After more than six months of one of the most chaotic, high-profile business negotiations in recent memory, it’s finally real: Elon Musk, the richest person in the world, is in charge of Twitter.
Musk has reportedly fired CEO Parag Agrawal and two other top executives, CFO Ned Segal and head of legal policy, trust, and safety Vijaya Gadde, according to reports from CNBC the Washington Post, and the New York Times. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have reported that the deal closed Thursday night, although there is no official confirmation from Twitter or Musk at time of publication.
The reported acquisition means Musk, troll commander in chief, will avoid a lengthy legal battle that would force him to testify in court and reveal more potentially embarrassing private texts with his friends about the deal as part of the legal discovery process.
And Twitter won’t have to wait in limbo any longer as an orphaned tech company pleading for someone to take ownership. It also won’t have to deal with Musk’s public shitposting directed at the company’s leadership. (Musk tweeting a poop emoji at Agrawal may go down as one of the most juvenile executive insults of all time.) In the days leading up to the deal closing, Musk changed his tone to be a more friendly troll — on Wednesday, he visited Twitter HQ and made the rounds with employees, including a stunt in which he tweeted a video of himself carrying a sink into the office, captioned “Entering Twitter HQ — let that sink in!” and changed his Twitter bio to read “Chief Twit.”
But if you think the Musk-Twitter saga is over, you’re sorely mistaken. The real drama is yet to come.
Until relatively recently, Musk’s primary business interests were in building electric cars, rockets, and underground tunnels. Now, he will have to figure out a new, very different business challenge: how to effectively run a social media platform that’s used by nearly 400 million people — including highly influential world leaders, journalists, and other public figures — and deal with the political speech moderation issues that come with that. Musk also needs to figure out a better business model for the company. Twitter has never made nearly as much money as its social media competitors like Facebook and YouTube, and along with other major tech companies, it has also seen a major decline in its stock value in the past year. According to a recent report in Reuters, the service’s most active and lucrative users have been leaving in droves since the pandemic.
So far, Musk has thrown out a lot of ideas, often in the form of tweets, about how he plans to turn Twitter around. Here are some of the most significant ones.
Make Twitter a “free speech” platform. Whatever that means.
Musk’s most consistent messaging about why he wants to buy Twitter is that he wants it to be an open digital town square of ideas, without intervention. He has said that he will allow anyone to say anything they want on the platform, as long as it’s legal.
“I think it’s essential to have free speech and to be able to communicate freely,” said Musk at a Twitter employee meeting in June that Vox obtained a recording of.
But it’s not clear exactly how Musk plans to execute on his free speech promise, or what he even means by it.
The recent proliferation of “free speech”-themed platforms like Parler, Truth Social, and Gettr have shown that if you let anyone say whatever they want on a social media app, there’s a good chance that app could become a hate-filled, toxic place — which is why even these relatively more lax platforms have some basic content moderation policies.
There’s a lot of perfectly legal stuff you can say that is unpleasant to look at: racial slurs, graphic violent content, bullying, spam (more on that later). That type of content is generally bad for business because most users — and advertisers — don’t want to be around it.
Musk knows this. Which is why he has said, paradoxically, that he will use algorithms to promote and downrank content, arguing for “freedom of speech” but not “freedom of reach.”
“I think people should be allowed to say pretty outrageous things that are within the bounds of the law, but then that doesn’t get amplified, it doesn’t get, you know, a ton of reach,” said Musk at the June Twitter staff meeting.
But Musk didn’t explain how he will decide what kind of content will get reach and what won’t, and how it will be any different from what Twitter currently does. Twitter has long struggled with harmful content (as has every other major social media platform) — including an advertiser boycott in 2020 — and in recent years has expanded its policies against hate speech, harassment, and violent content.
On Thursday, Musk seemed to try to address concerns about his hands-off approach to content moderation by tweeting a public memo to advertisers. He wrote that Twitter “cannot became a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!” and added that he wants Twitter to be a place “where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences, just as you can choose, for example, to see movies or play video games ranging from all ages to mature.”
It’s unclear, though, how this choose-your-own-adventure strategy works with Musk’s overarching vision for a “common digital town square,” where people are debating a wide range of beliefs all in the same place. The balance between allowing free speech and making a social media platform a welcoming place is a tough one, and Musk has a lot of details here he will need to figure out.
Bring back Trump
Musk has said he would reinstate former President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, which was banned for his tweets about the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
“I think that was a mistake because it alienated a large part of the country and did not ultimately result in Donald Trump not having a voice,” Musk told the Financial Times in May. “Banning Trump from Twitter didn’t end Trump’s voice. It will amplify it among the right, and that is why it’s morally wrong and flat-out stupid.”
Musk’s comments about bringing back Trump, paired with his free speech mantra, has made him popular with conservatives who have long felt censored by Twitter and other social media companies, despite the fact that there hasn’t been tangible evidence of systematic anti-conservative bias and conservative influencers continue to have massive followings on platforms like Twitter.
While many conservatives would cheer Trump’s return to Twitter, it would simultaneously prompt major resistance from people, many of them liberal, who argue that his tweets pose a threat to a peaceful democracy. We’ll see how Elon is prepared to handle that blowback if he does reinstate the former president.
Get rid of bots
Musk has promised to fix Twitter’s “bots” issue — meaning the prevalence of accounts that post spam or inauthentic content like crypto get-rich-quick-schemes and phishing scams.
Bots are a major known issue on Twitter, although the company has maintained that they represent less than 5 percent of all accounts. Musk has said he thinks that number is much higher, around 20 percent or more, and used that as his legal basis for initially backing out of the deal.
Outside research has shown that while the prevalence of bots on Twitter might actually be under 5 percent, the reach of these bots in conversations overall can be outsized, as high as 20 percent.
Unlike reinstating Trump, getting rid of bots is probably also one of Elon’s least controversial plans because it’s hard to find people who love bots (or at least the malicious/spammy ones).
“I mean, frankly a top priority I would have is eliminating the spam and scam bots and the bot armies that are on Twitter,” Musk said at a TED conference in April. “I think these influence … they make the product much worse. If I had a dogecoin for every crypto scam I saw, I would have a hundred billion dogecoin.”
Ironically, even though Musk said one of the reasons he was buying Twitter was to get rid of bots, he made the existence of bots the basis for his case to try to get out of the Twitter deal, arguing that the company didn’t disclose the full extent of the issue.
Like it or not, bots are now squarely Elon’s problem to solve.
Make Twitter a “superapp” called X
Musk had said that he wants to fulfill Twitter’s potential by making it much more than a social media app: turning it into a “superapp.” The original superapp is China’s WeChat, which people use to do everything from paying their bills to ordering takeout to messaging their friends.
“You basically live on WeChat in China because it’s so useful and so helpful to your daily life. And I think if we could achieve that, or even close to that with Twitter, it would be an immense success,” said Musk speaking at an all-staff Q&A with Twitter employees in June that Recode obtained a recording of.
This is by far one of Musk’s most ambitious plans and the closest thing he has to a real business strategy. Currently, 90 percent of Twitter’s revenue is made through advertising. Musk said he would want to make Twitter less advertising-dependent and make more money by subscriptions (which Twitter already does), and potentially, making money through these superapp transactions.
Musk will have competition: Snap’s Evan Spiegel and Uber have also been pursuing the superapp idea.
It could also be a lot harder to build a true superapp in the US than in China, where there isn’t as much antitrust scrutiny stopping major communication platforms from establishing cross-industry monopolies.
If Musk is to achieve any of these goals, he will need smart people at Twitter to help him. With an already demoralized staff and his reported plan to cut 75 percent of the employee base, that’s going to be difficult.
In discussions with several current and former Twitter employees, staff described a climate of chaos and uncertainty. Some employees circulated a petition on Tuesday protesting Musk’s plans to cut 75 percent of Twitter’s workforce, and “to not be treated as mere pawns in a game played by billionaires.”
One current employee, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions for speaking with the press, said that everyone they know at the company is either “leaving or planning to leave.”
Many sources Recode spoke to found it implausible that Musk could effectively keep Twitter running with the kinds of drastic staff reductions he’s reportedly planned.
“It’s not only operations that will be hit. It takes many people and moving parts to meet basic regulatory and legal compliance in various parts of the world. How does [Musk] plan to continue to do that?” said Sarah T. Roberts, a former researcher at Twitter who left the company recently and is now a professor of information studies at UCLA.
One Twitter engineer, Manu Cornet, has been posting cartoons on his blog that reflect the current mood at Twitter.
In one sketch, Cornet drew passengers sitting on a Twitter-branded plane, crouched and bracing for impact.
If there’s one thing we know by now in following the Elon-Twitter deal, it’s that what Musk says he’ll do can be very different from what he actually ends up doing. But in the next few months, Twitter employees and Twitter users should be prepared for turbulent times.