|Is Twitter Going Full Resistance? Here’s the Woman Driving the Change.|
The war between conservatives and Twitter is heating up, in part because of Vijaya Gadde’s unheralded influence on the iconic social-media company.
By NANCY SCOLA
10/28/2020 04:31 AM EDT
Vijaya Gadde, head of legal, policy and trust for Twitter, at the company's headquarters in San Francisco in 2014. | David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Nancy Scola is a reporter covering technology for POLITICO.
On a late fall day last year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sat down on a couch on the company’s San Francisco roof deck and dug into a problem.
Next to him was the company’s top lawyer, Vijaya Gadde. The 2020 U.S. election was barely a year out and Twitter executives were worried the company was steering into the exact mess it had helped fuel in 2016, when political campaigns and Russian disinformation artists had pumped so much chaos into the system through precision-targeted social-media ads that the world’s democratic institutions could barely keep up.
Twitter had added new transparency rules, making ad buyers disclose who they were. It wasn’t enough. What more could it do?
Gadde pitched Dorsey on a radical idea for a fix: Maybe Twitter should just, well, stop selling political ads.
It was a bold idea—no other major American platform had simply banned political ads—and Dorsey wasn’t immediately sold. For one thing, the company had built itself around a commitment to hosting a free-flowing public conversation. Gadde—officially Twitter’s head of legal, policy and trust—pressed her case, and she had allies on the idea inside the building, including the head of Twitter’s trust and safety team. Within days Dorsey signed off on the idea, announcing a global ban on political ads on October 30, 2019, in an 11-tweet thread detailing the company’s reasoning.
For those who know the inner workings of Twitter, it was another sign of the rising influence of Gadde, the connected, liberal-leaning lawyer who has helped drive the company to more heavily regulate what users can say and post. Twitter’s new rules, from the ad ban to its deletion of controversial Covid-19 tweets, have rippled through Silicon Valley and caused huge blowback in American politics, where many—especially conservatives—now see Twitter as unfriendly territory.
She has also helped put Twitter’s policy squarely at odds with Facebook, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg had declared it wrong for private companies to “censor” politicians.
Photo taken in October 2019 shows Twitter Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey speaking in New York. | Kyodo News via Getty Images
Gadde was a lead architect of the policy approach that led Twitter to clamp down on everyone from everyday harassers to the Proud Boys to President Donald Trump, and she’s been out front in defending it, arguing that the shift makes sense as corporate strategy. Said Gadde in an interview by phone from her home in San Francisco in July, of the decision to ban political ads: “It wasn’t about anything other than, ‘This is the right thing to do for us as a company.’”
Two weeks ago, Gadde emerged at the center of the company’s latest tangle with the political right, when the New York Post published a story and images of emails purporting to show that in 2015, Ukrainian executives had essentially paid Joe Biden’s son Hunter to arrange a meeting with the then-vice president. As the story began to get traction, especially among conservatives eager to cast doubt on Biden’s ethics, Twitter quickly and with little transparency blocked users from linking to it. That evening, Dorsey apologized. The person who did the public cleanup the next day was Gadde, who in a series of tweets said Twitter was overhauling the “hacked materials policy” it had invoked in the case. Dorsey is now girding for a Wednesday appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee, a previously scheduled session now expected to turn into a public re-airing of the Post controversy. Gadde is prepping Dorsey for the hearing.
Though she keeps a fairly low profile outside Twitter, Gadde is known within the company for being close to the company’s CEO during Twitter’s highest-stakes moments. When Dorsey met with President Donald Trump in 2019, Gadde was in the Oval Office with them. She was at Dorsey’s side to meet the Dalai Lama in India. She’s accompanied him to Washington to speak with legislators and meet with journalists. Inside Twitter’s headquarters, Gadde and Dorsey work from spaces next door to each other. Said one Twitter official: “I can’t imagine a world where Jack looks at her and says, ‘No.’”
A former Twitter official put a different twist on the dynamic: “When it comes to going to war, Jack is the president who gives the order. Vijaya is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”
Gadde oversees about 350 people, working on everything from handling disputed Covid-19 facts to pushing back on governments, including fighting a ban on the service in Turkey and litigating an ongoing six-year legal case in the U.S. over whether Twitter can reveal details of government gag orders on its requests for users’ data. She’s pushed for technical changes that allow the company to try sidestepping blunt-force bans and blocks, like attaching warning labels to offensive tweets and limiting retweets to stop the spread of bad information. (Gadde was on parental leave when, in late May, Twitter flagged a pair of Trump’s misleading tweets on mail-in ballots, but she’s ultimately responsible for the policies he was flagged under.)
As Twitter has increasingly ditched its hands-off approach to the billions of tweets that flow across it each week, it has earned itself a heady mix of both praise and criticism. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called Twitter’s ad policy ban “a good call,” but many activists on the left think the platform still lets through far too much hate speech and threatening language. And plenty of both Democratic and Republican campaigns criticized the ad ban as a blow to underdogs, who often rely on inexpensive social media advertising.
Brendan Carr, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, accuses Twitter of a corporate bait and switch, luring in a wide range of political speech with its early approach and then applying a California-liberal filter once it had enough clout. “When they were looking to amass power and users, they had no qualms saying, ‘We represent the free speech wing of the free speech party,’” he said. “Then all of the sudden, once you have obtained just incredible scale based on those representations, you turn heel.”
Brent Bozell, founder of the conservative advocacy group Media Research Center, guesses Twitter is betting on a Joe Biden win: “Should Trump win and Republicans retain control of the Senate,” he said, “I think they’re going to have hell to pay for this.” Some of that hell may already be starting: In the wake of the New York Post controversy, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Californian who has styled himself a tech ally, said “it is time to scrap” the decades-old law that grants websites like Twitter valuable protection against liability for what users post.
Whatever the risks, the changes Gadde helped drive have rippled through Silicon Valley: Spotify suspended political ads two months after Twitter did; even Reddit, the freewheeling bulletin board, has cracked down on hate speech.
One notable rival, however, disdains Twitter’s recent moves as little more than PR ploys. “They haven’t got a hate speech policy, they have a Trump policy,” sniffed a Facebook executive, who says Twitter has gotten outsize credit for slapping labels on a few high-profile presidential tweets.
“Patently false,” Gadde calls that characterization. She also strongly rejects the critique that Twitter’s shot-calling is driven by partisan politics.
Is Vijaya Gadde deftly steering Twitter through murky waters—or permanently alienating a wide swath of Americans, including some in Washington who could ultimately have a say over its future? Gadde herself doesn’t shrink from the notion that she wants to help make a more comfortable and empowering world for marginalized people. She sits on the board of the humanitarian aid group Mercy Corps, and on the side, she and fellow female Twitter vets run a venture fund to help women rise in the startup world.
The more Twitter embraces turning from an agnostic platform to one with a particular idea of what makes a “healthy” conversation, the more the question becomes this: Can you really stop a global social network from turning into a cesspool without turning into the speech police?
“What I’ve been doing for the last nine years is trying to figure out the path,” Gadde said. And that path has led Twitter to a fraught place just before Election Day.
“I don’t really see an easy solution for how you moderate content at scale around the world,” Gadde said in a July interview. “There’s going to be errors, and there’s going to be corrections, and there’s going to be inconsistencies.”
The Post story was a perfect example of just how hard Twitter’s new, more restrictive approach can be, especially with fast-moving news. On October 14, Twitter quickly moved to block users from posting links to a shocking, if unsubstantiated, article on the misdeeds of Hunter Biden, son of the Democratic presidential nominee. The concern, as Twitter would eventually describe it: The materials at the center of the story had been hacked, and revealed the personal information of people featured in the story. It was just 20 days before Election Day, but social media companies were on hair-trigger alert for shenanigans; law enforcement had been warning about threats to the 2020 election, including “hack and leak” operations.
Twitter’s ban, including the locking of an account of a prominent POLITICO reporter who tweeted the story, drew attention away from Facebook which—uncharacteristically—had gotten ahead of Twitter by announcing it was reducing the distribution of the story while fact checkers looked at it. Said the FCC’s Carr, “The best thing to happen to Facebook was Twitter telling it, ‘Hold my beer."
Individual enforcement decisions are made down the chain at Twitter, but the next days it was on Gadde to come out and explain on her Twitter account, @vijaya, how Twitter was changing course amid the blowback: “After reflecting on this feedback, we have decided to make changes to the policy and how we enforce it,” she wrote, explaining that it was ratcheting back its “hacked materials” policy, though other rules, like its restrictions on posting personal information, still applied.
Some didn’t buy Gadde’s explanation that the original block was the straightforward application of existing policy. Tweeted Will Chamberlain, editor-in-chief of the conservative publication Human Events, “Hi @vijaya ! What evidence do you have that the Hunter Biden materials were hacked? That would seem like a prerequisite to invoking your ‘Hacked Materials Policy.’” And her nuance about what other Twitter policies the Post link violated got lost in the furor. When users found that they still couldn’t post the Post link, many began to wonder if Twitter was talking out of both sides of its mouth.
Vijaya Gadde, chief legal officer of Twitter Inc., listens during the Wall Street Journal Tech Live global technology conference in Laguna Beach, California, U.S., on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. The event brings together investors, founders, and executives to foster innovation and drive growth within the tech industry. | Martina Albertazzi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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.”