Vijaya Gadde came reluctantly to the decision that cemented her reputation on the right as Twitter’s “chief censor.” For years, the company’s top lawyer had resisted calls to boot then-President Donald Trump from his favorite social media platform.
Even after a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, Gadde explained during an emotional virtual company town hall on Jan. 8 that Trump hadn’t broken enough of Twitter’s rules against glorification of violence to merit a permanent ban of his account.
Three hours later, after her team produced evidence that Trump’s latest tweets had sparked calls to violence on other sites, Gadde relented, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. She reached then-CEO Jack Dorsey in French Polynesia, and they agreed to lower the boom.
“After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account,” the company announced in a blog post, “… we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”
The ban on Trump, which continues to this day, is the most prominent example of the deeply polarizing decisions that have led conservatives to accuse Twitter of political censorship. As billionaire Elon Musk, a self-declared free-speech absolutist, seeks to acquire the social network, these decisions — and Gadde herself — are coming under fresh scrutiny.
Critics have derided her as Twitter’s “top censorship advocate,” a barb amplified by Musk, who tweeted a meme with a photo of Gadde that cast her as an icon of “Twitter’s left wing bias.” Musk’s legions of followers have tweeted calls for her firing, some of them racist. (Gadde, 47, is Indian American.)
Twitter colleagues describe Gadde’s work as difficult but necessary and unmotivated by political ideology. Defenders say her team, known as the trust and safety organization, has worked painstakingly to rein in coronavirus misinformation, bullying and other harmful speech on the site, moves that necessarily limit some forms of expression. They have also disproportionately affected right-leaning accounts.
But Gadde also has tried to balance the desire to protect users with the values of a company built on the principle of radical free speech, they say. She pioneered strategies for flagging harmful content without removing it, adopting warning labels and “interstitials,” which cover up tweets that break Twitter’s rules and give people control over what content they see — strategies copied by Twitter’s much larger rival, Facebook.
Many researchers and experts in online harassment say Gadde’s policies have made Twitter safer for its roughly 229 million daily users and say they fear Musk will dismantle them if the sale goes through.
“If Musk takes things in the direction he has been signaling — which is a rather simplistic view that more or less anything goes in the name of free speech — we will certainly see the platform go back to square one,” said Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University.
Whatever happens to her policies, Gadde signaled at a staff meeting late last month that her days at Twitter may be numbered, telling employees that she would work to protect their jobs as long as she is around, according to a person who attended the meeting.
She did not respond to requests for comment. Twitter declined to comment. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.
This story is based on interviews with 10 current and former Twitter employees, as well as others familiar with decisions made by Gadde and her team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private company discussions.
“I do believe very strongly — and our rules are based on this framework — that free expression is a fundamental right, that everyone has a voice and they should be able to use it,” said Gadde in a 2019 interview with The Washington Post. There is a line between doing that and committing what we call abuse or harassment, and crossing over into a place where you’re preventing someone else from using their voice.”
Gadde is a previous donor to Kamala Harris and other Democrats, and in 2017 she helped lead Twitter’s $1.59 million donation to the ACLU to fight Trump’s executive order banning immigration from majority Muslim countries.
Among employees, Gadde is known for taking a legalistic yet pragmatic approach to content moderation. As with Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection, she often has argued against limiting speech and has rejected colleagues who wanted to take a stronger approach to removing content, moving to do so only after careful consideration.
For years, she has been the animating force pushing Twitter to champion free expression abroad. In India and Turkey, for example, her team has resisted demands to remove content critical of repressive governments. In 2014, Gadde made Twitter the only Silicon Valley company to sue the U.S. government over gag orders on what tech companies could say publicly about federal requests for user data related to national security. (Five other companies settled.)
“She wasn’t a censorship warrior or a free expression warrior,” said a former colleague familiar with Gadde’s approach. “She is pragmatic, but not doctrinaire.”
A dedication to free speech has been part of Twitter’s DNA since its founding in San Francisco 16 years ago. Early executives were such believers that they famously referred to Twitter as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” That approach made Twitter ripe for abuse in its early days, and the platform developed a reputation as unsafe — particularly for high-profile women, who endured threats of rape and other sexist attacks.
Back then, Twitter’s attitude was, “we don’t touch speech,” said University of Virginia law professor Danielle Citron, an expert on online harassment. In 2009, Citron prepared a three-page, single-spaced memo for the Twitter C-suite, explaining the legal definition of criminal harassment, true threats and stalking.
Gadde joined Twitter’s legal team two years later, leaving her post at the Silicon Valley firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich and Rosati. People who worked with her said her move was inspired by the Arab Spring uprising, when pro-democracy activists used Twitter and other social platforms to organize protests across the Middle East. The Arab Spring solidified the belief among Twitter’s leaders that their job was to protect speech, not police it.
Twitter was soon engulfed in scandal, however. In 2014, online trolls launched a brutal campaign against women in the video game industry. The attacks — which came to be known as “GamerGate” — were carried out on multiple tech platforms. But they were most visible on Twitter, where women received highly graphic threats of violence, some including the woman’s address or an exact time of attack.
The incident was a wake-up call for the company, said software engineer Brianna Wu, one of the women targeted in GamerGate, who worked with Twitter to improve the site.
In an op-ed published in The Post, Gadde wrote that she was “seriously troubled by the plight of some of our users who are completely overwhelmed by those who are trying to silence healthy discourse in the name of free expression.”
By then, Gadde had been promoted to general counsel, overseeing all legal and trust and safety matters facing the company.
In response to GamerGate, Twitter streamlined the company’s complicated nine-step process for reporting abuse and tripled the number of people on its trust and safety team, as well as other teams that protect users, according to the op-ed and other reports at the time.
But the moves to clamp down on harassment soon stirred fresh controversy. Internal emails obtained by BuzzFeed in 2017 showed Gadde and other executives engaged in messy, seemingly ad hoc deliberations over whether to shut down the accounts of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and right-wing flamethrower Chuck C. Johnson, who had tweeted that he was raising money in the hopes of “taking out” a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Johnson, who says his comment was part of a “journalistic project,” has complained that Twitter never offered a clear reason for the ban. He sued the company over it and lost. He has since abandoned his alliance with Trump and declared his support for President Biden, he said, leading to attacks online. Because his Twitter account is still suspended, Johnson argues he is unable to defend himself.
About the same time, Twitter was confronted with another conundrum: the candidacy of Trump, who made Twitter central to his 2016 presidential campaign. With nearly 90 million followers at his peak, Trump routinely lobbed tweets at political opponents, journalists and even private citizens, triggering waves of online harassment.
After Trump’s election, Gadde and Dorsey convened a “free speech roundtable” at the company’s San Francisco headquarters, where top Twitter executives heard from Citron, former New York Times editor Bill Keller and Tom Goldstein, former dean of the graduate journalism school at University of California at Berkeley. During the meeting, which has not been previously reported, Citron expressed concerns about online harassment, especially directed at journalists.
Gadde “understood how speech could silence speech,” Citron recalled, “and could be incredibly damaging to people’s lives.”
Goldstein declined to comment on the meeting. Keller said the group discussed how new standards could bring order to the “wild west” of social media.
Internally, some employees faulted Gadde for ineffectiveness, as rules were unevenly applied across the massive platform. Three former workers said her trust and safety unit did not coordinate well with other teams that also policed the site.
Even as the company took action to limit hate speech and harassment, Gadde resisted calls to police mere misinformation and falsehoods — including by the new president.
“As much as we and many of the individuals might have deeply held beliefs about what is true and what is factual and what’s appropriate, we felt that we should not as a company be in the position of verifying truth,” Gadde said on a 2018 Slate podcast, responding to a question about right-wing media host Alex Jones, who had promoted the falsehood on his show, Infowars, that the Sandy Hook school shooting was staged.
A year later, nearly every other major platform banned Jones. Twitter initially declined to do so, saying Jones hadn’t broken any of its rules. Within a month, however, Gadde reversed course, banishing Jones for “abusive behavior.” In a 2019 appearance on the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, Gadde explained that Jones had earned “three strikes” by posting videos that did violate Twitter’s rules, including one she deemed an incitement to violence against the news media.
Jones did not respond to a request for comment. At the time, he called Infowars “a rallying cry for free speech in America,” adding that he was “very honored to be under attack.”
Gadde and her team later escalated the company’s efforts to fight disinformation — along with spam and fake accounts — after news broke that Twitter, Facebook and other platforms had been exploited by Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign. The company began removing a million accounts a day in a broad effort to crack down on abuse.
In a move described as signature Gadde, Twitter also launched an initiative called “Healthy Conversations” that sought feedback from hundreds of experts about how to foster more civil dialogue. That effort led to updated hate speech policies that banned “dehumanizing speech” — such as racial slurs and negative stereotypes based on religion, caste or sexual orientation — because it could have the effect of “normalizing serious violence,” according to a company blog post.
In subsequent years, Dorsey became increasingly absent and would effectively outsource a growing number of decisions to Gadde, including those around content moderation, three of the people said.
Gadde also was key to a 2019 decision to ban political advertising on the platform, according to four people familiar with the decision, arguing that politicians should reach broad audiences on the merits of their statements rather than by paying for them. Other companies copied the move, enacting temporary pauses during the 2020 election.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, at the company’s monthly town halls, Twitter employees regularly called on Gadde to ban Trump, accusing him of bullying and promoting misinformation. Gadde argued that the public had a right to hear what public figures such as Trump have to say — especially when they say horrible things, the people said.
Meanwhile, Gadde and her team were quietly working with engineers to develop a warning label to cover up tweets — even from world leaders such as Trump — if they broke the company’s rules. Users would see the tweet only if they chose to click on it. They saw it as a middle ground between banning accounts and removing content and leaving it up.
In May 2020, as Trump’s reelection campaign got underway, Twitter decided to slap a fact-checking label on a Trump tweet that falsely claimed that mail-in ballots are fraudulent — the first action by a technology company to punish Trump for spreading misinformation. Days later, the company acted again, covering up a Trump tweet about protests over the death of George Floyd that warned “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” More such actions followed.
Later that year, Gadde was involved in a decision that drew widespread criticism. In October 2020, the New York Post published an exclusive story based on material found on a laptop allegedly belonging to Biden’s son Hunter. Gadde and other trust and safety executives suspected the story was based on material obtained through hacking and therefore violated the company’s rules against publishing such material.
Anxious to avoid a repeat of Russia leaking hacked material during the 2016 election,Twitter executives took the unusual step of temporarily locking the newspaper’s Twitter account and blocking Twitter users from sharing a link to the story.
Even within liberal Twitter, the decision was controversial, two of the people said. It was not entirely clear the materials had been hacked, nor that the New York Post had participated in any hacking. A Post investigation later confirmed that thousands of emails taken from the laptop were authentic.
Amid mounting outrage among conservatives, Gadde conferred with Dorsey and announced an 11th-hour change to the hacked-materials policy: The company would remove only content posted by the hackers themselves or others acting in concert with them. It also would label more questionable tweets.
Dorsey later tweeted that the decision to block mention of the New York Post story was a mistake. Recently, Musk tweeted that “suspending the Twitter account of a major news organization for publishing a truthful story was obviously incredibly inappropriate.”
Now employees are worried that Musk will undo much of the trust and safety team’s work. Many people silenced by policies adopted under Gadde are clamoring for Musk to avenge them. Johnson, for example, said he has appealed via text to Jared Birchall, head of Musk’s family office, asking when his account might be restored.
Birchall did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Though Johnson does not plan to tweet, he said, he wants his account back on principle. According to text messages first reported by the Wall Street Journal and subsequently viewed by The Post, Birchall replied: “Hopefully soon.”
Birchall also shed light on one of the biggest questions looming over the Musk takeover: Will Musk undo Gadde’s decision to ban Trump? At a recent TED conference, Musk said he supports temporary bans over permanent ones.
Musk “vehemently disagrees with censoring,” Birchall texted to Johnson. “Especially for a sitting president. Insane.”