When Elon Musk buys Twitter, I don’t need a bird to tell me something is afoot | John Naughton

OWhen news broke last week that Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX and the richest man in the world, had paid $2.9bn (£2.3bn) for 9, 2% of Twitter, the media world – old and new – briefly lost what might loosely be called its collective spirit. What was Musk doing? (He’s always up to something, after all, even if it’s just trolling. And, with over 80 million Twitter followers, he’s a pretty effective troll.)

Since no one knows what is going through Musk’s head, feverish speculation has begun. One side thought they just did it “for the lulz” (fun, amusement, humor, schadenfreude). Indeed, if your net worth is $290 billion, $2.9 billion is actually loose change. And that made him the largest single shareholder in the company. Twitter then recognized the seriousness of the situation and agreed to give him a seat on the board of directors in a deal that was supposed to prevent him from buying a majority stake in the company.

For what it’s worth, I’m not buying the lulz explanation. Sure, Musk loves performing in his expansive gallery, but something much more serious is afoot. He wants to make significant changes to how Twitter works. In particular, he thinks the platform should have an edit button that would allow people to revise their tweets after transmission. He polled his Twitter followers to ask if they agreed. Of 4.4 million who voted, 73.6% said yes.

Why is this interesting? Basically because Musk has a problem with his own Twitter addiction. It’s called the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the powerful federal government agency that was created following the Wall Street crash of 1929 and whose main purpose is to enforce the law against market manipulation. And Musk has been in conflict with the SEC for some time.

In 2018, for example, he was sued by the agency after he tweeted that he had “secured funding” to take Tesla private at $420 a share. He settled the case by relinquishing his title as chairman and the company agreed to appoint a “Twitter sitter” – a securities attorney who would now have to approve any written statements made by Musk about the company that might contain “information important”. The rules were updated in 2019 to specify the topics he could not tweet about without approval; these included Tesla’s financial condition, earnings forecast, proposed acquisitions, and production data.

Trying to put a legal muzzle on Musk is like trying to put a lid on Mount Etna and the SEC is investigating whether he complied with the 2019 settlement. After seeing some of the things he has tweeted, I’d be surprised if the agency found he had complied with the letter or the spirit of the regulations. Last month, he filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to throw out the deal. More importantly, his attorney argued that the SEC was effectively trying to prevent him from exercising his “First Amendment rights.” So apparently it’s now about the US government trying to restrict a CEO’s free speech rights to post anything he wants including market sensitive comments about his stock price (as in a May 1, 2020 tweet from Musk that “Tesla stock is too high imo”).

Since Musk’s tweet incontinence seems incurable, it will be interesting to see what the SEC decides. As a government agency, it clearly cannot force Twitter to deplatform it, as that would indeed violate the First Amendment. In contrast, Twitter could ban it – as Donald Trump did – because it’s just a public company. though he now happens to be partly owned by him.

But what if Musk continued his practice of tweeting what under securities law is considered material information about his company — information that could affect his stock price? That would put him on a collision course with the law that would deter most corporate executives. Musk, however, has a reputation for being oblivious to legal regulations. At the start of the Covid-19 crisis, he reopened his California Tesla factory in defiance of a local lockdown order. As the Guardian reported at the time: “‘Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules,'” the billionaire CEO tweeted. “I will be online with everyone. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it’s only me. He also threatened to move its headquarters and “future programs” to Texas or Nevada “immediately” and suggested that the company could not continue to “keep Fremont manufacturing at all.”

We’ve come to a strange place where, as tech commentator Ranjan Roy puts it: “The US government regulator got into a fight with the world’s richest man over his ability to use a communications platform vital to his business interests – and he just went and actually bought the platform. Maybe that’s why he’s suddenly in favor of being able to revise his tweets. ultimately be his get out of prison card.

what i read

The remodeling of things to come
The Geopolitics of Fossil Fuels and Renewables Reshape the World is a wonderful reality check by Helen Thompson in Nature.

strange speech
A schemer New York Times language test is ‘Meatspace’? Technology does funny things to language by Peter Coy.

Philosophical perspective
The First Authoritarian: Popper’s Plato is an interesting essay by Tae-Yeoun Keum in the hedgehog review on Karl Popper’s interpretation of Plato.

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