Finding $44 billion to buy Twitter was the easy part for Elon Musk.
Then comes the real challenge for the world’s richest person: delivering on his promise to make Twitter “better than ever” a lightly regulated haven for free speech.
His vision for improving the 16-year-old company relies heavily on a commitment to speak “as freely as reasonably possible” on the platform – a commitment that has been celebrated by the political right and among supporters of former President Donald Trump, whose account last year was permanently banned. For others concerned that Musk is giving free rein to agitators spouting hate, lies and other harmful content, making the platform too toxic for advertisers and average users, Musk offered few guarantees.
“The extreme antibody reaction from those fearful of free speech speaks volumes,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
Many of Musk’s proposed changes reflect his own experience as a high profile, outspoken Twitter user with more than 85 million followers and a swarm of pesky impersonator accounts that use his name and photo to promote security systems. cryptocurrency. The statement announcing its acquisition of Twitter on Monday highlighted the need to defeat “spam bots” that imitate real users.
But what about the more than 200 million other Twitter users who aren’t banned or inundated with spam? There is still a lot of uncertainty as to whether his ideas are technologically feasible and whether these changes would benefit most regular users or serve other purposes.
“He’s made it clear he’s not interested in making Twitter a profitable business,” said Joan Donovan, who studies disinformation at Harvard University. “It’s about the power and influence of Twitter itself and its importance in our culture.”
Experts who have studied content moderation and researched Twitter for years have expressed doubts that Musk knows exactly what he’s getting into. And some of the issues he identified aren’t felt by most users.
“Spambots, to him, are very visible and somewhat personal,” Donovan said. “Most people don’t see many of these spam accounts.”
And for those who aren’t happy with the company’s crackdown on hate, harassment, and misinformation, there are many nascent examples of “free speech”-focused social media platforms that have been launched these days. years as antidotes to Twitter, largely by conservatives. Many have struggled to deal with the toxic content, and at least one has been cut by its own tech vendors in protest.
“This decision shows how effective (the moderation functions) have been in annoying those in power,” said Kirsten Martin, professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame. “I would be concerned about how this would change Twitter’s values.”
The fact that no other bidders had emerged in public before Musk’s deal was a sign that other potential acquirers might find Twitter too difficult to improve, said Third Bridge analyst Scott Kessler.
“This platform is pretty much the same as what we’ve had for the last decade,” Kessler said. “You’ve had a lot of smart people trying to figure out what they should be doing, and they’ve had issues. It’s probably going to be tough to make a lot of progress.
Musk received an effusive, if very abstract, endorsement from Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, who praised Musk’s decision to take on Twitter” back from Wall Street and tweeted that he trusted Musk’s mission to ” expand the light of consciousness — a reference to Dorsey’s notion that “Twitter is the closest we have to a global consciousness.”
But other people familiar with Twitter say they are dismayed by Musk’s successful bid for the company.
“Twitter is going to let a man-child take over their platform,” said Leslie Miley, a former Twitter employee who also worked for Google and Apple. Miley, who was Twitter’s only black engineer in a senior role when he left the company in 2015, echoed doubts about Musk’s understanding of the platform’s complexities.
“I don’t know if Elon knows what he’s getting,” Miley said. “He may just find that having Twitter is very different from wanting Twitter.”
The more hands-off approach to content moderation envisioned by Musk has many users worried that the platform could resuscitate accounts that have spread dangerous conspiracies and harassment.
Wall Street analysts said going too far could also alienate advertisers – Twitter’s main source of revenue. And that could make it harder to retain the San Francisco-based company’s more than 7,500 employees, some of whom are already expressing concerns about the possibility of a rollback in content standards.
In Europe, officials reminded Musk of a new law, the Digital Services Act, which will require tech companies to step up surveillance of their online platforms.
“Whether it’s cars or social media, any company operating in Europe must comply with our rules – whatever their involvement,” tweeted Thierry Breton, the European Union’s commissioner in charge of the internal market. of the block. “Mr Musk knows this well. He is familiar with the European automotive rules and will adapt quickly to the Digital Services Act.
Musk’s takeover is not yet complete and is still awaiting approval from a majority of Twitter shareholders. Twitter had previously scheduled its annual shareholder meeting for May 25, but a regulatory filing on Tuesday said the company would call a special meeting “as soon as reasonably possible.”
According to Charles Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, while there are likely hurdles along the way, there don’t appear to be any obstacles serious enough to stop the deal.
Twitter or Musk can walk away from the deal if it’s not completed by October 24, but if Musk or Twitter are found to be at fault for the deal’s failure, they’ll have to pay a $1 termination fee. billion, according to details of the transaction contained in a regulatory filing released Tuesday. The filing also showed that Twitter will drop a “poison pill” measure it previously adopted to defend against Musk’s takeover by making it prohibitively expensive.
Normally, when companies go private, dissident shareholders are forcibly cashed in. Some might challenge the stock price in court, saying Musk should pay more, but that likely won’t delay the sale, Elson said.
It is likely that Musk would disband the current board and replace it with a new one that agrees with his management direction. And once Twitter is private, Musk will face less backlash from shareholders who often file lawsuits, Elson said. Private companies also don’t come under scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has been a finger in Musk’s eye for years, often because of statements he’s made. on Twitter.
On Tuesday, shares of Twitter were trading just under $50, below the purchase price of $54.20. Twitter will offer insight into the health of its business when it releases its quarterly financial results on Thursday.
Twitter voters aren’t the only ones worried about Musk’s $44 billion investment.
Shares of Musk’s electric car company Tesla have lost about 19% of their value since Musk announced his Twitter stake, including a decline of about 12% on Tuesday. Analysts say investors fear Musk will be distracted by the social media company and less engaged in running Tesla.
“He’s going to spend more time with another company,” Edward Jones senior equity analyst Jeff Windau said of Musk, who also runs SpaceX, tunneling The Boring Co. and Neuralink. a computer-brain interface company. “There is a potential limit to the amount of bandwidth you can apply to each of these businesses.”
Krisher reported from Detroit. O’Brien reported from Providence, Rhode Island. AP writers Barbara Ortutay in Oakland, California, Kelvin Chan in London and Sam Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.