By Clare Duffy and Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business
Two months after former US President Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017, Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde was asked how she felt about his proposition that he might not have won the White House without the social media platform.
“To me, there’s nothing better than having a political discourse in plain and open view and having access to your elected officials, and being able to hold them accountable,” Gadde, then Twitter’s general counsel, told the audience at a New York University School of Law event. “In that sense, I think it’s a great thing because this wasn’t always possible before.”
“Now,” she added, “the consequences of that direct dialogue are unfolding in front of us and not something we could’ve quite predicted.”
Less than three years later, the United States faced the most troubling consequence yet: A group of rioters attacked Capitol Hill on January 6 after Trump spent weeks using social media platforms to agitate his base and spread a lie that the 2020 election had been stolen.
Gadde, who by then had become head of legal, policy and trust at Twitter, found herself at the center of deciding whether to take the unprecedented step of banning Trump from Twitter.
Two days later, Twitter permanently banned Trump, citing a “risk of further incitement of violence.” The move was praised by civil rights advocates who called on Facebook and YouTube to follow Twitter’s lead — while others said the move should have come much sooner. Facebook had blocked Trump’s accounts “indefinitely” a day earlier, a suspension that was upheld in May by the company’s court-like Oversight Board and is up for review again in November. Google-owned YouTube announced a suspension of Trump’s channel a week later but has left the door open for him to return to the platform.
Twitter’s decision to remove Trump didn’t happen immediately. The platform initially banned Trump for 12 hours on January 6. Twitter took heat when it let him back on and he quickly tweeted again, calling his followers who stormed the Capitol “patriots.” The Washington Post detailed a January 8 meeting in which Gadde made an “impassioned appeal” for staffers to have patience as her team deliberated what to do. Hours later, Twitter banned Trump permanently.
Multiple outlets reported that Gadde played a central role in the Trump ban decision. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was reportedly vacationing on a private island at the time. (Twitter has said Dorsey was closely involved in the decision.) Asked this month about her role in banning Trump, a Twitter spokesperson told CNN Business: “Policy enforcement decisions are made by our Trust and Safety team, which report to Vijaya Gadde.” The spokesperson also said Twitter has “no plans to reinstate” Trump’s account.
The Trump ban marked the boldest — and riskiest — decision in the tech firm’s 15-year history: cutting off a sitting world leader and its most high-profile user who had amassed nearly 89 million followers and driven massive attention to the platform. Not only did the ban risk pushback from Trump and regulators, it set a tough new standard for the company to live by in other countries. It also kicked off a larger debate about whether “deplatforming” actually works to prevent potential harms from social media platforms.
But the decision also highlighted the disproportionate impact that Twitter, and Gadde, can have within the tech industry despite its comparatively small audience and resources.
“It forced the hand of competitors like Facebook and like Google’s YouTube, which are much bigger companies in scale,” said Katie Paul, director of the nonprofit research organization Tech Transparency Project. “[Banning Trump] was an important moment for the company’s really setting a line and showing that they do have the power to shut down these things.”
Now Twitter is facing similarly thorny questions in other major democracies around the world, including conflicts with governments in India and Nigeria. Gadde will likely be heavily involved in resolving these issues, too.
“Vijaya is at the crossroads of some of the most important policy decisions the company is making and how it interacts with governments around the world … and how Twitter is thinking through the trust and safety of its platform,” Adam Bain, Twitter’s former COO who worked closely with Gadde before leaving the company in 2016, told CNN Business. “It’s an extremely important job at the company.”
A ‘steady hand’ at Twitter
Gadde immigrated to the United States from India with her parents in the 1970s and grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas. After attending Cornell University for industrial and labor relations and then NYU School of Law, she spent a decade working in corporate law. She was inspired by her aunt, one of India’s first female lawyers, she told the NYU audience.
She joined Twitter in 2009, three years after it launched, motivated in part by her father-in-law in Egypt who had begun using Twitter as the country’s pro-democracy movement started to brew. Gadde first helped run the corporate legal department, playing a role in Twitter’s acquisitions and its 2013 IPO. That year, she became general counsel.
Twitter is known for some volatility, with three CEOs during Gadde’s tenure. But inside Twitter, she has been “an extremely steady hand” and “the type of leader that people love working for and with,” according to Bain. “What she’s focused on is making the right decisions based on facts and the right process. She doesn’t predicate the outcome.”
Beyond that, Bain said, she believes Twitter should be “as open” as possible with the world to “build trust,” as evidenced by her pushing for the company’s biannual transparency reports. Twitter declined to make Gadde available for this story.
While Twitter is much bigger now than when Gadde joined, its audience and market cap remain less than a tenth the size of Facebook. Yet the two companies are often mentioned in the same breath given Twitter’s outsized importance shaping media and politics. And as Twitter’s influence has grown, so has Gadde’s.
She’s met with lawmakers and regulators around the globe, including Trump in 2019. Gadde and her team may also be more empowered to make big moves at Twitter than she would be at other tech firms because of its smaller size.
“It means they have smaller teams and fewer lobbying dollars to work with,” said Marietje Schaake, international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center and a former European Parliament member focused on trade and technology policies. “From my experience, the company has been more open to taking proactive steps in their own policies.”
Gadde’s next battles
Within six months, Twitter went from banning one president to being banned after taking action on another.
The company was forced offline in Nigeria in June after taking down a controversial tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari, a ban that remains in place. Twitter has said it will “continue to engage” with the Nigerian government, but the company’s relatively muted stance has puzzled activists in the country.
“They’ve been surprisingly quiet,” said Gbenga Sesan, executive director of the pan-African digital rights group Paradigm Initiative. “This would have been a good time to, you know, take a categorical stand.”
Meanwhile, taking a stand has put Twitter on a knife edge between its principles and its business in one of its most important global markets: India.
The company sparked a conflict there in February by taking down hundreds of accounts at the government’s behest but refusing to take action against journalists, activists and politicians, resulting in an uneasy stalemate that has now dragged on for months. India passed new technology rules making social media companies liable for what users post on their platforms and requiring each company to appoint designated compliance officials in the country.
Twitter has sent mixed signals, initially pushing back and expressing concerns about a “potential threat to freedom of speech” but subsequently pledging to meet the new requirements. Some Indian tech advocates have described it as baffling and said this makes it harder to defend Twitter against what many see as overreach by the Indian government.
Twitter is fully compliant with India’s rules and “remains committed to safeguarding the voices and privacy of those using our service,” the company spokesperson said. “Twitter leadership, including Vijaya, are continuing to engage in productive dialogue around these issues — and similar issues around the world.”
Gadde has cautioned against suing the government, as Facebook-owned WhatsApp has done. She referred to litigation as a “blunt tool” at a virtual digital rights conference in June.
“It’s a very delicate balance to draw when you want to actually be in court, versus when you want to negotiate and try to make sure that the government understands the perspective that you’re bringing,” Gadde said. “Because I do think you can lose a lot of control when you end up in litigation.”
Twitter’s position in India remains precarious. Its presence there is much smaller than rivals like YouTube, Facebook and its subsidiary WhatsApp, which have hundreds of millions of Indian users, often making Twitter a convenient scapegoat.
“If the [Indian government] were to go out and shut down WhatsApp, that would cause a significant backlash from the general public,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. “But shut down Twitter? Not as much.”
There’s also more at stake for Twitter. Both India and Nigeria are among the world’s largest and fastest-growing internet user bases. The way Gadde’s team and Twitter resolve its challenges in those countries could have big implications for the company’s growth and the future of the internet, according to Paul of the Tech Transparency Project.
“This is something that’s certainly going to be watched globally and [will be] the model for how companies deal with it moving forward,” she said.
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