Every corner of the internet is trying to figure out what happens when Twitter gets Musk-ified.
The shortform social media platform has agreed to sell itself to the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, an avid user of the site (with more than 83 million followers) and one of its staunchest critics.
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Importantly, the pending deal has revived concerns about how the billionaire’s free-speech absolutism could affect Twitter’s policy on misinformation and hate speech. That includes whether Musk would rescind the site’s ban on former president Donald Trump.
Grid breaks down key questions around the potential purchase.
Why is Musk doing this?
The billionaire has been open about the fact that his desire to purchase Twitter isn’t about the economics — it’s about influence.
“This is not a way to make money,” said Musk, speaking at TED 2022 on April 14. “It is just my strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization. I don’t care about the economics at all.”
Musk’s plan is to take the company private — giving him incredible power over Twitter because it will allow him to roll out products quickly, make decisions with less scrutiny and overall operate with less transparency than a publicly traded firm.
It could also benefit his other business interests, including Tesla and SpaceX.
“Musk has done very well using Twitter to help build the other brands he owns,” said Aron Solomon, chief legal analyst at Esquire Digital. “He thinks he can do both here — continue to use Twitter to support Tesla, SpaceX and the like as well as do something that by [Twitter founder and former CEO] Jack Dorsey’s own admission last week hasn’t been done, which is take Twitter to the next level as a business.”
That could signal a new phase of Musk’s life as a public figure, one in which he is less of a barrier-breaking entrepreneur and more of a wealthy man harnessing the power of media to extend his impact on society.
Even before he launched his bid for Twitter, Musk’s tweets often generated their own news cycles. Now, as he prepares to take control of the company, he’s solidifying his hold on a site that has helped him build his public persona and that wields outsized influence worldwide.
Why is Twitter doing this?
Musk’s offer of $54.20 per share is below Twitter’s highest closing share price of the past year — $71.69, from last July. But Twitter’s acceptance of the offer suggests the company’s board doesn’t think there’s a reasonable expectation the share will trade that high again anytime soon. When Musk started buying Twitter stock in January, the company was trading at $36.82; it fell as low as $32.42 in early March.
The potentially imminent deal also illustrates how meme stocks, which Musk has been a fan of, and economic reality are becoming further muddled.
Is buying Twitter a good idea?
Despite Musk’s apparent enthusiasm, the free-speech maximalist may not be prepared for the challenges of moderating content across the world.
Musk has expressed his distaste for permanent Twitter bans, of the sort levied on Trump, and called for the company to err on the side of leaving up tweets in the name of free speech rather than taking down those that violate the site’s content policies. But implementing that freewheeling approach would require reckoning with the patchwork of different laws and cultural attitudes toward free speech around the world.
“Elon Musk is not the first influential person who has notions of free speech that quickly run into the reality that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all across the world,” said Ángel Díaz, a lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law who has written reports on content moderation and marginalized communities.
Will Musk let Trump back on Twitter? What effect could this have on access to misinformation?
One of the most consequential decisions Musk could make would be to let Trump back on Twitter — if he wants to return.
Twitter has spent more resources to moderate its users in recent years than have other social media companies. The company’s decision to ban Trump last year — on the grounds that the then-president had glorified violence in the wake of the 2020 election — angered Trump. It also drove some conservatives to less-regulated platforms like Telegram and Parler.
Social media experts say that Musk’s focus on preserving free speech over moderating potentially harmful posts could very well mean a return of controversial right-wing figures like Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to the platform.
The billionaire has doubled down on that rhetoric in recent weeks. “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy,” Musk tweeted in March. “Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” (More than 2 million people responded, and 70 percent answered no.)
“Musk has spoken out about the need for free speech on these platforms, and that indicates to a lot of us that he is likely to outright reverse decisions about who can use Twitter,” said Samuel Woolley, media professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Other tech company leaders can, and do, run their platforms as if they’re monarchies.”
Twitter has banned a long list of accounts in recent years aside from Trump: Thousands of users linked to the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, right-wing stars like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, and users who spread misinformation about covid-19. Last year, the company rooted out a series of fake accounts posing as anti-union Amazon warehouse workers. In 2016, it banned ’00s reality star Tila Tequila, who had (among other infractions) posted a photo of herself doing a Nazi salute.
What about Trump’s social media app, Truth Social?
Trump and associates have been working to launch a media conglomerate that features a social media app, Truth Social. Shares in a special purpose acquisition company set up to buy the new company fell on Monday after news broke that Musk planned to purchase Twitter, a sign that investors see Trump’s nascent platform and Musk’s Twitter in potential competition.
While the former president regaining his most infamous platform would be a watershed moment in American politics, and not least the 2024 presidential election, it would also be an awkward fit with his own existing business plans.
Neither company responded to a request for comment.
Investors in Digital World Acquisition Corp. have been unhappy with the performance of their future business partner. The SPAC’s stock price has fallen by almost two-thirds since late February, from a high of more than $97 to around $34 Monday.
Digital World has a September deadline for its merger with Trump Media & Technology; it can extend that for another year, or dissolve and redistribute the money it has raised. But the company faces problems beyond any complications related to Musk’s Twitter purchase.
Did the media learn its lesson on covering Trump’s tweets?
The prospect of Musk’s purchase of Twitter on Monday brought with it renewed debate over Trump’s role on the platform. One question now is how journalists would handle any return by Trump to Twitter.
Many observers on Monday expressed fears that Trump’s return to Twitter would bring about a return of similar patterns of outrageous and offensive tweets — often followed by expressions of outrage and fact-checking by journalists and others that inadvertently amplified the original tweet.
Despite concern over Trump’s possible return to the platform, some commentators say he will remain a force regardless of his presence on Twitter.
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