The Media Today

The limits of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover

April 26, 2022
Elon Musk's Twitter profile displayed on a screen and reflected Twitter logo displayed on a phone screen are seen in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on April 14, 2022. (Photo illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via AP)

Look, I did say “maybe.” On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal was first to report that Twitter—having initially appeared to balk at a takeover bid from Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, that itself followed weeks of tedious horseplay around his intentions as an investor and whether or not he’d take a board seat—was now strongly considering his bid and that a deal could be finalized within the week, though we were warned that it could still fall apart. Some twenty-four hours later, a deal was done at a value of around forty-four billion dollars, pending a shareholder vote and regulatory approval. Bret Taylor, who chairs Twitter’s board, said that “the proposed transaction will deliver a substantial cash premium, and we believe it is the best path forward for Twitter’s stockholders.” Musk called Twitter “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” adding, “🚀💫♥️ Yesss!!! ♥️💫🚀.”

The deal raised a big and obvious question: What does it mean for Twitter? Staffers at the company were among those seeking answers yesterday, having been kept largely in the dark as talks went on behind the scenes. According to Platformer’s Casey Newton, the hours before the deal was announced were like “a classroom where the teacher is late and students are attempting to self-govern,” with not much work getting done; after the announcement, Taylor and Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s CEO, met with staff and offered some assurances about stock options (will convert to cash) and layoffs (none planned for now), though Agrawal also acknowledged that he isn’t sure where Twitter is headed, and deferred to Musk on several key points. A source told Talmon Joseph Smith, of the New York Times, that message boards for Twitter staff went “absolutely insane” yesterday; the Journal’s Salvador Rodriguez and Deepa Seetharaman reported that some staffers pledged to resign, while many raised concerns about Musk’s impact on internal diversity efforts, especially given that Tesla, his car company, has been sued for (allegedly rampant) racial discrimination. Some staffers seem excited about the takeover, but it’s hard to tell how many. Per Bloomberg, bosses moved to block staffers from making any unapproved product changes for now, lest a disgruntled employee “go rogue.”

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Twitter users sought answers, too, when they weren’t offering up their own theories and visions of the platform’s Muskian future. Many of the latter, particularly among liberal users, were hellish. Numerous users pledged to delete their accounts, in protest and/or to stop Musk getting their personal data (not that this would work, necessarily). The journalist Melissa Chan asked what Musk might do, given Tesla’s interests in China, should the government there ask him to silence dissidents on the platform; by the end of the day, Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post and founder of Amazon, had chimed in, asking, “Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?” Erika D. Smith, a columnist at the LA Times, predicted that Musk’s takeover would mark the end of #BlackTwitter as an online community mobilizing for real-world change. “The founder of a company that California is suing for allegedly silencing thousands of Black employees who complained about racism,” she noted, “is buying a company that has given millions of Black people a megaphone-like voice to complain about racism.”

Ultimately, we don’t yet know the direction in which Musk will take Twitter. We do have some concrete clues to work with, though not many. Since before Musk made his investment in Twitter a few weeks ago, he has framed his interest in the company squarely in terms of free speech, and he did so again yesterday; more (though not much more) specifically, he promised to open Twitter’s algorithms to the public “to increase trust,” crack down on spam bots, and authenticate all human accounts. (“I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter,” he said separately, “because that is what free speech means.”) Musk has yet to answer another consequential question—whether he plans to reinstate the account of Donald Trump, who was banned last year following the insurrection—though Trump claimed yesterday that he wouldn’t return to Twitter even if invited, preferring instead to stick with his beleaguered Twitter knockoff, Truth Social.

Musk, of course, is notoriously trollish and erratic, and Trump is notoriously dishonest, making it perilous to take the things either man says at face value. Trump’s claim that he wouldn’t jump at the chance to return to Twitter, in particular, strikes me as protesting too much; Musk, for his part, is a free-speech absolutist more in theory than in practice, making it implausible, as both I and my colleague Mathew Ingram have written in recent editions of this newsletter, that he wouldn’t draw some significant lines around speech on the platform. Even taken at face value, Musk’s proposals invite skepticism. Authenticating accounts is a fraught proposition that risks unmasking users who have good reason to want to stay anonymous (at the very least, such users might fear being unmasked, and stay away) and neglecting the ways in which bots can be a form of speech. Algorithmic transparency and reform, meanwhile, is a knotty, time-consuming business. “It’s not nearly the funniest part of the list of things he intends on doing,” The Verge’s Sarah Jeong argued, “but ‘making the algorithms open source’ and ‘defeating the spam bots’ are goals that work against each other.”

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This leads to an important point: even as critics paint Musk as a maniacal and unpredictable trickster god, we already know that his intentions for Twitter, whatever they may be, will run up against limits. Even the world’s richest man is bound by the laws of logic (money can’t reconcile fundamentally contradictory imperatives), business economics (even if making money from Twitter isn’t his priority, he can’t run it as a total commercial dumpster fire), and, at least sometimes, the actual law (not least in Europe, which just agreed on new measures expanding digital platforms’ duties around the moderation of content). Twitter can’t run itself without employees who know what they’re doing. And it wouldn’t be anything without users. It is, ultimately, not in Musk’s interest to make Twitter so horrible that people simply quit en masse, even if he rationalizes any mass defection as the snowflakes getting mad at free speech. As I see it, you can have a truly maximalist view of online speech or you can be the town square, but you can’t do both. If you can’t enter the square without witnessing a beheading, say, lots of people will just stay home.

This isn’t to say that Musk won’t necessarily make Twitter (even more) horrible, and there are ample reasons to be concerned about his takeover, as Ingram and I wrote before. By taking Twitter private, Musk can make its practices (even more) opaque. His approach to content moderation, as currently stated, would surely unchain (even more) abuse and harassment, aimed particularly at women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other groups—and whenever such voices conclude that a space is too toxic for them to stay, free speech suffers. It would also further corrode public discourse, and Twitter’s role there really matters, even though it’s smaller than Facebook and other rivals. As I wrote recently, things that are said on the platform often spill over into “real world” corridors of power. Whatever you think of it philosophically, reversing the Trump ban would clearly have a significant impact on his ability to amplify his message.

Still, we should be careful, again, not to overstate these concerns. As my even mores above suggest, pre-Musk Twitter is hardly a paragon of respectful, well-policed discourse; indeed, Musk’s politics, while hard to pin down, don’t seem radically different from those of the people who have run Twitter before. (Kara Swisher, of the Times, reckons that Twitter’s current leadership would probably have let Trump back on anyway, even absent Musk’s input.) As numerous observers have noted, prior leaders’ lofty visions of no-limits free-speech utopianism ran into reality, and so will Musk’s. And, again, users will continue to have power here; Trump returning, for instance, will only lead to his tweets driving the news cycle again if journalists decide that his tweets should drive the news cycle. The internet expert Joan Donovan tweeted yesterday that Trump returning would “open the door for a viable 2024 run.” That door is wide open already.

If Twitter discourse can spill over into the worlds of politics and media, then it logically follows not only that Twitter is powerful, but that the real “town square” must be much bigger than Twitter. In the end, the metaphor, to the extent that it’s useful here, implies a dynamic that has always been fundamental to political speech and the debates around it: that the rules and physical layout of the square are hugely important, but the real town square lives in the people who populate it.

As far as the former goes, our collective problems are much bigger than Musk alone; he may be a sui generis and, in some ways, uniquely zany character, but he operates within a much broader system that gives billionaires outsize power to shape the rules of speech. (It is, quite literally, rich for Bezos to raise questions about leveraging the town square.) Ironically, it is precisely Musk’s unique zaniness, and the exaggerated outcry around his takeover, that could, as my Columbia colleague Emily Bell noted yesterday, prove a trigger for lawmakers to better regulate the ownership of the platforms that set the rules. Then again, that’s another maybe.

Below, more on Musk and Twitter:

  • The business side: While Twitter is “an influential platform that sets the agenda for many in business, politics and society,” Jason Karaian writes for the Times, “as a business, it’s a sporadically profitable company with unpredictable cash flow”; the company will report its first-quarter earnings on Thursday, and is expected “to have generated a profit of nearly $40 million on $1.2 billion in revenue”—down on its first-quarter profit last year. Musk recently said that he doesn’t care “at all” about the economics of Twitter, but as Newton writes, “given the way he structured his Twitter deal, he will face pressure (if not insurmountable pressure) to see a return on his investment.”
  • The real estate side: The San Francisco Chronicle’s Roland Li asks what Musk’s takeover might mean for the city where Twitter is currently headquartered. “There was speculation on social media that Twitter’s headquarters could move out of state, following Musk’s relocation last year of Tesla from Palo Alto to Austin, Texas, where it’s building what it calls a Gigafactory,” Li notes, with Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, already calling for such a move. The tech analyst Dan Ives told Li, however, that he views relocation as unlikely. San Francisco is “a core part of Twitter and its DNA,” Ives said. “Musk will view that presence as a key asset, not liability.”
  • The “town square” side: In a Twitter thread yesterday, Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, wrote that he has “no idea what Twitter will be like under Elon’s leadership and neither do you. But that’s the point.” We do know, he said, that “two billionaires will now control four of the major digital public sphere platforms,” a reference to Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. “It’s embarrassing that we’ve been willing to have our public, civic conversations on platforms controlled by corporate boards. Musk’s purchase of Twitter just makes that absurdity even more apparent.”
  • The Europe side: Daphne Keller, of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, argued yesterday that since “anyone who tells you they know what Elon will do is lying,” we may as well all focus on “a more knowable, and massively important, development”: the new platform regulations in Europe. The regulations will “spell out specific operational obligations, mostly related to content moderation,” Keller writes. “These rules make it relatively clear what platforms are supposed to do, but they will require significant time and effort for smaller entities to hire, train, devise new UIs, and so forth to come into compliance.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.