Elon Musk watchers are no strangers to Twitter controversies. His online missives have skyrocketed and tanked the value of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and dogecoin. The SpaceX founder’s tweet referring to a British caver involved in saving Thai schoolboys as “pedo guy” forced Musk to fight back and win a defamation lawsuit. Then, of course, there’s that time he used his online presence to suggest he’d take Tesla private at $420 – a reference to the weed-smoking culture. The stunt landed him an US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation and a $40m settlement. But even with all those antics in mind, the saga of Musk buying Twitter is a corker.
The three weeks leading up to the announcement that the Boring Company founder will buy Twitter for $44bn have been rife with twists and turns. It started in early April when he announced he’d bought 9.2% of Twitter stock.
Twitter expected him to join the company board after becoming the company’s biggest shareholder. Musk torpedoed that expectation just days later, saying he wouldn’t join after all. Analysts noted that declining to join the board would empower Musk to buy a bigger stake if he wanted. Being on a board means you have responsibilities to shareholders that not being on one doesn’t.
This sent the rumour mill spinning. Whispers suggested a hostile takeover was in the works. They were soon confirmed.
On 14 April, Musk officially announced that he had offered to buy Twitter. He included a link to his filing with the SEC. The tech tycoon said he’d buy the social media platform for $54.20 per share. Eagle-eyed followers noted that the figure included the number “420” that has landed him in hot water with the SEC in the past.
The news broke on Monday 26 April that the Twitter board had accepted his offer. The deal is set to be completed in six months. It is pending regulatory approval.
Pundits have not been resting on their laurels despite no one seemingly knowing what will happen once the deal has been completed. Even the current Twitter leadership seems uncertain.
“Once the deal closes, we don’t know what direction this company will go in,” Parag Agrawal, who was appointed as Twitter’s CEO when founder Jack Dorsey stepped down in November 2021, said according to The New York Times when addressing employees’ concerns about their future.
Twitter chairman Bret Taylor has confirmed that the board will dissolve once the acquisition is finalised, Engadget reported.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk himself said in a statement. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
This uncertainty hasn’t prevented people from inking long declarations and pressing warnings about the future. Pundits have flooded Twitter, broadsheets and blogs with hot takes on what the Musk deal will mean for the social media platform, freedom of speech and the broader Musk ecosystem. So what have they been saying?
Everyone has an opinion about Elon Musk buying Twitter
There has been a plethora of comments on the news that Musk will buy Twitter. Most of them are either welcoming the self-proclaimed free speech absolutist’s purchase of the platform or voiced concerns about things to come.
Politicians have not stayed tight-lipped. US President Joe Biden’s spokesperson has said he’s been “concerned about the power of large social media platforms” for some time, no matter who owns them. Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren has labelled the deal as a danger “for our democracy.”
Republicans, on the other hand, have welcomed the plans to take Twitter private, believing it would put an end to what they see as an anti-conservative bias on the platform, Yahoo reported.
“This is a great day to be conservative on Twitter,” senator Marsha Blackburn tweeted, adding: “Elon Musk buying Twitter terrifies the left because they don’t want their power to censor conservatives threatened.”
Not everyone is equally thrilled about the prospect of a Musk-owned social media platform.
Human rights groups have warned that ditching moderation could lead to a surge in hate speech, as reported by the BBC. Others have asked if the takeover will mean that suspended accounts – such as the one belonging to ousted US President Donald Trump – could be welcomed back. Trump has rejected a return to Twitter, instead planning to join his own struggling platform TRUTH.
Users have quit Twitter in droves, or at least said they will, in reaction to the news. The Good Place actor Jameela Jamil is among the users abandoning their accounts.
“I fear that this free speech bid is going to help this hell platform reach its final form of totally lawless hate, bigotry, and misogyny,” Jamil tweeted before departing the platform.
People announcing they will quit Twitter is nothing new. Users have threatened with a mass exodus many times over the years. Many of them usually return some time later.
Digital Rights Watch chair Lizzie O’Shea told The Guardian that the Australian lobby group is concerned with the takeover.
“While free speech is important, you have to account for asymmetries of power and other barriers that stop people from speaking freely,” O’Shea said.
“Musk’s style of free speech absolutism will tilt the scales in favour of the rich and powerful who can silence or bully critics. What Musk really seems to want is freedom from accountability.
“Musk’s proposed approach to content moderation will likely make Twitter a less safe place for many people to speak freely while allowing powerful disinformation and propaganda campaigns to spread unchecked.”
Not unheard of
The question on everyone’s lips seems to be “what’s next?”
“Will Elon be able to take Twitter to the moon?” Lil Read, senior analyst at research firm GlobalData, tells Verdict. “He tried with dogecoin, but doing it for a social media platform that requires balancing content moderation with free speech will take more than a few tweets.”
That being said, she notes that it’s hardly unheard of for “tech moguls” to “promote their world views by owning media outlets.
“Jeff Bezos acquired The Washington Post in 2013,” Read continues. “Jack Ma bought the South China Morning Post in 2016. In 2022, Elon is following in these footsteps by buying Twitter – but his path is less well-trodden.
“Though the jury is still out on whether the social media platform is more social or more media, there is no doubt that he will come up against regulatory hurdles surrounding content moderation online. Even in the digital town square, there are rules. Elon has done amazing things at Tesla.
“However, overcoming immense battery chemistry challenges may prove to be child’s play when faced with the harsh realities of online content moderation, which can involve things that would have people imprisoned in an actual town square.”
While things are still up in the air at Twitter, one thing is certain: whatever Musk decides to do next: people will have an opinion about it.
GlobalData is the parent company of Verdict and its sister publications.