Home / World News / Opinion | How Elon Musk’s ‘Soft Power’ Might Shape Twitter’s Future

Opinion | How Elon Musk’s ‘Soft Power’ Might Shape Twitter’s Future

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(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” If you live under a rock, you might not have heard that Twitter has a new board member and largest shareholder, Elon Musk. On Monday, news broke that the richest man in the world now owns 9.2 percent of the company. That sent Twitter’s typically moribund shares rocketing up almost 30 percent in just a few hours. In typical Elon style, he didn’t tweet the news to his 80-million-plus followers. But he did tweet, “Oh hi lol.”

A day later, Twitter announced Musk was joining its board of directors, probably no surprise. What was the surprise? Musk himself promised that there would be quote, “significant improvements to Twitter in coming months.” His poll on whether Twitter should get an edit button got more than 4 million votes. I’ve been lobbying for one since the dawn of Twitter. So I vote yes.

But the move also prompted worries about Musk, who’s something of a loose cannon, a very loose one. He’s recently criticized Twitter for limiting free speech, a sentiment that the right has cheered, and recently suggested he wanted to start his own social media company. But why start one when you can buy your favorite one?

It also comes at a pivotal moment for Twitter, which has struggled to hit its own ambitious internal goals. Here to break it down is Casey Newton, the tech journalist behind the Platformer Substack. He’s also developing a new podcast with The New York Times. Casey Newton, welcome to “Sway.” So let’s go over what’s happened, for people who aren’t following this that closely.

casey newton

Yeah. So there has been a big change in the relationship between Elon Musk and Twitter. Like three days ago, he was just a very famous Tesla C.E.O., world’s richest man, and enthusiastic Twitter user. On Monday, we find out that he acquired a 9.2 percent stake in the company, so worth billions of dollars. The stock popped 27 percent on the first day we found that out. And then Twitter announced that it had appointed Elon to its board of directors. So he is now one of 12 board members for old twitter.com.

kara swisher

Right. And so he had been talking to the C.E.O., who also tweeted. Correct? Who is — he’s a new C.E.O., Parag Agrawal.

casey newton

That’s right. So in November, Jack Dorsey, who was the longtime C.E.O. and co-founder of Twitter, stepped down. And they named their chief technical officer, Parag Agrawal, the C.E.O. And The New York Times reported today that Parag and Elon had been in discussions over the past month, ever since the company became aware that Elon was amassing such a big stake in the company.

kara swisher

All right. So they brought him onto the board, which is very typical, because they’ve brought on people with smaller stakes. Correct?

casey newton

That’s right. So for example, in 2020, this activist investor group, Elliott, acquired a 4 percent stake in Twitter.

kara swisher

This is Elliott Management, which is one of Twitter’s top investors?

casey newton

Yeah. As part of that, they were able to negotiate board seats. So Elon’s got way more of Twitter stock than that. And yeah, they decided to give him a board seat.

kara swisher

And he had been talking about this on Twitter. He’d been tweeting about social networ — you thought he might create what, one thought, or he was just contemplating it. Who knows sometimes what he does on Twitter?

casey newton

Well, he was musing about it. He had asked his followers the question, if he thought — if you think that Twitter adheres to the principles of free speech. And I think, the answer was, no, from many of his followers. And that led him to speculate that he might want to create his own network, because he’s concerned that Twitter is too restrictive of speech.

kara swisher

And so he’s agreed not to be an activist but a passive investor. And he can’t go past 15 percent if he’s on the board. Why would he do that? What is the reason that people are talking about?

casey newton

Yeah. So I mean, this gets into, essentially, the S.E.C. rules for investing. And if you acquire a small percentage of a company and have no intention to change the direction of that company, you usually just have to file a really short piece of paperwork.

However, if you want to be an activist investor and really change the direction, then you have to fill out a lot more paperwork, essentially, to signal to other investors, hey, what’s going on. And one of the sort of minor controversies is that Elon essentially filled out the short form and told everybody, I’m just going to be a passive investor. And then, of course, he was immediately tweeting polls about how we should change Twitter’s products.

kara swisher

Yeah, which the edit button, for example, we approve of that one in particular, you and I in particular.

casey newton

I do happen to be a fan of the edit button proposal, yes.

kara swisher

We’ll see if we’re going to actually get one. We’ll talk about changes in a minute. But he has said he’s a passive investor, but he’s not acting like one. He’s never been a passive at anything. I think passive would be the opposite of what Elon — he’s aggressive. He’s aggressive aggressive, not even passive aggressive. Right?

casey newton

Yeah. I mean, this guy has a lot of ideas. Right? He’s running SpaceX and Tesla at the same time, along with the Boring Company. I’m not even sure if I can keep track of all of his projects. But despite all that, as you well know, he loves Twitter as much as anybody does, tweets at all hours of the night. And so it seems like whatever his interest in Twitter is, he is going to have ideas about what it should do and it can be.

kara swisher

What it does, because he’s a big consumer. But he’s also a shit poster, a meme poster, a — what was the expression you used?

casey newton

He’s an edgelord.

kara swisher

Edgelord, yep.

casey newton

In other words, will sort of come right up to the brink of breaking the platform’s rules, while backing away at the last second. He’s called people names. You know, and look — I mean, a lot of people are furious at Elon Musk for the way that he uses Twitter. He’s fought with journalists a lot. He’s said some really dumb things. He got into a defamation suit a few years ago. So I mean, he’s been a sort of extremely chaotic user of Twitter.

kara swisher

He often jumps into international incidents and has a solution, like he’s — he sort of I think styles himself as Stark Industries, essentially, from “Iron Man.”

casey newton

Very much so.

kara swisher

So getting back to passive investor, he’s really supposed to just be a board member of 12. Other passive investors include very few. I think Jack Dorsey last reported had 2.3 percent. He’s the founder, creator of Twitter.

casey newton

That’s right. And so that’s one thing that might set Twitter apart from Facebook, for example, where the founder has total control. Twitter has always been a sort of more traditional public company. There’s only one class of stock. And if you accumulate a lot of it, you can have a lot of influence over its direction.

kara swisher

Right, exactly. And that people have tried over the many years, and Chris Sacca many years ago, a venture capitalist, had tried. Disney was looking at it. Google was looking at it. A lot of people were.

casey newton

Salesforce.

kara swisher

Salesforce, that’s right. There’s all kinds of people who make suggestions and then end up not doing anything. One of the things that’s hard with Twitter is that Jack and other founders were there and had a lot of influence over the company and over investors.

So let’s talk first about — I want to talk about why they haven’t done well. But Elon is kind of an activist, and he seems to be aligned with Jack Dorsey. When I interviewed Jack Dorsey several years ago on Twitter, which was like a goat rodeo, I asked him who his favorite person on Twitter was. And it turned out to be Elon. I was sort of surprised. And so he’s aligned with Jack Dorsey and Parag. Correct?

casey newton

Yeah. As best we can tell, this trio is pretty friendly. Parag was Jack’s hand picked successor to be the C.E.O. And they appear to agree on a number of things that we could talk about. I mean, they all love cryptocurrency. They all really like the idea of turning Twitter into a decentralized protocol. Right?

And on the subject of the edit button today, this sort of really kind of struck me. As soon as Elon tweeted the poll, or shortly thereafter, the C.E.O. quote tweets it with, “please vote on this carefully. We’re taking it very seriously.” So they’re trying to signal a lot of camaraderie right now, which I think is smart. Because otherwise, people would be doing what I did in my column today, which is speculate that Parag needs to watch his back here.

kara swisher

Well, Parag does need to watch his back, honestly.

casey newton

Yeah.

kara swisher

Let’s be clear. So decentralized protocol, this is a project that you and I have talked about called Bluesky. Make it easy for people to understand what that is.

casey newton

Sure. So if you want to get emails, email is a decentralized protocol, which means that you can choose to access that through Gmail or Outlook or Yahoo.com. And no matter which of those services you use, you’re still going to get your emails. There’s a world in which Twitter might be something similar, where Google could build a Twitter client, and Yahoo could build a Twitter client.

And each of those different clients could, if they wanted, build different rules. For example, maybe one version of Twitter wouldn’t have any content moderation at all. Maybe another version would only show you tweets in reverse chronological order. And the whole idea here is to try to give users more freedom to get the kind of Twitter experience they want and try to reduce some of the pressure on Twitter itself to be the one true arbiter of free speech on Earth.

kara swisher

And it was essentially to get them the hell out of trouble. Because they were having to make editorial calls, like throwing Donald Trump off of Twitter, for example, or Alex Jones.

casey newton

There is definitely — there are some ways in which this could make life easier for Twitter. But it also makes their life more complicated too. And I do think that there is a sort of principled idea in here. If you look at what Jack Dorsey has been tweeting recently, he’s really embraced this idea of we should decentralize as much as possible.

We should not have big centralized platforms like Twitter. That’s a mistake. We need to sort of give users individual freedom. They should have the internet that they want. And so Project Bluesky is a part of that. So this isn’t really a naked cash grab. If anything, the smarter, easier thing to do would just to — keep be — to build Twitter as it has been built so far.

kara swisher

Right. And so Jack has — is aligned with Elon on this. Elon, when I’ve interviewed him, he’s talked about the idea that the internet’s too controlled by large companies, even though he, himself, is a large company all by himself.

casey newton

Yeah. And I mean, this has become really one of the most interesting religious wars in tech right now is centralization versus decentralization. Decentralization is the hot new thing. Everybody is singing these songs of freedom and individual empowerment. But we’re starting to kind of get the pushback from folks who work for these centralized platforms that say, you know what?

When you have a big central platform, it’s a lot easier to, for example, keep users safe. It’s easier to reset a password. It’s easier to send someone to help you when your, you know, personal information or funds get stolen. And so I really think that this is one of the big trends to watch over the next few years is, how does that religious war play out?

kara swisher

And so one of them is that Jack has been doing, having benefited from the internet and centralization, is that the same old, same olds are in charge. Right? It’s the same groups of people who are talking about beating the man who are, in fact, the man. Right?

casey newton

I think that that’s true. You know, at the same time, when you look at the internet as it exists today, maybe five or six companies seem to control you know, 90 percent of where the revenue is. And so you do have a lot of younger founders who say, I want that kind of outsized opportunity for myself. And I’m not going to get it working at Facebook or Google or Microsoft. And so I want to strikeout on my own and find some kind of blue ocean, where I can build an island unto myself.

kara swisher

So talk about Parag and Jack’s role here. Do you think this is an attempt to get Jack back into power? They are close, from what I understand.

casey newton

I think it’s probably going too far to say, this is an effort to get Jack back into power. What I do think, though, is that this probably provides some insulation to Parag and the old guard at Twitter against another activist investor, like Elliott, coming in and trying to shake things up. One of the reasons why Jack had to leave was that, as a condition of leaving the board, Elliott had set these really intense growth targets. Twitter was supposed to add 100 million people by 2023.

When Jack left in November, they were nowhere close to doing that. Right? So it’s easy to imagine somebody coming in at the end of this year and saying, you know what, Parag? We gave you a year. You’re not really much further along toward that goal. It’s time to replace you, or it’s time to sell this thing to Disney or Salesforce. Now with Elon having 9 percent, I think he’s not going to want to see that happen necessarily. Right? My guess is he’s going to want to give them a little bit longer. And so I do think this affords Twitter some protection that users who are upset about Elon joining the board might want to think about.

kara swisher

All right so one of the things is it’s not a — it’s a very good investment, because Elon bought it, so the stock went up. But in general, Twitter’s business has been unimpressive, even as its influence as a news distributor and its outsized attention that it gets, because journalists are on it. Politicians are on it. Marjorie Taylor Greene is on it. Everyone’s screaming away. And so it has this big societal impact, but as a business? Not so much.

casey newton

That’s right. Back when Jack left Twitter, I think its stock price was basically around where it was when the company I.P.O.‘d. They’ve always had a really hard time capturing the value that they create. They had the misfortune of trying to build an ad business in a world where Google and Facebook and Amazon now all exist. And so they’d really struggled with that.

kara swisher

I mean, I think both of us — I am underwhelmed by their business acumen and their stock price. I mean maybe Elon fans will jump on, and it’ll be like an AMC, a meme stock. It’s sort of is a meme stock right now.

casey newton

Well, it is, and like, now Twitter has a sort of interesting risk, where however you feel about Elon being on the board, if he leaves, you can expect that the stock would go down 27 percent that day.

So look, it is true that Twitter has always underwhelmed from a business standpoint. But I would also give them credit in saying that, in a lot of ways, they’ve really gotten their act together. Over the past two years in particular, they’d hired a lot of people. Their business actually was getting better.

kara swisher

More products, yep.

casey newton

They were shipping a lot of stuff. So they’d really kind of found their rhythm. And it was really on the day that Jack left that it started to feel, to me, like the drama Twitter of old. All of a sudden, all bets were off.

kara swisher

Yeah. Explain drama Twitter, because this has been like —

casey newton

Yeah.

kara swisher

I used to call it a lot of things, but one of the things was it was the most emotional company I ever covered.

casey newton

Yes.

kara swisher

They were always warring with each other, or it felt like “Peyton Place” but duller, essentially. And I’m using reference to a soap opera, a telenovela, or something like that.

casey newton

Yeah. I mean, there’s a great book about this, “Hatching Twitter” by Nick Bilton, that goes through all of the boardroom drama and intrigue and backstabbing and infighting of its first five or six years. That company changed its C.E.O.s a lot. Jack was C.E.O. Then he got fired, essentially. Then he eventually came back. There were all of these twists and turns, and you sort of never knew what was going to happen.

And all of it, by the way, was hugely distracting to the company. And because they were so distracted, they’d created this huge opportunity for Facebook to kind of walk away with the game, right? From a social networking perspective. And so that’s sort of my fear for them here is that, all of a sudden, we’re starting to see these distractions pile up. And is that going to stop their momentum, as they were actually working on some interesting stuff.

kara swisher

Yeah. One of the things that was — I mean, they would even call me when they were fighting with each other. And I’d be like, I’m the wrong person to call, but yay. You know what I mean? And also, at the same time, they were always sort of messing up in some fashion, even though the product was so much better. It was so much more fun. It reminded me a little bit of sort of Apple versus Microsoft. Mark was a perfect executor of businesses, and they were more creative and unable to get it together.

casey newton

Yeah. I mean — but I have to give so much credit to the Twitter user base. It’s like. — the main thing that Twitter created was this amazing constraint of 140 characters, which of course, has since now changed. But for a long time, it was that constraint that led the user base to sort of push and pull and figure out, what else can we do here? And so they invented the app mention, and the hashtag, and the retweet, and all of the stuff that is just now table stakes for any social network. And it was all born on Twitter. So Twitter really was a playground, and it felt like the playground of the people for a long time.

kara swisher

So the relationship with Parag and the rest of the board, what is that, do you imagine, it can be?

casey newton

What is Parag’s personal relationship with all of them? I couldn’t tell you. Clearly, you know, they accepted Jack’s pick of him to be their C.E.O. And Parag has only been in that job for four months. So I think that right now they’re just kind of watching and waiting to see what happens.

kara swisher

He is very well-liked inside, but you didn’t see him a lot. Because Jack sort of took center stage, and Jack was sort of — did meditation on stage. Remember when they did that? He grew that beard and looked like a coffee maker in Brooklyn, for example, for a while, or possibly a Civil War re-enactor.

Not — I like his beard. I’m not one of his anti-beard people. But he was sort of this interesting, unusual person. And since he’s left, one of the things, we’re all surprised how good he is at Twitter. He’s been very funny. He’s been slapping Silicon Valley quite a bit. What has he been doing?

casey newton

Yeah. So he is still the C.E.O. of Block, which is the company that was once called Square.

kara swisher

Square. Get it? Block, Square, get it, everybody? OK, go ahead.

casey newton

But he’s also gone full time into Bitcoin, and he is really an evangelist for it. He’s speaking at all of the conferences that he can and really sort of talking up this idea of a Bitcoin as the future. And so that’s basically what he’s been doing.

kara swisher

And some of the other key executives, how are they going to react to this?

casey newton

Yeah. So I mean, I honestly don’t know exactly what the relationship is between those folks and Elon. I did do a temperature check inside of Twitter today to kind of see how people were feeling about things. The word that came back to me was “spooked.” People are a little nervous. They don’t know what to make of it. I think that’s really natural. No one said that everyone is freaking out. I think people are just hungry to understand what this means. But of course, none of us really know what it means.

kara swisher

That’s an unusual thing, spooked. Because Elon, you never know what he’s going to do, right? That’s the whole point.

casey newton

Exactly, a very unpredictable person. [MUSIC]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute.

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If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with a guy who owns a lot of Twitter, Elon Musk. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Casey Newton after the break.

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So one of the things Elon is famous for are his beefs on Twitter. I’ve talked to him about this a lot. It’s more than just free speech. He wants to be able to say anything he wants, including calling Senator Warren Senator Karen. He takes a lot of shots at people, but it has gotten him into beefs on Twitter. That’s the real problem, I think.

casey newton

Yeah. I mean, this is very unusual to have a board member of a public company who has used the product as much as he has to go after people. Right? There is something, I think, kind of Trumpian about it. And it’s one of the reasons why he has so many detractors. Now, of course, he also has an enormous fandom. Right? Twitter has never really had a board member with a fandom quite like this. Elon has 80 million followers on Twitter.

And pretty much anything that he is excited about, they get excited about too. And we should also point out that he’s really been masterful in the way that he’s used Twitter to cultivate that fandom. And think about how useful that has been to him, as Tesla has gone through the struggles it has gone through. Right? But it’s been able to raise a bunch more money, stay in business, and get into what is now a pretty stable position, in part because Elon personally has so many people who are rooting for him.

kara swisher

Fans. Fanboys.

casey newton

So yeah.

kara swisher

He really does. They can be very toxic, as anyone who’s been — many journalists talk about this. They go after him. His fan base does follow him. It’s very MAGA-like, I think even stronger than MAGA I think, in some ways.

casey newton

Yeah. Well, I mean, and another thing that I think that they share is like, they never tell their audience to back off.

kara swisher

Yeah. And one of the things that he does also is funny. He’s very funny. You know what I mean? And that’s why it seems like you never know what Elon you’re going to get. He just tweeted just a little bit ago, “Peace. Peace, question mark? I hate the word. Those who do care about peace, myself aspirationally included, don’t need to hear it. Those who do care about peace? Well dot, dot, dot.” I have no idea what that means.

And then he had a weird meme with pictures and all this stuff. Then he had a “Boba Fett” trailer. He and I have a lot of arguments about Covid-19. But he wrote, “Covid-19 is the virus of Theseus. How many gene changes before it’s not Covid-19 anymore? I supposedly have it again, sigh, but almost no symptoms. Seize the memes of production.” I mean, he’s really —

casey newton

He is all over the place, but I will say that — and seize the memes of production as something that crypto people say a lot on Twitter, in particular. But man, if you want to talk about seizing the memes of production, buy 9 percent of Twitter. That is what seizing the memes of production actually looks like.

kara swisher

It is absolutely true. We’ll talk about other billionaire owners, but he’s gotten into beefs with the S.E.C., because he actually, when he was saying he was going to — he was making a marijuana joke, a weed joke, around 4/20, around the stock. He’s been sanctioned by the S.E.C., who was constantly watching him.

casey newton

It goes beyond beefs. Right? I mean, it’s like it seems pretty clear that he’s broken some of the laws. But like the S.E.C. is kind of still coming after him. He was supposedly under this agreement where he had to have his tweets approved by a lawyer after he sort of famously said that he might take Tesla private, which appears like it was not true.

But the underlying idea is that, if you own a piece of something that other people can buy in, you should be responsible in the way that you talk about it. Right? Particularly if you’re a C.E.O. The whole reason these rules exist is to protect everyday investors, you know. I think some people think that that’s probably too paternalistic, and people are going to do whatever they’re going to do, regardless of what Elon has to say about it. But that’s why there has been all of this angst about everything that he says.

kara swisher

What do you think he’s doing? He’s trying to push past stop signs. Right? And just seeing if they’ll get him, but they don’t. They never do.

casey newton

I think that — I mean, my sense is, when you become the richest person in the world, you just kind of stop caring about what other people think. You kind of indulge your little passions, and you’re very confident that, no matter what, you might put your foot and your mouth here and there. But it’s really hard to imagine that anything of grave consequence is going to happen to you. So I think he’s just kind of a — you know, like a toddler testing his boundaries. It’s like, what are you going to do to me? You’re going to fine me $100,000? Great, go for it.

kara swisher

So here’s the thing. Someone like Anand Giridharadas, who’s talked about billionaires and the overplaying. Billionaires are not the solution to problems caused by billionaires. Anand calls him an arsonist who is pretending to be a firefighter. A lot of people are worried about this issue. Let’s talk about the free speech issue, because he has been very, like, people should be able to say what they want, because I get to say what I want, essentially.

casey newton

Yeah. So I couldn’t tell you what the Twitter policy is that Elon has such a strong objection to. Although you brought up the Covid misinformation stuff. Twitter will sort of slap a label on it or remove it, if you’re spreading misinformation about the vaccines. Maybe he thinks Twitter shouldn’t do that. We may very well hear more from him about that subject. But he’s clearly said that he just doesn’t think that platforms should be weighing in that much on these things. And of course, Republicans, who are disproportionately affected by those rules, because they’re more likely to spread misinformation about Covid, they’ve been sort of rising up and say, oh finally, we’ve got somebody on the board. He’s going to represent our interests.

And mm, I don’t know. We’ll see if that’s actually turns out to be true. There’s this sort of very childlike understanding of free speech, which is that the platform should keep up all of the speech that I like and remove all of the speech that I don’t like. Right? Because I’m sure that even Elon Musk would admit that, you know, there shouldn’t be terrorist content on Twitter or that sort of thing. So this is all really just a debate over where to draw the lines. And we would all draw lines in different places, and that’s why tech platforms drive us crazy and why we can’t stop arguing about it.

kara swisher

Yeah. He said, “hen house hires fox,” was one of Anand’s thing. And he’s speaking for a lot — a group of people who are like, I’m going to quit. I got a lot of I’m going to quit Twitter if Elon takes over. And I’m like, he can’t take over. He can own a lot of it. This is not the same thing, but there are others inside who do imagine how sidelined they are, how silenced, when Elon joins the board. What real power will he have there, from your perspective?

casey newton

Yeah. So I mean, there’s the technical power that he has as a board member. Right? I mean, he could join like a Twitter board committee. He can make recommendations at the board meetings. But what he really has is soft power, right? And you’ve already seen him use it.

When he’s going out to 80 million people saying, should Twitter add an edit button, that’s just a kind of power that no one else on that board has. So I think that’s the number one way that you’re going to see it. And by the way, if he doesn’t get his way at a Twitter board meeting, he can go on Twitter and rally his constituency around him. And that’s just going to give him a lot of power that the other board members don’t have.

kara swisher

Which is unusual for a board member, because they’re not supposed to do that, which could put him in the crosshairs of the S.E.C. But one of the things that was of heavy focus today was whether Trump could return to the platform. Now, given the history, Trump violated all their rules all the time, but Twitter kept them on. And Jack held firm and so did other social media platforms. But on January 6, not wanting to be handmaidens to sedition, they tossed him off. And Twitter’s was very, very clear. Like, he’s gone, and I think it was perpetually. Right? There was no —

casey newton

No. There is not a way for him to get his account back, which — yeah, it was the strongest of the platforms. And given that Twitter was the platform that Trump loved the most, it was kind of the most heartening to hear. Yeah.

kara swisher

There was a great fear of people of this is that he would return.

casey newton

Yeah.

kara swisher

And so is there any way that Elon can facilitate —

casey newton

So I mean, this is just a policy decision. Right? Like under the First Amendment, platforms can decide to put on their platforms who they would like to. And so at any moment, Twitter could just reverse this decision and say, yeah, Trump can get back on if he wants to. And if Trump is the nominee for the Republican Party in 2024, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the platforms to let him back on.

Also, even if he’s not let back on, I’m sure he will have surrogates tweeting on his behalf. And so you’re going to be in this position of like, oh, well, why are you even bother kicking him off? Because everything he says is just going up on Twitter anyway. Right?

kara swisher

Although that’s not precisely what’s happened. He’s been really sidelined here without Twitter. He used Twitter just like F.D.R. used the radio, or J.F.K. used television. Trump was the greatest Twitter troll in history, I would say.

casey newton

Yeah. And he could come back, and you can imagine that Elon Musk could play a role in that discussion. I also sort of went back and looked through the history of Musk and Trump today. And it’s not —

kara swisher

They don’t like each other.

casey newton

Really a history of friendship.

kara swisher

No.

casey newton

He tried to be careful about what he said, but he never endorsed Trump.

kara swisher

No. He —

casey newton

Yeah.

kara swisher

I can tell you he does not — I wouldn’t say he was a fan. But I think he probably likes some of it, like around Covid. So Elon has certainly got into a lot of hot water, and he’s definitely irritated a lot of people. So does that affect anything? Or is there just — these are the controversies that go with a person like this, whether it’s racial issues at Tesla, or investigations there by California. He’s obviously always been in fights with California. But what do you imagine? Will that have any influence? Because the board is there to only — the board’s real job is hiring and firing the C.E.O. Right?

casey newton

I don’t know that this is going to be an absolutely radical overnight change in the history of Twitter. But I also think we should keep our eyes peeled, because again, this is a company that has a history of boardroom drama. They have a young, untested C.E.O. The fundamentals of the business are still shaky. So if you were looking for, hmm, would there be an opening here for like the world’s richest man and most famous C.E.O. to somehow engineer a takeover of the company, it’s like, well, sure, I would believe anything about Twitter at this point.

kara swisher

Yeah. It’s like, I like the donuts so I bought the company. That’s what it feels like. I like it. I think I might do that, actually.

casey newton

You should.

kara swisher

If I was a — I might — I’m not a billionaire, Casey. But I might say —

casey newton

Yet.

kara swisher

I’m buying Twitter. I would. I would buy Twitter. I would buy Twitter, but even if it’s a bad investment, I wouldn’t care.

casey newton

I would love to see what you did with Twitter.

kara swisher

I wish I was a billionaire, Casey. I’d be a very evil one.

casey newton

We’re taking it day by day.

kara swisher

Yeah. Right? Day by day, but as an investment, this is not a good investment. Correct?

casey newton

I mean, he’s already made $1 billion —

kara swisher

I know, but it’s —

casey newton

— of his investment on paper.

kara swisher

Right.

casey newton

So I’m not going to call it a bad investment.

kara swisher

But as a company, just like AMC or GameStop, let’s be clear. The fundamentals are not there for this price. So why now? Why now? Because this could have happened at any time. And there are other people could have done this.

casey newton

This is where the activist investment thing is interesting to me. Because again, there was going to be a risk at the end of this year that like activist investors came along and said, all right, Parag. You had a year. Twitter isn’t going as well as we hoped. You’re out. And you do wonder whether Jack or Parag or others made an appeal to Elon that said, you know, if you came in and sort of took a big position here and could sort of buy us some time and give us some space, we could really get this company on the right track. And oh, by the way, you’ll be able to influence your favorite platform. That’s pure speculation, but it doesn’t seem implausible to me. So that’s sort of one theory. Another theory is he had the S.E.C. coming after him. They were really mad at his tweets. And so he thought it would be funny to buy a bunch of Twitter stock and join the board. And that is maybe even more plausible. Yeah.

kara swisher

I would agree. But he’s not the first to invest in media or social media, Bezos, Washington Post, Marc Benioff, Time, Laurene Powell Jobs, Atlantic. There was a lot of pushback that Bezos owns the whole Washington Post. Why all the freakout that Elon owns this? It’s an interesting question, because Twitter looms large in some people’s lives, more than, say, a Washington Post. Although one might argue The Washington Post is more influential.

For people who don’t know, the relationship between Bezos and Elon is not good around everything. He takes every opportunity to insult Bezos. But what is this idea of all these billionaires owning this stuff? And then at the same time, Apple winning the Oscar, Netflix dominating this Amazon, buying MGM. What the heck, Casey?

casey newton

Well, I mean, we’re living on an internet that’s controlled by five or six companies. Twitter, massively influential, one of the — probably the smallest of the most influential companies, but definitely on that list. But I think it, just historically, billionaire — the richest people of the age have always wanted to own media properties as a way of extending their influence. Right?

Shape the narrative, advocate for their interests. This is a really convenient way to do that. The Twitter thing doesn’t fit super neatly into that though, because Elon is not going to control the content on Twitter. I think this is really more about shaping his favorite playground than it was about Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post saying, this very important newspaper is in a challenging time, and I want to see them become sustainable.

kara swisher

Does this give him more influence? Does this give Elon more influence than he already had on — he could go on “S.N.L.” He could talk to anyone, any time. And any time he calls me, I do an interview, you know. I actually call him. So he gets — he can talk to people.

casey newton

Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of sounds funny to ask like whether anything could make Elon Musk more influential. It sort of feels like he’s already topped out on the influence meter. And I think that’s why most of the questions are around like, how will he influence Twitter? As opposed to like, how will owning Twitter influence Elon Musk? I think it really kind of says a lot about who’s wearing the pants in that relationship.

kara swisher

So if you had to predict one thing, what would it be right now? Are we going to get the edit button? Will it go private?

casey newton

Well, the easiest thing for me to predict is an edit button, because Twitter came forward and said, yes, we actually are going to do that. And we’ve been working on it for over a year, and it actually had nothing to do with Elon Musk. So they really sort of put Elon’s roll to bed there. But frankly, you know, I don’t care about that, because I’m going to get an edit button. So I’m very excited about that.

kara swisher

So then I need a prediction.

casey newton

Oh, my gosh, Kara. I mean, again, this is one of the most unpredictable people in tech. The thing that I would predict is he came in as a passive investor, at least legally speaking. My prediction is you’re going to see Elon Musk be a very active investor in Twitter.

kara swisher

We don’t know, but he will be loud about it. And he will — it will be something that is unexpected. So we’ll see what happens. Anyway, Casey, thank you so much. Everyone, we’re going to be watching this. This is — a week ago, Casey said to me, oh, there’s nothing going on in tech right now. And here we are.

casey newton

And that’s why I say it. I like to tempt fate like that. Sometimes it’s the only way to get a column out of a day is to tempt fate.

kara swisher

OK. On that note, thank you so much, Casey.

casey newton

Thanks for having me, Kara. [MUSIC]

kara swisher

“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Daphne Chen, Caitlin O’Keefe and Wyatt Orme, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Sonia Herrero and Carole Sabouraud, and fact checking by Kate Sinclair, Michelle Harris and Mary Marge Locker. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski. The senior editor of “Sway” is Nayeema Raza, and the executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Irene Noguchi.

If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts. So follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you, along with an all access pass to a goat rodeo, download any podcast app, then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.

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