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As with so much about the man, it was a joke until it wasn’t: On Monday, Elon Musk, the world’s richest person and the chief executive of Tesla, struck a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion, a little less than one-sixth of his $270 billion net worth. (It will take another three to six months for the deal to close, during which time it could still fall through.)
Twitter is one of the world’s most prominent and paradoxical social media companies: As the tech journalist Max Read writes, it’s “probably the most influential social platform on the planet — a concentrated network of elite figures in media, politics, technology, and entertainment, all of whom look toward the site as a guide to what is important in their fields.” But as a business, it’s also one of Silicon Valley’s most infamous underperformers, troubled for years by content moderation controversies and investor complaints that it doesn’t make enough money.
Can Musk fix what’s broken with Twitter, or will he make its problems worse? Here’s what people are saying.
Musk’s hazy vision for Twitter
If you take Musk at his word, profit wasn’t a motivating factor in his purchase. His primary interest in the site, which he has called the internet’s “de facto town square,” stems from “its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe,” as he wrote in a letter to Twitter’s board.
There are a few predictable ways Musk might seek to realize his vision, The Times’s Melina Delkic explains:
Looser content moderation policies. A self-described “free speech absolutist,” Musk has frequently criticized Twitter’s content moderation policies for being too censorious. “Musk’s favorite idea is a Twitter that operates the way he uses Twitter: no holds barred,” The Times’s Shira Ovide wrote. “He imagines a social network transformed, by him, into a paragon of expression without theoretical limits.”
New rules about who — or what — could use the platform. Musk’s pointed comments about free speech have raised questions about whether he would reinstate users who have been barred for violating Twitter’s policies — the most prominent offender being former President Donald Trump. (Musk has not commented publicly on how he would handle Trump’s case, and Trump said this week he has no interest in rejoining.) At the same time, Musk has vowed to rid the platform of bots and spam.
Changes to the algorithm. Twitter used to present information chronologically; since March, however, it has defaulted to an algorithm-based feed optimized for engagement. Musk has discussed plans to make the company’s algorithm an open-source model that would allow users to peek under the hood of their timelines, rather than “having tweets sort of be mysteriously promoted and demoted with no insight into what’s going on.”
By the numbers: Whatever Musk’s public statements, it bears noting that “no one has profited more from the existence of Twitter than Elon Musk,” as David Kirsch, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, told The Los Angeles Times. “Donald Trump used Twitter to win the presidency, but Elon Musk used it to sustain the Tesla narrative and support the stock when the company was in danger of collapse.”
Now Twitter will also be his liability. About one-quarter of his acquisition funding came from loans secured against Twitter; Musk provided the rest — $33.5 billion — in a combination of cash and loans secured against his Tesla stock. “Musk’s exposure is chunky even for a man of his net worth,” Liam Proud writes at Reuters. “That gives him good reason to care about the company’s financial health, even if he says he doesn’t.”
How Musk could make Twitter worse
Much as Musk champions a vision of Twitter as an “inclusive arena for free speech,” many think the reality is bound to look very different. As the tech journalists Casey Newton and Sarah Jeong have noted, Musk’s professed belief in maximally free expression conflicts with his plan to eliminate bots and spam, which in turn conflicts with his plan to make Twitter’s algorithm open source. “In my experience, when someone introduces a plan with this many internal contradictions, it’s a sign they haven’t thought about it all that much,” Newton told Wired.
Beneath the lofty rhetoric, Musk’s critics warn that he has a troubling record of stifling speech he doesn’t like. As CNBC’s Lora Kolodny details, Tesla has pressured laid-off employees to sign non-disparagement agreements with no end dates and arbitration clauses that impede them from taking the company to court. Tesla workers have accused the company of racist discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation for raising safety concerns. Musk himself also has a pattern of trying to control what journalists, commentators and even customers say about him and his businesses.
“Musk’s reasons for taking control of Twitter aren’t about free speech,” writes Greg Bensinger, a member of the Times editorial board. “It’s about controlling a megaphone. With his legion of fans, Mr. Musk will command a gigantic megaphone and be free to plug his own investments, pooh-pooh sound health regulations and shout down critics.”
For many users — women and minorities in particular — Twitter may become an even more hostile environment. The tech journalist Charlie Warzel predicts that the platform could come to resemble Twitter around 2016, before the company tightened its content moderation policies.
“Because Twitter is still an awful place — but one with a lot more tools, like setting who can see or reply to your tweets, that victims of harassment can employ — certain people seem to have forgotten that blatant, vile harassment used to go almost unchecked,” he writes. Under Musk, then, “Twitter will be left to face the problems of an aggressively polarized and increasingly toxic political and cultural environment with little of the crucial hindsight of its past.”
How Musk could transform Twitter for the better
In The Washington Post, Jason Willick argues that all the talk of Twitter becoming a cesspool under Musk is overblown: “Musk’s views on the limits of liberal tolerance aren’t fully developed. (Whose are?) But it’s clear that he thinks Twitter is striking the wrong balance. That’s hardly a wild position.” In 2021, he adds, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and then-C.E.O., “conceded that trends in political content moderation have been ‘destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet.’”
And as a successful executive and avid Twitter user himself, Musk could very well improve the platform, Derek Thompson argues in The Atlantic. He notes that at the board-of-directors level, Twitter is more or less run by people who don’t use it — which might help to explain what Thompson calls Twitter’s “bafflingly torpid” pace of innovation. (The direct-message function has been updated sluggishly, he notes, and the Trending Topics feature has been derided for years.)
“My optimistic outlook for Twitter basically comes down to this,” Thompson writes. “Twitter could be a lot better. There’s more low-hanging fruit than you think. And Elon Musk actually uses and likes Twitter, which makes him a good candidate to fix those problems.”
Twitter’s problems could also prove easier to fix under private ownership. “Some employees I’ve spoken with are open to the idea that a private Twitter run by Musk stands a better chance of improving the service than would a public company beholden to its shareholders,” Casey Newton writes at The Verge. “As a private company, beholden only to the interests of one man, Twitter may be able to transform itself in ways that it never could while it had to report quarterly earnings.”
The economist and Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith agrees: “The problems with Twitter are so deep and so difficult that only total control by a single individual has a realistic chance of solving them. Transforming a sprawling octopus like this can only be done via dictatorial authority (which is why founder-led companies tend to outperform).”
Musk ado about nothing?
In The Washington Post, Megan McArdle argues that Musk’s capacity to transform Twitter is being overestimated by his critics and supporters alike. “Ordinary people tend to think of ownership and control as functionally the same; I bought my house, I get to decide if I want to renovate,” she writes. “Corporate renovations are a whole different level of difficulty.”
Yes, there are certain reforms he could make by fiat, like changing Twitter’s algorithm or eliminating the retweet function that is often used to mount cancellation campaigns.
But overhauling Twitter’s content moderation policies could prove much more difficult. For one thing, as Evelyn Douek notes in The Atlantic, platforms that don’t sufficiently police themselves “soon become flooded with scammers, porn, terrorist recruiters, and, sometimes, literal shitposts,” which in turn causes them to bleed users and advertisers.
For another, most countries have stricter speech laws than the United States: Notably, the European Union is poised to pass a landmark law that will require social media companies to more aggressively police their content or risk billions of dollars in fines.
And finally, there’s the matter of Twitter’s own employees, without whose experience and labor Musk won’t be able to carry out his vision. As The Times’s Kate Conger reports, Twitter employees have raised concerns that “Musk would undo the years of work they have put into cleaning up the toxic corners of the platform, upend their stock compensation in the process of taking the company private, and disrupt Twitter’s culture with his unpredictable management style and abrupt proclamations.”
For all these reasons, it’s possible Twitter won’t actually change very much. “As numerous observers have noted, prior leaders’ lofty visions of no-limits free-speech utopianism ran into reality, and so will Musk’s,” Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review writes.
Or as the Wall Street Journal tech columnist Christopher Mims put it: “My hottest take is that everyone who is excited for Elon Musk to buy Twitter will be disappointed, everyone who is freaked out will stick around after all, the future will be endless uneasy compromises & disappointments about the platform’s decisions, same as ever.”
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