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Inside Twitter, employees reckon with Trump

Inside Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco, the run-up to the U.S. presidential election played out much as it did elsewhere. Most employees went about their business assuming Hillary Clinton would win, and Donald Trump would be relegated to a historical footnote. His antics on the platform, where he regularly barrages opponents with insults, were viewed largely with amusement.

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"The political climate then was still pretty giddy about Trump and how he's a total joke," said one employee who quit late last spring. But Trump's surprise win prompted soul-searching for many of Twitter's 3,800 employees. "Fast-forward to the day after election," the former employee said. "I could feel it in my timeline — there was a strong sense of 'what have we done' from Twitter employees."

On one hand, Trump has arguably been a gift to Twitter. His regular outbursts have put the struggling company at the center of the daily news cycle, drawing outsized attention to the product at a time when it is struggling to grow. And Trump's willingness to tweet about nearly any topic has given the world a valuable, if not entirely coherent, window into the president-elect's views.

At the same time, Trump's tweets have drawn criticism for the way they have sent certain stock prices tumbling, and ratcheting up tensions with foreign governments. (Trump's Twitter account might also be a national security problem.) Twitter has also been accused of empowering white supremacist trolls in the wake of Trump's electoral win.

Yesterday, in an interview with The New York Times, investor Peter Thiel mocked Twitter employees for what he described as their unwitting contribution to Trump's victory. "I think the crazy thing is, at a place like Twitter, they were all working for Trump this whole year even though they thought they were working for Sanders."

That tension puts Twitter employees in an awkward position: their efforts have bolstered a politician that some of them find odious, and his use of the platform carries a real risk of harm. And yet thanks largely to his victory, Twitter has never been such a vital source of news and conversation. The conflict is felt at the highest levels of the company — last month, in a conversation with Recode, CEO Jack Dorsey said his thoughts on the subject were "complicated."

"Twitter helped in promoting Trump," Twitter engineer Marina Zhao tweeted. "Twitter helped in spreading falsehoods and lies." "And refused to do anything about blatant Naziism," responded Michael Farrell, a designer who left the company in 2015. "They stated they wouldn't take action until after the election. Disgusting."

In the weeks leading up to Trump's inauguration, that debate has only intensified. Some of Trump's tweets, notably his erratic tweets about nuclear policy, have generated calls for Twitter to ban the president-elect from the platform. Those discussions are now taking place inside Twitter as well, a current employee familiar with the matter told The Verge. "Banning is definitely a conversation that people are having, but only because we have to have the conversation," the employee said. But a ban seems unlikely, this person said. "It would take something really deplorable for a ban, and I highly doubt even Trump is that stupid."

Twitter declined to comment for this story, but a spokesman noted that Twitter's rules "apply to all accounts." Still, one former employee who has participated in discussions about the company's abuse policies said that a ban would be unimaginable. "It's not gonna happen," the former employee said. "You just can't do it. He holds the most powerful office in the world. Would you rather not know what Trump was thinking at any given point? Knowledge is usually better than lack of knowledge."

Twitter was prominently omitted from the list of tech companies invited to meet with Trump last month. But representatives from Twitter met this week with Dan Scavino, Trump's director of social media, and it appeared to go well. "Great meeting @TwitterDC!" Scavino tweeted. "We look forward to working with you!"

Even as employees lament the role their platform played in Trump's rise, they acknowledge that in some ways he has been good for the company. Twitter was designed to let users communicate directly with a large audience; that the most powerful man in the world does so would seem to speak well of the product. "It's nice to feel like Twitter is doing what it was meant to do, i.e., bring news from the horse's mouth," one employee said. "Unfortunately, that horse is Trump."

Conversely, Trump leaving Twitter would bode ill for the company, employees said. Were Trump to shift the bulk of his posts to Facebook or Snapchat, outsiders would likely take it as a sign that Twitter was on the wane. "That would be an even worse predicament for the company than the one they face now," an employee who left this summer said.

Twitter employees also noted that the platform has been a tool for liberal organizing just as much as it has been a megaphone for Trump supporters. The company has long taken pride in the way democratic protesters used it during the Arab Spring, and at one point it had a #BlackLivesMatter hashtag painted outside its cafeteria. Twitter is likely to serve as a tool for resistance at the same time it serves as a platform to promote Trump's agenda.

"Now the tenor has shifted to, you know how we've talked internally about how Twitter is a tool of dissidence and rebellion, and keeping governments accountable? Now this plays a little more critical role in the domestic side of things," one former employee said. "That's the role our platform plays. The same way it was vital in the Arab Spring, Twitter will play that same vital role in the United States."