The public square of the Internet has rarely been so divided


TWITTER.COM now rests in the hands of Elon Musk, business magnate and “free speech absolutist”.

Barring an unforeseen hiccup or a sudden change of heart, famed mercurialist Musk will acquire Twitter this year in a $44 billion takeover deal, in what is considered one of the largest private takeovers ever recorded.

It’s a pivotal moment in a gripping saga that has seen Musk question Twitter’s commitment to free speech, become the company’s majority shareholder, make statements about developing a rival social media platform and ultimately turned down a board seat in its quest to acquire 100% of Twitter. shares. In a deal that has yet to be approved by shareholders, it will be subject to regulatory review.

It’s unclear exactly what changed at Twitter Towers, given that the board initially instituted a “poison pill” measure in response to Musk’s buyout plan, only to reverse its decision and hand over the keys to the richest person in the world.

Perhaps most disconcerting is how quickly the takeover bid happened, which seems oddly appropriate for a platform where the original defining feature was fast SMS-like communication in 140 characters or less.

Announcing the news, Elon Musk proclaimed his desire to promote the “place of the digital city where vital questions for the future of humanity are debated”, before redoubled his efforts on Twitter to become an international forum for freedom of speech. These lofty statements preceded a series of vague promises, including verifying all human users and distancing Twitter’s activities from advertising.

That’s no small feat, considering that advertising accounted for $1.1 billion of the company’s $1.2 billion in revenue – seemingly all of it – in the first three months of 2022. How, exactly, Musk intends to balance his vision of Twitter as a free-speech haven with the business dealings that keep the lights on is, fundamentally, the billion-dollar question. which may well shape the future of the platform.

Throughout its history, Twitter has always struggled with profitability. It’s less of a social media giant in terms of financial returns and more of a cornerstone of the online ecosystem with a huge cultural cache.

A civil discourse platform, albeit with a relatively low number of daily active users – 216 million, as of April this year – compared to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and certified newbie on the block, TikTok.

The conundrum of how to increase Twitter’s fortunes won’t be solved overnight, and Elon Musk’s cavalier attitude toward publicity will certainly not inspire confidence in Twitter’s inner circles. Still, he himself admitted the acquisition wasn’t about economics, partly explaining his decision to shell out $44 billion for a company valued at almost half that figure just a short time ago. three months.

It also partly explains why he brokered a deal to take over Twitter when others — namely Disney, Google and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg — walked away from the table. It’s the action of a playful and sometimes brash billionaire for whom Twittering has been a constant throughout a career of very public ups and downs. Presiding over his more than 90 million followers, Musk typically tweets up to 10 times a day, and it’s in this rapid stream of consciousness that many have found cause for concern. And rightly so.

Sharing memes and ruminating on American politics is one thing, but Musk’s presence on Twitter has also plunged him into murky waters both in an official capacity and in the court of public opinion. We’ve seen firsthand how one man’s hubris has financial implications on some of the world’s biggest companies in real time. And it often starts with a tweet.

2018 was a particularly trying year for the volatile visionary. Excessive automation at Tesla slowed Model 3 production, an error in judgment that Musk later admitted was his own. Yet it was the SEC’s decision to sue Musk for misleading investors, an allegation stemming from a barbed @elonmusk tweet, that ultimately led to his resignation as Tesla chairman.

It’s no wonder, then, that there is now a palpable sense of uncertainty clouding Twitter’s 2022 takeover, even within the company itself. Just last week, CEO Parag Agrawal told the company’s more than 7,000 employees that “we don’t know where this company will go” if Musk’s takeover is fully consummated. If the founder of Tesla were to privatize the company and remove it from any potential shareholder control, then who will hold power responsible?

Twitter has arguably been one of the most morally grounded social platforms over the years, ready to draw lines where others don’t. In its most famous example, removing then-President Donald Trump from service in January 2021.

Will these principles be eroded in Elon Musk’s quest for “absolute” freedom of expression? Should Twitter talk really be at the mercy of a multi-billionaire with a history of rash statements? And how will advertisers react to the rumblings of relaxed content moderation and “low cost” for commercial and government users?

The drama inherent in Elon Musk’s modus operandi means few can predict what he will do next. One thing is certain: he is likely to tear the pages of the buyout manual.

:: Claire Aiken is the managing director of public relations and public affairs firm Aiken

:: Next week: Richard Ramsey


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