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For Trump, X marks the spot for his social media return. Why that could really matter

Former President Donald Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable with governors in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, June 18, 2020.
Alex Brandon
Former President Donald Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable with governors in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, June 18, 2020.

Donald Trump — who was booted from mainstream social media platforms because of his continued spreading of lies, falsehoods and misleading claims, including incendiary tweets during the violent and deadly insurrection at the Capitol that he inspired and was carried out by his supporters — posted to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, for the first time since his expulsion from the site.

And he did it to post his mug shot.

Trump posted a couple of hours after arriving at a notorious Fulton County, Ga., jail for his booking on conspiracy charges stemming from his attempt to overturn the state's 2020 presidential election results.

Trump was allowed back on Twitter, once his favorite platform, now X, by X's mercurial majority-owner Elon Musk, the SpaceX and Tesla chief, the world's second-richest man. Musk, whose politics have shifted significantly in the last several years from arguably center left to now, at times, echoing the far right, paved the path for Trump to tweet again in November of last year.

But Trump had yet to do so — before Thursday night.

It's just one more way that Trump, during this presidential campaign, has commanded the spotlight. On Wednesday, he chose not to attend the first GOP presidential debate. He attempted instead to counter program with an interview on X with the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Then, less than 24 hours after that debate, Trump was booked in Atlanta — in prime time — then posts to X for the first time in three years, guaranteeing he'd wipe out any attention any other candidates might have gotten from the debate.

It's Trump big-footing the field once again, showing that any concession of the limelight would be short-lived.

Trump is the far-and-away frontrunner for the nomination again with less than five months to go until the Iowa caucuses. He's leading in primary polls by an average of nearly 40 points with his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' campaign, on the decline.

The significance of Trump being back on X, if he does decide to post more regularly, can't be overstated. On Trump's personal platform, Truth Social, he has 6.4 million followers.

On X, he has 86.5 million.

When Trump was on Twitter, he was able to regularly command the news cycle with controversial tweets, keeping his name in the discussion, for good or bad.

But, as Trump sees it, no publicity is bad publicity.

Of course, that's not exactly true when it comes to the broader public. Republicans continue to buy what he is selling, believing the now four indictments against him and 91 total counts in four different cases are all politically motivated.

But it's the opposite for independents and Democrats.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, also a former Trump-appointed U.N. ambassador, was booed for saying in the debate Wednesday, "We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can't win a general election that way."

She has a point.

As unpopular as President Biden is, Trump is viewed even less favorably. Majorities of independents say they "definitely" will not vote for Trump again, and a majority — 52% — of independents in the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist pollnow say the believe Trump has done something illegal.

That's an increase of 11 points since before the first indictment in New York, stemming from Trump's hush-money payments to women he was allegedly having affairs with.

Unless something changes, the GOP is on a collision course with that reality and are about to find out if they can steer clear past the danger next year of losing yet another election in the Trump era.

The road to X

Trump's return to X came as a result of billionaire Musk's takeover of Twitter.

In November of last year, days after Trump announced he was running for president again, Musk ran a Twitter poll.

It's about as unscientific as a poll can get, but he wanted to know whether other tweeps wanted to allow Trump back on.

The result?

"The people have spoken," Musk tweeted after voting in the poll ended. "Trump will be reinstated."

He added, "Vox Populi, Vox Dei."

Latin for "The voice of the people is the voice of God."

Less than a quarter of Americans said they used Twitter in 2021, the Pew Research Centerfound.

That's far below other major platforms, like Facebook, which 7-in-10 said they use, and Google's YouTube, which 8-in-10 use regularly.

Twitter/X has often been a chaotic platform, full of bots and trolls that can obscure news feeds and give an outsize importance to what's "trending."

Musk has only added to the volatility.

He's made it more difficult to spot the difference between real and fake accounts, allowing people to pay for blue check marks, for example.

Previously, lawmakers, celebrities and journalists had to be "verified" by a team at Twitter to get the distinction.

As a result, fake accounts meant to look real have popped up and sowed confusion.

Controversy, influence and wanting something more

Despite Twitter's smaller audience than other platforms, it has had a wide reach with an influential group of users, so much so that Meta, Facebook's parent company, created Threads, a Twitter replica.

Because of Musk's uneven leadership, there was an appetite for many users to bolt the platform. Musk has said and tweeted controversial things rooted in conspiracy that have alienated many users and former users.

For example, in December, Musk tweeted: "My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci," a reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official — while also taking a dig at transgender activism.

Fauci fired back, saying Twitter had become a "cesspool of misinformation."

Trump tweeting again is something of a reversal for him. The same day his account was reinstated back in November, the former president said he didn't have an interest in returning.

"I don't see any reason for it," Trump said via video conference at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual meeting. "There are a lot of problems in Twitter, you see what's going on. They may or may not make it but the problems are terrible. The engagements are negative. And you have a lot of bots and you have a lot of fake accounts."

Trump instead implied he would likely stay with Truth Social, the social media platform he created after being kicked off Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Trump claimed, in typical Trumpian fashion, that his platform was "through the roof" and "doing phenomenally well" when the opposite has been reported to be true.

His site, as of last year, was estimated to have just 2 million active users. Compare that to Meta's Threads, which surpassed 100 million users in short order and became the top downloaded app for a time — and to X, which despite Threads' growth, still has an active monthly user base of 450 million.

Musk's politics — and Twitter's much larger audience than his own platform — are certainly likely reasons for Trump's change of heart, especially as he tries to step on the gas in this Republican primary, needing to reach as many people as possible at the push of a button.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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