Analysis: Why Elon Musk buying Twitter is so important

Twitter may seem rather mundane on paper. The company’s user base and market value is less than a tenth the size of Meta, Facebook’s parent company. Its total revenue last year was about the same as Western Union’s. And before this month, Twitter’s stock was below the closing price on its first day of trading more than eight years ago.

But Musk’s offer to take Twitter (TWTR) private has inspired unsolicited contributions from US lawmakers, rampant speculation about its impact on the 2024 US presidential election, and even breathless, hyperbolic comparisons to the last days of Weimar Germany.

So why, exactly, do the stakes seem so high? The answer comes down to Twitter’s outsized influence on public discourse and the uncertainty of what happens when the world’s richest man – who revels in its unpredictability – gains singular control over that influence.

Although Twitter reported just 217 million daily active users last year, a far cry from the billions reported by rival Meta, its users include highly influential politicians, business leaders, artists, activists and intellectuals – public figures with many followers who in turn shape the public. discourse surrounding politics, media, finance and technology. According to the Pew Research Center, more than two-thirds of American Twitter users say the platform is an important, if not the most important source of information. And Twitter’s agenda-setting power seems to be precisely what interests Musk and what makes his control of the platform so potentially disruptive.

Musk’s deal to buy Twitter sits at the confluence of multiple ongoing societal debates, including about the power and influence of billionaires; the impact of misinformation and disinformation; and the responsibilities that technology platforms owe to their users and to society, and what new regulations should support them.

By becoming the owner of Twitter, Musk has suddenly merged many of these threads into one, as lawmakers around the world seem poised to make some very big decisions about how social media should work.

“His purchase of Twitter to make it private makes an essential service even less transparent and more irresponsible,” said Adam Connor, a former Facebook employee and vice president of technology policy at the Center for American Progress. “Musk’s takeover of Twitter is a flashing red light on why centralizing our online spaces in the hands of a select few billionaires is so dangerous.”

Musk did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Musk takes over the digital town square

Musk, an eccentric billionaire with a history of courting controversy on and off Twitter, personally pitched the acquisition amid soaring rhetoric. He argued with characteristic emphasis that Twitter, and his attempt to own it, “is extremely important to the future of civilization” because the world needs an “inclusive” digital public square that respects the principles of freedom of expression.

Musk’s main criticism of Twitter today is that it’s too restrictive. Under its ownership, Musk suggested, Twitter would treat content more permissively, moving away from content removals and account bans. He also proposed opening up Twitter’s algorithm to public scrutiny so that, in theory, users could understand how it makes decisions.

What this means for Twitter’s everyday content application isn’t entirely clear; Musk avoided going into specifics, and his objection to Twitter’s approach seems rooted more in the amount of content moderation Twitter needs, rather than that it should have any at all. But his wording of the deal and some of the reactions from outsiders nevertheless turned the proposal into something of a referendum on the future of online discourse.

One of the biggest underlying questions in this category, voiced by industry watchers, political figures and Twitter employees, is whether the company will restore privileges to Trump’s account. Trump reportedly said he would not return to Twitter even if allowed to return to the platform. But easing enforcement of the kinds of policies that got him banned could affect far more than Trump. Several prominent figures whose accounts were banned from Twitter celebrated the agreement on Monday, with some such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene expressing optimism that their access could soon be fully restored.

“This potential deal is about much more than the future of Twitter,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, a watchdog group that has called on Twitter to keep its platform’s current rules. “A sale to Elon Musk without any conditions will pollute the entire information ecosystem by opening the door to hatred and lies.”

This all comes just as everyone from former President Barack Obama to European Union lawmakers has proposed holding social media platforms to a tougher standard for content moderation, not the more liberal approach favored by Musk.

For a platform as important as Twitter, downgrading content moderation could have massive consequences both for how individual users experience the site – especially its most vulnerable users, notably women, the LGBTQ community and people of color – and on the national and international dialogues that play out on the platform and ultimately influence global events.

Musk’s Growing Empire

There’s also the deal’s potential impact on Musk’s personal influence, particularly as it relates to two of his other companies, Tesla and SpaceX.

Assuming the deal goes through, Musk will oversee America’s most valuable auto company, a leading private aerospace company, a tunneling company recently valued at more than $5 billion, a brain chip startup and a social network. with hundreds of millions of users.

Not only can Musk use his Twitter power to ensure the platform gives him maximum leeway to tweet however he pleases, but the acquisition gives him new political leverage that only a billionaire can acquire, which could benefit some of his other businesses.

Musk’s stance on content moderation has already endeared him to conservatives, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and more than a dozen House Republicans, who had lobbied Twitter’s board to that he accepts the deal by suggesting that a rejection could be seen as a betrayal of shareholder interests. Several Republican governors have also said Musk should consider moving Twitter’s headquarters to their states.

As well as gaining credibility with some politicians, some, including one of Musk’s most prominent rivals, have suggested the Tesla CEO could also earn valuable bargaining chip on Twitter.

“Has the Chinese government just gained some influence in the city square? Jeff Bezos, Founder and Executive Chairman of Amazon reflexive on Twitter. Bezos, whose rocket and space tourism company Blue Origin competes with Musk’s SpaceX, added that while he thinks the prospect of direct Twitter censorship in China is dim, Musk’s ownership of Twitter could certainly mean more “complexity” for Tesla in China, which is now one of the automaker’s biggest markets.
Even if Musk’s Twitter pushes back against authoritarian regimes’ censorship demands, he could make further concessions. As Bloomberg’s Brad Stone noted, Twitter has had a policy of labeling state-run media organizations and government accounts, and not promoting them in recommendations. “The Chinese government surely hates these restrictions,” Stone wrote.

Now imagine that transactional logic applies to any situation in which Musk’s interests collide with others, which tends to happen quite frequently. Musk has argued with reporters, lawmakers and even the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Would Musk go so far as to use his ownership of Twitter as a tool to curry favors and settle scores? On Monday, Musk hinted otherwise when he said he hopes “even my worst critics will stay on Twitter, because that’s what free speech means.”

Of course, none of this holds promise for his detractors – and Musk is known to have abruptly changed course before.

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