SAN FRANCISCO – Jack Dorsey, the executive director of Twitter, was working remotely on a private island in French Polynesia haunted by celebrities who were escaping the paparazzi when a phone call interrupted him on Jan. 6.
On the line stood Vijaya Gadde, Twitter & # 39; s best lawyer and security expert, with an update from the real world. She said she and other company executives decided to temporarily suspend President Trump's account to prevent him from posting statements that could lead to 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 defied demands from Liberals and others for Twitter to cancel Mr. Trump's account, arguing that the platform was a place where world leaders could speak even if their views were hideous. But he had delegated moderation decisions to Ms. Gadde, 46, and usually postponed them to her – and he did it again.
Mr Dorsey, 44, did not make his concerns public. The next day, he liked and shared several tweets warning of a permanent ban on Mr. Trump. Then, over the next 36 hours, Twitter switched from unblocking Mr. Trump to permanently closing his account, cutting off the president from a platform where he communicated unfiltered not just with his 88 million followers, but with the world would have.
The decision was a punctuation mark for the Trump presidency that immediately sparked allegations of political bias and a re-examination 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 on how it was done – fueled by a group of Mr. Dorsey's lieutenants who had overcome their boss's reservations but only after a deadly rampage at the Capitol.
After Twitter lifted the suspension the next day, it monitored the response to Mr. Trump's tweets on the internet, and executives informed Mr. Dorsey that Mr. Trump's followers had picked up his latest news to demand more violence. In a post on alternative social networking website Parler, members of Twitter's security team saw a Trump fan call on the militia to prevent President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. from entering the White House and against anyone to fight who tried to stop her. The potential for further unrest in the real world is too high.
Twitter has also come under pressure from its employees, who have been excited for years to remove Mr Trump from the service, as well as from lawmakers, tech investors, and others. But while more than 300 employees signed a letter stating Mr Trump's account must be closed, the decision to suspend the president was made before the letter was delivered to executives, two of the people said.
On Wednesday, Mr Dorsey alluded to the tension within Twitter. In a series of 13 tweets, he wrote that he "hasn't celebrated or is proud that we need to ban @realDonaldTrump" because "a ban is a failure of us to ultimately promote healthy conversation".
But Mr. Dorsey added, “This was the right decision for Twitter. We were faced with an extraordinary and untenable circumstance that forced us to focus all of our actions on public safety. "
Mr. Dorsey, Ms. Gadde and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Since Mr. Trump was banned, many concerns about the move have been recognized by Mr. Dorsey. Twitter was embroiled in a heated debate about technical power and corporate accountability.
Lawmakers like California Republican Devin Nunes have railed against Twitter, while Silicon Valley venture capitalists, First Amendment scholars, and the American Civil Liberties Union have also criticized the company. At the same time, activists around the world have accused Twitter of following a double standard by cutting off Mr. Trump, but not autocrats elsewhere who are using the platform to harass opponents.
"This is a phenomenal exercise of power to unplate the President of the United States," said Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who focuses on online language. "It should trigger wider reckoning."
Mr. Trump, who joined Twitter in 2009, has been a blessing and a curse for the company. His tweets drew attention to Twitter, which sometimes struggled to attract new users. But his false claims and threats on the Internet also led critics to say that the website enabled him to spread lies and provoke harassment.
Many of Twitter's 5,400+ employees were against having Mr. Trump on the platform. In August 2019, shortly after a gunman killed more than 20 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Twitter convened a staff meeting to discuss how the gunman in an online manifesto many of the views Mr. Trump posted on Twitter had repeated.
At the meeting, dubbed "flock talk," some employees said Twitter was "complicit" in giving Mr. Trump a megaphone to "whistle" to his followers, two attendees said. Staff pleaded with executives to make changes before more people were injured.
Over time, Twitter became more proactive about political content. In October 2019, Mr Dorsey stopped all political advertisements on the site, saying he feared such advertisements "have a significant impact that today's democratic structure may not be prepared for".
But Mr. Dorsey, an advocate for free speech, refused to take down the posts of world leaders because he believed them to be current. Since Twitter announced earlier this year that it would give more leeway to the world's leading politicians who broke its rules, the company had removed its tweets only once: in March last year, messages from the presidents of Brazil and Venezuela were deleted promoting false cures for the coronavirus. Mr Dorsey refused to move, said a person with knowledge of his thinking.
Mr Dorsey urged an interim solution: attaching tags to tweets from world market leaders when the posts violate Twitter's guidelines. In May, when Mr. Trump tweeted inaccurate information about mail-in votes, Mr. Dorsey gave Twitter permission to flag the President's messages.
After the November 3rd election, Mr Trump tweeted that it had been stolen from him. According to a New York Times balance sheet, Twitter had labeled about 34 percent of its tweets and retweets within a few days.
Then the Capitol stormed.
On January 6, when Congress met to confirm the election, Twitter executives celebrated the acquisition of Ueno, a branding and design company. Mr. Dorsey, who has often retreated, had traveled to the South Pacific island, people said with knowledge of his location.
When Mr Trump used Twitter to attack Vice President Mike Pence and question the election result, the company added warnings to its tweets. Then, when violence broke out in the Capitol, people pushed Twitter and Facebook to take Mr. Trump completely offline.
This led to virtual discussions between some of Mr. Dorsey's lieutenants. The group included Ms. Gadde, a lawyer who joined Twitter in 2011; Del Harvey, Vice President, Trust and Security; and Yoel Roth, the head of website integrity. Ms. Harvey and Mr. Roth had helped improve the company's responses to spam, harassment and voting disorder.
The executives decided to suspend Mr Trump because his comments appeared to stimulate the mob, people with knowledge of the discussions said. Mrs. Gadde then called Mr. Dorsey who was not pleased, they said.
Mr Trump has not been completely banned. If he deleted multiple tweets that had stoked the mob, there would be a 12-hour cooling off. Then he could post again.
After Twitter blocked Mr. Trump's account, Facebook did the same. Snapchat, Twitch and others have also set limits to Mr. Trump.
But Mr. Dorsey wasn't sold because of a permanent ban from Mr. Trump. The next day, he emailed employees saying it was important for the company to adhere to its policies, including returning a user after a suspension.
Many workers, who feared that history would not see them kindly, were dissatisfied. Several cited IBM's collaboration with the Nazis, said current and former Twitter employees, and petitioned to remove Mr. Trump's account immediately.
On the same day, Facebook banned Mr Trump at least until the end of his term in office. But he returned to Twitter that evening with a video saying there would be a peaceful change of power.
The next morning, Mr. Trump was back. He tweeted that his base would have a "HUGE VOICE" and that he would not attend the January 20th inauguration.
Twitter's security team immediately saw Trump fans who said the president had left them reporting further riots, people with knowledge of the matter said. In a Parler message verified by the security team, a user said anyone who spoke out against "American patriots" like him should leave Washington or risk physical harm during the inauguration.
The security team began working out an analysis of the tweets and asking if they were reasons for Mr. Trump's launch.
Around noon in San Francisco, Mr. Dorsey called for a staff meeting. Some urged him why Mr. Trump wasn't banned permanently.
Mr Dorsey reiterated that Twitter should be in line with its guidelines. But he said he'd drawn a line in the sand that the president couldn't cross or Mr. Trump would lose his account privileges, people with knowledge of the event said.
After the meeting, Mr Dorsey and other executives agreed that Mr Trump's tweets that morning – and the responses they provoked – had crossed that line, people said. The employee letter requesting Mr. Trump's removal was later served.
Within a few hours, Mr. Trump's account was gone, except for a label that said "Account Suspended". He attempted to tweet about the @POTUS account, which is the official account of the US President, as well as others. But every step of the way, Twitter thwarted him by pulling down the news.
Fear of the anger of Mr. Trump's supporters, some Twitter employees have now made their Twitter accounts private and removed mentions of their employer from online biographies, four people said. Several executives received personal security.
Twitter has also stepped up its crackdown on accounts that promote violence. Over the weekend, more than 70,000 accounts that fueled the QAnon conspiracy theory that Mr Trump is fighting a cabal of pedophiles who worship Satan were removed.
On Wednesday, employees gathered virtually to discuss the decision to lock Mr. Trump, two participants said. Some were grateful that Twitter had taken action, while others were eager to leave the Trump era behind. Many were emotional; some cried.
That afternoon, Mr Trump returned to Twitter again, this time using the official @WhiteHouse account, to share a video condemning violence – but also denouncing what he called restrictions on freedom of speech. Twitter allowed the video to stay online.
An hour later, Mr. Dorsey tweeted his discomfort at the removal of Mr. Trump's online accounts. It "sets a precedent that I consider dangerous: the power that a person or company has over any part of global public conversation," he wrote.
But he concluded, "Anything we learn right now will improve our efforts and push us to be who we are: a humanity that works together."