steered the company into the center of partisan feuds, including Twitter’s decisions to ban political ads before the 2020 election, aggressively fact-check misinformation and then permanently suspend Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
He has also aggravated lawmakers by trolling them on Twitter and ramped up his company’s long-standing rivalry with its larger, far wealthier competitor Facebook.
Twitter showed no immediate signs it plans to deviate from the path set by Dorsey, who in recent years installed a politically minded lieutenant and created ethics-focused teams within the company to guide these kinds of decisions. But any transition at the top of the company offers at least the prospect of a new start with Twitter’s critics in Washington.
“There are a number of areas in which the company probably wants to take a step back and have a reset,” said Adam Sharp, who founded Twitter’s politics team and left the company in 2016. Sharp said Twitter will likely have to reevaluate its policies on political speech, including whether elected officials should face “any certain protections or restrictions that do not apply to the traditional private citizens” and how to tackle misinformation.
Ory Rinat, who served as the White House chief digital officer between 2017 and 2020, said he thinks Twitter has experienced a “dropoff in its relevance” in politics and advocacy, particularly after it banned political ads. That’s something its new CEO will have to contend with, he said.
“For users, Twitter has become a platform for journalists in Washington, and it’s the least widely-used of the major platforms when it comes to the general public,” said Rinat, now the CEO of the influencer marketing technology platform Urban Legend. “Innovation at Twitter seems to have stalled.”
Agrawal, a machine learning expert who has been Twitter’s chief technology officer since 2017, has offered no apparent signs that he is inclined to reverse course.
Like Dorsey himself, Agrawal has spoken of global political speech in the public interest as an important part of discourse on Twitter. He said shortly before the 2020 election that “there’s certain content from elected officials that is important for the public to see and hear.” But he told the MIT Technology Review at that time that it’s difficult to flesh out what makes a ”healthy public conversation,” adding that defining misinformation is “the existential question of our times.”
Some conservatives said they see little prospect for change at Twitter, with or without Dorsey, especially in the fight over what they call Silicon Valley’s pervasive censorship of the right. “The communists will run Twitter soon,” tweeted right-wing commentator Candace Owens after the news of Dorsey’s departure broke.
But the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, which brought Dorsey in to testify last year, said he’s willing to give Twitter’s new leadership a chance to change its ways.
“Under Dorsey’s leadership, we have continued to see Twitter unfairly block access to content and suspend users for expressing their views,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said in an email. “I hope the next Twitter CEO actually makes important changes that welcome free speech and do not censor conservative viewpoints.”
A change is overdue, said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, who was suspended from Twitter last month after the company said he had violated its hateful conduct policy with remarks about a Biden administration official who is transgender.
“That a change in leadership at a tech company is rightly seen as a political event with serious ramifications for free speech tells you all you need to know,” Banks said. “Twitter cannot be more powerful than elected representatives.”
Some GOP figures have already started to sift through Agrawal’s old tweets and public statements for ammunition on these fights. Those include an 11-year-old tweet in which Agrawal — who had not yet joined Twitter — wrote that “if they are not gonna make a distinction between muslims and extremists, then why should I distinguish between white people and racists.”
Agrawal quickly noted at the time that he was quoting a correspondent from “The Daily Show,” but the original tweet was racking up thousands of retweets and quote-tweets on Monday.
In a 2020 interview with the MIT Technology Review, Agrawal responded to a question about balancing First Amendment protections with the fight against disinformation by saying: “Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation.” And that, he said, raises questions about Twitter’s decisions to promote some kinds of content over others.
Courts have repeatedly ruled that, unlike the government, social media companies like Twitter are not prohibited by the First Amendment from limiting users’ speech.
“It looks like we might have gone from bad to worse,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “Some of Parag’s comments raise concerns about his respect for free speech.”
Meanwhile, Democrats see misinformation and extremist content as more pressing issues that Agrawal must address.
“Twitter still has much work to do on troubling issues the platform is facing, including the proliferation of hate speech, disinformation, and violence incitement,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), chair of Senate Judiciary’s privacy and technology subcommittee, in an email Monday.
Twitter “needs a principled guardian who will uphold its policies and be willing to take bold action to protect democracies,” said House Energy and Commerce consumer protection Chair Jan Schakowsky, whose panel hauled in Dorsey to testify earlier this year. She also complained that Twitter “continues to pursue invasive surveillance advertising and pander to Wall Street.”
Twitter emphasized that the company’s content moderation decisions come from its trust and safety team — not the CEO. “We’ve been clear for years that policy enforcement decisions are made by our Trust and Safety team which report to our head of legal, public policy and trust and safety Vijaya Gadde,” said Twitter spokesperson Katie Rosborough. “Jack is informed of these decisions.”
Rosborough did not respond to questions about whether Twitter intends to reverse its political ads ban or Trump’s suspension.
Gadde was central to the decision to ban Trump from the platform in January. Dorsey, who was in French Polynesia at the time, deferred to Gadde despite his own concerns about the move, the New York Times reported.
Gadde is one of the important fixtures of Dorsey’s tenure who remain in place for now. In a tweet on Monday, she quoted author Salman Rushdie: “Any story worth its salt can handle a little shaking up.”
Dorsey, whose latest stint as CEO began in 2015, will serve on Twitter’s board until mid-2022. He is also still the CEO of the payments company Square.
As CEO, Agrawal will be forced to carve out his own path as a Democratic-run Washington considers overhauling Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the statute that allows social media platforms to avoid lawsuits over how they handle online speech. The social media industry also faces lawmakers’ scrutiny over its use of algorithms, an issue given new prominence by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Just about the only tech controversy Twitter has managed to escape is the threat of the federal antitrust probes and lawsuits besetting the industry giants Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon.
Agrawal will also have to decide whether to keep Trump suspended — especially as the former president mulls another run in 2024.
Trump was one of Twitter’s most prolific users, shooting off a relentless stream of tweets that dictated news cycles and forced social media platforms to create policies on the fly about what politicians can and can’t say. Biden, meanwhile, has maintained a muted presence on the social media platform — although Twitter continues to dominate political headlines as it boots elected officials for violating its policies.
Besides weighing in on some of those politically fraught decisions, Dorsey also signed off on investing significant resources into rebuilding Twitter’s ethics and machine learning team, whose job is to help build societally responsible technologies. And he has heralded Project Bluesky, Twitter’s effort to create a “standard for social media that would help better control abusive and misleading information on its platform” — essentially, a decentralized platform that Twitter and rival social networks could all build off.
Agrawal once led Project Bluesky. His elevation to CEO could indicate that that project and artificial intelligence will be at the forefront of Twitter’s strategy.
Dorsey’s departure was met with celebration and some trepidation from MAGA-world, which has ramped up its battle against Twitter since the platform booted Trump in January. “Bye!” Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager and digital strategist, said in a text to POLITICO. “He was a complete disaster. No one has done more to destroy the 1st amendment in this country.”
Jason Miller, Trump’s former spokesman and CEO of the new right-wing social media platform GETTR, used Dorsey’s departure to tout his own social media platform. “Dorsey’s strangling of free expression is why GETTR needs to exist, and for that I suppose we should all be grateful,” Miller said. “Unlike Dorsey, GETTR is here to stay.”