Two days after the Post story first ran, and just 18 days before Election Day, Twitter completely reversed course: Whatever personal details contained in the Post story were already out there, the company said, so users were now free to tweet it.
Dorsey was among those unhappy with how Twitter handled the situation, tweeting that the company’s communicating around about the Post situation was “not great,” and that its ham-handed blocking of the story without telling users why was “unacceptable.”
By then, though, Republicans had already seized on it as part of a pattern, one where Twitter’s edge cases seemed to always run against conservatives. Why could users tweet a link to a New York Times story based on Trump’s leaked financial records, but not a New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s emails? Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called it “an obvious and transparent attempt by Twitter to influence the upcoming presidential election.” The Republican National Committee filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. The Senate promised to get to the bottom of it in hearings. And the day after Twitter and Facebook clamped down on the Post story, the chair of the FCC announced his agency would start a formal process to “clarify” how communications law applies to online platforms — widely seen as a threat to the freedom from liability with which, up to now, Twitter and its counterparts have operated.
Gadde, 45 years old and 5-foot-4, has helped steer Twitter through rapids before. She arrived in 2011 at another pivotal time. The 5-year-old company was by then an overgrown startup still held together by spit and duct tape, with its unofficial mascot the “fail whale,” the cute cartoon animal that popped up whenever its strained servers went down, again. But as a platform, Twitter was quickly becoming a force in global events — its 50 million users were spread worldwide, and its role in the recent Iranian protests and the Arab Spring revolutions had people musing whether there might be something serious about what had been a faintly goofy chat service for tech insiders.
Gadde had cut her teeth at the powerhouse Silicon Valley law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and as Twitter made plans to go public, her job was to avoid the messes that had plagued other high-profile launches. Facebook’s 2012 initial public offering had been “a fiasco,” in the words of the Wall Street Journal, marred by everything from technical glitches to what some investors said was the withholding of key information. Google’s 2004 IPO used an untested model that let investors lowball the search engine’s stock. Twitter didn’t want the same embarrassment. By then, Gadde had been there for two years, working on mergers and acquisitions, and the company’s executives and board had come to view her as a steady hand on the tiller. Said Alex MacGillivray, Twitter’s then-general counsel, who hired Gadde, the top ranks of the company “liked what they saw” in the lawyer.
Twitter’s IPO was smooth. Its lead banker at Goldman Sachs tweeted, simply, “Phew!” Gadde, who had been made general counsel just prior, was on her way to developing a reputation as what one-time Twitter head of global public policy Colin Crowell calls “the calm at the eye of every storm.”
As the company grew up and Twitter stabilized as a business, another element became increasingly important: the ethics and influence of social media. For years, the working assumption was summed up in a 2011 blog post by co-founder Biz Stone: “The tweets must flow.” The policy was to leave tweets alone unless they broke laws or were explicitly spam, thinking the best antidote to bad tweets was letting them be swamped by good tweets.
In October 2015, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who’d previously been ousted by the board, returned. Matured by his experience founding the payment firm Square, he embraced the idea of running a mission-driven company that was also a good business. Twitter needed both advertisers and new users, but some of the online world was recoiling at the free-for-all the platform had become.
When it came to rethinking the free-for-all approach, Dorsey had a ready ally in Gadde. Six months earlier, she’d argued in the pages of the Washington Post that Twitter had to stop sacrificing the collective safety of the service on the altar of the individual’s freedom to tweet. “Balancing both aspects of this belief — welcoming diverse perspectives while protecting our users — requires vigilance, and a willingness to make hard choices,” she wrote, and then issued an apology: “That is an ideal that we have at times failed to live up to in recent years.”
While Facebook is still largely the Mark Zuckerberg show, Dorsey’s style is different. He splits his time running Square, leaving considerable space for other executives to wield day-to-day influence at Twitter. Insiders and close observers of the company say he is willing to defer to other company leaders, often to Gadde — whose near-decade at Twitter makes her an entrenched veteran at a company that’s seen significant turnover at the executive level. Said Susan Benesch, an academic who as part of the Dangerous Speech Project she leads has worked closely with Twitter: “It’s hard to even understand how she manages to do so much. She has several difficult and time-consuming jobs.”
Said Dorsey, via email, “Vijaya brings critical balance to our work. She believes deeply in our purpose, and thinks ahead of all the challenges we’ll be facing in the future. I’m so grateful she works tirelessly to make us better every day, ensuring we’re always considering our role and impact in the world.” (Said the Twitter official who said Dorsey rarely tells Gadde no: “If she wasn’t there, I think people would get away with a lot more stuff.”)
After the 2016 election, Twitter was condemned by many in Washington for seeming to let misinformation run wild. Dorsey eventually won praise in Washington for confronting the complaints head-on, testifying in Congress with Gadde seated just behind him. But Twitter still faced criticisms that the service was a near bottomless pit of vitriol, full of racist attacks, sexist trolling, anti-Semitic pile-ons and dog-piling that could often spiral out of control, while the target complained fruitlessly. Slowly, haltingly, the company began rolling out new policies — like a more robust stance against abuse — and enforcing others, like purging fake accounts from the site.
That was all still in the air when, in August 2018, controversy flared up over why Twitter hadn’t banned right-wing provocateur Alex Jones, a step Facebook, Apple and YouTube had already taken. The New Yorker’s daily cartoon that week featured a sketch of Jones and read, “Don’t worry, you’re still welcome on conspiracist-friendly platforms like Twitter and the subway.” That same day, Dorsey tweeted, “definitely not happy with where our policies are. They need to evolve. Doing that work.”
Then, something seemed to snap inside Twitter. The platform banned Jones the next month, announced a new policy on dehumanizing language the following July aimed at addressing the offline harms of such speech, and then in October moved on its political ad ban. It followed up with a policy on so-called manipulated media, like deep fakes. And in the spring of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Twitter rolled out a new set of changes meant to thwart the spread of dangerous information about the virus.
Twitter’s path stands in stark contrast to the one its larger rival Facebook has chosen. Zuckerberg — who has said again and again that Facebook should not be the world’s “arbiter of truth” — has in recent years staked out a position far closer to free-speech-absolutism, detailed in a speech at Georgetown University last year and backed up by head of policy and communications Nick Clegg, a former British pol who has said of Facebook, “censoring or stifling political discourse would be at odds with what we are about.”
Inside Facebook, some executives point out that Twitter has a much smaller stream of content to patrol. Twitter has about 4,900 employees; Dorsey won’t say how many of them, or outside contractors, work on content moderation, in part because it’s a shifting number based on world events. Facebook has about 45,000 employees, and the company doesn’t dispute reporting that found the company has 15,000 around the globe working as contractors on content moderation.
Gadde is quick to say that content moderation is a team job, and also an extremely difficult one. “Speech is one of the most anthropologically complex things imaginable,” wrote Gadde in an email in August, “and our rules have to meet that complexity.”
In March 2019, that complexity was the centerpiece of a podcast episode hosted by Joe Rogan. Rogan is often ranked in the top five most popular podcasters in the world, and his millions of listeners include a lot of young, tech-savvy men who believe Twitter’s speech policy unfairly targets the political right. Dorsey had agreed to appear on the show to hash over the policy, and to grill him, Rogan invited independent journalist Tim Pool. Dorsey, to argue the company’s case, brought Vijaya Gadde.
Though the show was billed as Rogan interviewing Dorsey, in fact it ended up as Gadde vs. Pool, with the two getting into the weeds on why Twitter had banned Alex Jones, whether Twitter’s prohibition on “misgendering” transgender users was ideological, and if the hashtag “#learntocode” can be read as a threat if it’s targeted at journalists. The reaction to the episode also made clear that Gadde’s rising profile was making her a target: As the podcast aired live, Jones recorded a YouTube video that pilloried her as a “goddamn dangerous authoritarian witch.”
By now, that Rogan episode has been watched more than 4.7 million times on YouTube, and it wasn’t lost on listeners that Dorsey was outsourcing some of his company’s toughest questions to his lieutenant.
Said one commenter: “This was Tim Pool vs. Vijaya Gadde. Joe and Jack were just the rich guys that organized it.”
Another: “They each chose their fighter.”
In some ways, Gadde has been preparing for that kind of faceoff her whole life. Early on, says Gadde, she realized there were some ugly things about the world. Born in India and moving to Beaufort, Texas, when she was 2 years old, she recalls learning later that her out-of-work chemical-engineer father was advised by a boss to get permission from a local Ku Klux Klan leader to go door to door collecting insurance premiums. “My father literally went to the Grand Dragon’s house and had tea with him,” she has said, and learning that later, she told me, “shocked and terrified” her. Similarly formative, she says, was visiting the small village in India in which her father grew up, and seeing the treatment of women and other marginalized people: “It’s a terrible thing to feel like you don’t have choice, or a voice.”
The realization that the world could be a dark place, says Gadde, drove her to law school. She graduated from New York University in 2000, a year after Dorsey had dropped out. “I felt very strongly that I needed to be in a position where I understood my rights, or my community’s rights,” she said. “I didn’t ever want to be taken advantage of.”
“I can’t untie my immigrant experience from who I am,” said Gadde, saying it gave her a firsthand view of the underbelly of humanity. “I think that one of the things that it’s really hard for people to accept is just because you don’t see this every day doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Twitter, argues Gadde, can force a confrontation with the world as it is. “Putting a spotlight on good things is great,” she said, and she’s joked that, outside the U.S., Twitter mostly consists of tweets about K-Pop. But Twitter “also casts a light on injustices,” and, she said, that’s why she went to work there in the first place.
And unlike many of its peer platforms, Twitter’s remarkably comfortable saying what it thinks is just and what isn’t. In September, for example, the bio on the company’s corporate Twitter account read simply: “#BlackLivesMatter @BlackTransLivesMatter.”
Amid the Covid-19 crisis, the @Twitter account has tackled another controversial topic: It has been aggressively pro-mask. I ask Gadde about a tweet the company posted in July as the country battled over whether wearing a face covering to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus was common sense or sheep-like cowardice. Twitter’s corporate tweet riffed off the fact that users have long begged Twitter for the ability to tweak tweets: “You can have an edit button when everyone wears a mask.”
Isn’t that tweet just ammunition for people who complain Twitter is inexorably liberal? Gadde rejects the idea. No one, she adds, has to follow the @Twitter account. Same goes for her own Twitter feed, where she tweets praise for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and criticism of Trump’s Department of Justice. “We’re always going to take positions on things that we think are important, that our employees think are important,” she said. “But that’s very different than how we necessarily operate the platform.”
In some cases, how Twitter Inc. sees the world does shape the platform. Bill Mitchell is a Florida-based political commentator who built a national reputation on his pro-Trump tweets. Twitter used its nuclear option on him in August. Mitchell’s first offense was tweeting against mask wearing, in contravention of Twitter’s policy against conflicting with health authorities’ guidance. His next offense was, while suspended, posting a few updates from a secondary account “so as not to panic” his audience, he tells me. Twitter banned him for good.
Mitchell still sees the move as unequivocally partisan. “This was a political hit against one of President Trump’s most influential supporters before the election without recourse,” he told me. (A Twitter spokesperson says Mitchell was booted for breaking Twitter’s stated rules, twice.)
Gadde sees Twitter’s rules, values and enforcement not as partisan, but rooted in human rights — the United Nations Declaration and the work of David Kay, who as U.N. Special Rapporteur on free expression argued that companies like Twitter should recognize that the “authoritative global standard” on free expression isn’t any country’s law, or their own self-interest, but international human rights law. People won’t express themselves in a public forum if they feel bullied, attacked, or otherwise unsafe, the thinking goes. People made to fear voting might not vote. To capture all those interests, “we’ve adjusted our framework,” Gadde said.
In July, some 40 years after Gadde’s father, she says, was forced to sit down with the local Klan boss, Twitter kicked off former national KKK leader David Duke.
The day after Trump’s late night tweet on October 2 announcing that he’d tested positive for Covid-19, Twitter announced it wouldn’t tolerate tweets wishing his death. Twitter said it was just reiterating existing policy, but members of the House’s “Squad” of female, liberal Democrats wondered where that policy was when people were calling for their demise. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) tweeted, “Seriously though, this is messed up.” Gadde tweeted she understood the complaints: “The criticism pushes me and our entire team to be better.”
Indeed, for most of Twitter’s history, the worry about political figures was that they’d be victimized on the platform. But what do you do when the person issuing threats and spreading falsities was not just one of your biggest users, but the president of the United States?
Twitter and Trump have always had a complicated relationship. For years before he was president, Trump had an account that he used to do everything from promote his line of custom Serta mattresses to cast doubt on Barack Obama’s birthplace. As a candidate, Trump visited Twitter’s New York City offices, which caused blowback inside the company. (According to insiders, Gadde argued he should be allowed.) Shortly after Trump was elected, Dorsey was notably left off the guest list of tech leaders during a meeting at Trump Tower. A then-Trump adviser said “the conference table was only so big,” but also in the air was a feud over Dorsey’s decision not to let the campaign use an anti-Clinton emoji.
Trump, Dorsey and Gadde finally sat down in the Oval Office in April 2019. Gadde has said Dorsey’s interest was stressing the importance of maintaining civility online. Gadde says she left feeling “the weight of the office, the significance of its power, and how it should always be used effectively, and with clear moral judgment, to improve people’s lives.” Gadde appeared on a panel shortly after, and was asked about the meeting. “I’m excellent at straight faces,” she quipped.
For Trump’s part, it didn’t seem that the conversation took. Two days later, he was back at it: “Welcome to the race Sleepy Joe.” After, in May, Twitter labeled a pair of his tweets on mail-in voting, Trump struck back with an executive order that put the weight of the federal government behind punishing social media firms, in part by calling for federal agencies to begin rolling back protections granted to online platforms. Facebook is named just twice in the presidential directive. Twitter is called out six times.
I asked Gadde if she was losing sleep over Trump’s executive order, an unusual example of the president trying to punish a private company. With a new baby at home, she joked, “there are a lot of things that keep me up at night, but that was not one of them.” She later added by email that the company didn’t take it lightly: “We worry about unilateral executive orders on this critical issue and have made our views on this non-participatory, undemocratic process very clear.”
At least in part to get at the fact that Trump’s tweets do at times break Twitter’s rules — like engaging in abusive behavior by threatening the use of “serious force” against protesters — Twitter has crafted a “world leaders” policy that labels rule-breaking tweets but leaves them up to “protect the public’s right to hear from their leaders and to hold them to account.”
But according to a Twitter source, should Trump lose the election he’ll no longer be covered by the world-leaders exception.
Gadde, Dorsey and others at Twitter have argued that it’s better for voters to have a clear-eyed view of who Trump is, and there’s perhaps no clearer view of that than his Twitter feed. What would you make of the hypothesis, I asked Gadde in an email in August, that rather being Trump’s not-so-secret weapon, Twitter’s going to be what holds him to one term — because for the past four years voters have gotten an unfiltered view of exactly how he thinks?
“We believe in creating a space that permits world leaders to speak and be challenged for that speech,” wrote Gadde. “As for the future, that’s for the voters to decide this November.”