Elon Musk begins takeover of Twitter. Experts are wary
Powerful Tesla & SpaceX owner could profoundly change the social media landscape, free speech & how political information is disseminated
The battle for Twitter is over as Elon Musk closed on his $44 billion deal to take over the social media giant. As he begins to gut the company, experts see major upheaval ahead, and not just for Twitter employees.
Tesla and Space X’s CEO Musk has said he expects to enact cuts by up to 75% if the deal goes through. On Wednesday he visited Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco carrying a porcelain sink, according to his Twitter account.
“Entering Twitter HQ — let that sink in!” he wrote.
Musk said in a town hall with Twitter employees this year that the company “needs to get healthy,” but added “anyone who is a significant contributor should have nothing to worry about.”
The deal has been mired in uncertainty since Musk tried to back out, claiming the owners materially breached their obligations under the agreement by refusing to provide him with information about fake accounts. Months later, he announced he would seal the deal after Twitter sued him for breaching their agreement — condemning him for demanding the platform turn over information about the number of “spam bots” only after the price of Tesla stock nosedived.
Musk promises to gut the company at a time when Twitter has already downsized offices across the world. In July the company said no layoffs were planned, and in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing said it is losing workers at a slightly higher rate than in normal economic times but attrition is in line with tech industry trends.
What Musk will do with the platform, and what political effects those decisions will have, make experts uneasy. On Thursday, Musk told Twitter advertisers he doesn't want the platform to become a "free-for-all hellscape" where anything can be said with no consequences.
"The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence," Musk wrote. “There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far-right wing and far-left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society."
Jane Kirtley, a law professor at University of Minnesota Law School, said whoever owns Twitter wields considerable power in worldwide discourse. She said it is too early to tell what the “mercurial” Musk will do with it.
“Someone worth billions and billions of dollars, who can operate from anywhere in the world, really has a very powerful tool, if they want to use it to help enhance access to information.”
Kirtley said Musk may choose to maximize profit over goals like verifying statements before they are published. He will determine how much Twitter is just a conduit for information, and how much it engages with people’s posts.
Asked how Twitter could improve how it functions, Kirtley said she has mixed feelings about revamping it or continuing to remove powerful voices.
“There is always a risk with a small group of people being the arbiter of what is true and what is not," she said. "They’re not infallible, and I would rather see the public have the opportunity to get the information and make their own conclusions.”
John Cluverius, associate professor of political science at University of Massachusetts Lowell, said unmoderated free speech without consequences does not exist in America but he expects Musk to ban fewer users than the previous owners.
“The elephant in the room is Donald Trump’s Twitter account,” Cluverius said, predicting that Musk will reinstate the former president's account. "The prior president famously pushes boundaries, and as a result that makes regulating his activity on Twitter particularly difficult.”
Thanks to its succinct messaging style “without nuance,” he said Twitter has a great appeal for government officials and journalists despite having fewer users than Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat and Pinterest. In 2019 most Americans did not engage with political information on Twitter, even if 1 in 4 use the product according to Pew Research Center.
However, he added Musk is invested in the platform’s functionality due to his own political and financial entanglements — which could lead to suppressing unfavorable messages about his businesses or allies on Twitter.
“Musk is the richest person in the world, partially by way of extremely cozy relationships with national, state and local governments,” Cluverius said. “And he and his companies are dependent on government contracts, in a way that Twitter’s previous ownership and Meta are not.”
While Cluverius thinks the American political system is “largely resilient” against Twitter’s power to quickly disseminate false information, the bigger question is whether Twitter and its ilk will be used to disseminate hate speech "which nearly all Americans agree is intolerable and does not belong in polite public discourse.”
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at University of Mary Washington, believes the financial pressures Musk will take on in buying Twitter will help tame his plans for the platform.
“He’s paid a great deal for this property and will have to provide a great deal of money in debt service, and that’s going to create a great deal of pressure on him not to drive current Twitter users away,” he said. “That may mean Musk is not able to change Twitter as much as he might like, or risk paying a huge financial price if he does follow through on his libertarian vision for the social network.”