Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made the unusual decision to kick off his 2024 campaign live on Twitter Wednesday, eschewing traditional venues like Fox News in favor of joining billionaire rabble rouser Elon Musk for the announcement.
Far from a picture-perfect moment, DeSantis’s campaign launch alongside Twitter’s new owner was marred by technical glitches and the inevitable subsequent flotilla of memes taking shots at the disastrous kick off. Chaos and all, DeSantis’s decision to forgo traditional news venues in favor of making a big media moment with Musk marks a new phase for the social network — and one that would have been impossible to foresee back in 2016, or even 2020.
DeSantis met Musk on friendly turf. In spite of feints to the contrary, Musk’s views are reliably conservative, with a focus on social and cultural issues that’s only escalated since his decision to buy Twitter. Last year, Musk explicitly said that he planned to support DeSantis’s potential bid for the presidency, calling him a “sensible and centrist” choice. Musk previously encouraged his 140 million followers to vote for Republicans in 2022’s midterm elections.
“Our southern borders collapse, drugs are pouring into the country, our cities are being hollowed out by spiking crime… and our president, [who] lacks vigor, flounders in the face of our nation’s challenges and he takes his cues from the woke mob,” DeSantis declared in his stump speech, delivered on a back-up Twitter Space to a diminished audience.
Musk has increasingly aligned himself with the political right, including at times its more dangerous, conspiracy-fueled fringes. Just this month, Musk propagated the lie that the mass shooter who killed eight people in a Dallas area shopping mall this month was being framed as a white supremacist. In fact, as researchers confirmed, the gunman sported at least two overt Nazi symbols as tattoos, including an SS sign and a swastika, and espoused white supremacist beliefs online.
Florida’s governor and Twitter’s new owner share plenty of ideological territory. Both Musk and DeSantis — Florida’s self-styled “anti-woke” governor — obsessively tilt at their ideological enemies (the woke mob or the “woke mind virus” in Musk’s parlance). Musk has gone out of his way to relax enforcement and lift the guardrails that once protected vulnerable groups like Black users and the LGBTQ community on Twitter, while DeSantis is systematically dismantling any protections that queer and transgender Floridians once enjoyed and blocking education around Black history. (Things are so rough in the Sunshine State that both the NAACP and Human Rights Campaign recently issued travel advisories.) Both DeSantis and Musk hold particular ire for the transgender community, which they regularly express by wielding political power in their respective domains.
The Twitter Space with Florida’s newly minted presidential hopeful isn’t the only sign that Twitter is entering a new era. When shakeups at Fox News ousted longtime top host Tucker Carlson, he quickly announced that his show would be reinvented for Musk’s new incarnation of Twitter. DeSantis’s Twitter moment also signals that the social platform is now a home to the kinds of conservative political moments that once unfolded on Fox News. It’s also a sign that Twitter might not be the social nexus for Trump’s base that it once was, even after Musk extended a warm welcome to the former president.
Twitter and Trump
The Florida governor’s decision to informally kick off his campaign on Twitter, rocky as it was, is the latest sign that the social platform is evolving into something quite different than what came before. For years, Twitter as a platform was synonymous with Trump — slated to be his main opponent in the race for the 2024 Republican nomination.
The former president, who first secured the Republican nomination in 2016, at times tweeted upwards of 50 times a day. That hyperactive Twitter presence defined his presidency, as did his trademark style of erratic capitalization and inscrutable typos (one covfefe please, milk no sugar). After breaking the platform’s rules for years, Trump was eventually booted off Twitter permanently in 2021 for his role in encouraging the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Since then, Trump has mostly been relegated to the outskirts of mainstream social media. Meanwhile, Twitter itself has undergone a transformation that in some ways aligns it politically more than ever with the former president, even as Musk seeks to elevate DeSantis.
Trump’s Twitter fate shifted when Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk decided to take the helm at the company, purchasing it for $44 billion in October of last year. Musk, who governed Twitter policy for months based on his own whims and political preferences, lifted Trump’s ban shortly after taking over. But Trump has remained silent on the platform where he previously spent hours each day, likely because he’s still tied up with Truth Social, the alternative app branded with his name. Trump meanwhile is attacking his new opponent and stirring aging election conspiracies over there instead.
Twitter has transformed rapidly under Musk’s chaotic tutelage. The takeover gutted Twitter’s workforce, left the platform’s existing moderation and safety practices in shambles and drove away a hefty chunk of users and advertisers with no interest in an even more toxic version of the notoriously toxic social network. Twitter alternatives have cropped up and modestly flourished in the months since Musk took the helm, siphoning off former Twitter power users in the process. It’s not clear if the company plans to backtrack on any Musk-era decisions when Twitter’s new ad-savvy CEO, NBCUniversal’s Linda Yaccarino, takes the top job. It’s more likely that Musk’s Twitter will lean further into its new thing — and we’re seeing whatever that is coalesce in real time.