Elon Musk is widely considered the foremost entrepreneur of the era, a brilliant innovator who has brought electric cars to a mass market and made commercial space flight a reality.
But after agreeing to buy Twitter this week for $44bn, the world’s richest person has put himself at the centre of a politically toxic debate about free speech.
Why would such a restless individual swap dreams of one day colonising Mars for the more earthly pursuit of running a contested social media platform?
“That’s a mystery to me,” says Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford University, echoing a common view that has been in Silicon Valley this week. “He’s jeopardising that [his other businesses and plans] in order to do . . . what?”
With his promise of scrapping restrictions that he says threaten freedom of expression on Twitter, Musk has put himself on course for a clash with regulators and politicians around the world.
“There are people who think this could be his Waterloo,” says Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, who believes Musk could find himself dealing with a “torrent” of regulatory problems at Twitter.
Yet Musk’s supporters are equally adamant that with his professed aim of fighting for free speech, he is taking on a cause that is every bit as important as those pursued by his other companies.
“He is driven to improve the world,” says Keith Rabois, a tech investor who is also a vocal conservative on Twitter.
Musk’s lightning raid on Twitter this month was undertaken in typically mercurial style. He first claimed to have taken a passive stake, only to reverse course on accepting a board seat and then turning around days later with an unsolicited takeover bid. The unexpected twists inevitably left questions about the real motivation for what is set to be the biggest-ever personal corporate acquisition — and whether even Musk himself had thought it through.
By general agreement on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, Musk’s main reason for pursuing Twitter is not financial gain — although the secret 9 per cent stake he built up in the company earlier this year was certainly well timed. Twitter shares had fallen by more than 50 per cent from their high point last year before he purchased his initial stake.
His takeover offer, when it came, was still 26 per cent below the high. But the sharp correction in tech stocks since late last year made it too good for the board to resist. After adopting a poison pill arrangement to buy time to consider other options, Twitter’s board days later grabbed at Musk’s offer with both hands.
The acquisition should be seen as “the biggest philanthropic deal in history”, according to one veteran Silicon Valley financier. “It’s not a great business, it’s not growing, it’s not worth what he offered.” Twitter’s directors, faced with the chance of selling out at a premium that probably wouldn’t come again, “had to take it.”
Even if he has overpaid, Musk’s supporters argue that he can bring changes to Twitter that will improve its service and boost financial prospects over time. “He’s a uniquely good product manager, he sees the things that need to be fixed,” says one person in Musk’s circle.
Some former Twitter executives also concede the company could do with more decisive leadership. One former senior engineer says that co-founders Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey, who each served as CEO, were temperamentally incapable of standing behind difficult decisions in the face of criticism, making it hard for the company to stick with any course of action for long. For Musk, by contrast, self-doubt is unknown.
If purely business motives can’t explain Musk’s interest in Twitter, then ownership of a communications platform with more than 200mn users could bring other benefits. Twitter’s unique place in the media world rests on helping to shape opinion around the most important news as it breaks — at least among the politicians, journalists, celebrities and business figures who hold most sway in its echo chamber.
The explosion of tech wealth in recent years has brought other attempts to gain media influence. They include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post for $250mn in 2013, while Salesforce’s Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne, paid $190mn for Time magazine five years later.
Nothing, though, comes close to the scale of Musk’s Twitter deal, or the close personal identification between buyer and platform. The service has done much to shape — and amplify — his controversial public persona, and Musk himself says it is an important part of his life. “Some people use their hair to express themselves. I use Twitter,” he said in an interview with the FT late last year.
As the most prominent business person on Twitter, he uses it to entertain and amuse, while getting one-up on rivals and settling scores. Last week, after disclosing he had had a spat with Bill Gates over a large short position Gates had taken in Tesla stock, Musk posted an unflattering picture of the Microsoft co-founder, along with a characteristically puerile comment: “In case u need to lose a boner fast.”
While such antics delight his millions of followers, they also have a dark side, as Musk punches down at the less powerful in ways that often lead to a piling-on from his more fervent followers. He was busy this week, for instance, criticising Twitter employees who he believed had gone too far in censoring content. The attack brought a terse response from former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo: “Bullying is not leadership.”
Musk’s personal vendettas have fed worries that, as owner, he will inevitably shape Twitter in his own image, making the platform more unruly. If it takes a commitment to civility to improve the level of discussion, then Musk is the last person to set the right tone, according to critics like Reich: “He’s like a walking stereotype of a pubescent tech bro.”
Musk’s divisive Twitter persona has paid dividends in terms of the attention it has earned him. By the end of this week, he had 88mn followers on Twitter, four times as many as in 2018, when his dismissive put-down of a rescue worker as “pedo guy” landed him with a defamation lawsuit.
Along with the psychic satisfaction and personal elevation Musk has gained through Twitter, the service has also been highly useful in helping him promote his business interests. Being highly visible on Twitter is “part of his branding and free advertising for Tesla”, says Walter Price, a portfolio manager at Allianz Global Investors and Tesla shareholder.
Tesla investors have been among those to suffer fallout from Musk’s bid for Twitter, as worries that he would have to sell stock to pay for the deal have added to volatility this week in Tesla’s share price (by Friday, it emerged he had sold $8.5bn of his Tesla stake this week.) But few have so far shown any concern over the possible distraction for Musk if Twitter comes to take up a bigger share of his attention.
With a stronger management group in place at the electric carmaker, “he is less needed, except for strategy, now,” says Price, adding: “Concerns about his selling stock have been good buying opportunities in the past.”
But if Musk’s other business interests give him good reason to take control of a platform that he can shape to his whim, his critics say they could also expose Twitter to political pressures that might harm the service.
Bezos, founder of Amazon and the world’s second-richest person, suggested as much this week. Pointing to the importance to Tesla of the Chinese market and its battery supplies, Bezos asked: “Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?” He went on to say that this “probably” wasn’t the case and that Musk was skilled at handling difficult political situations like this, but the seed had been sown.
According to Musk himself, meanwhile, there has been a simple reason for the acquisition that has nothing to do with his personal interests: He is out to protect free speech. With creeping censorship overtaking platforms such as Twitter, the “future of civilisation” depends on acting now, he said at a conference last week.
Some question whether it could ever be possible for a single, rich owner of a social media platform to represent the interests of a wide group of people in the way that Musk promises. “A plutocrat coming to the rescue of the town square is on its face self-refuting,” says Reich.
But Musk’s supporters insist that he should be taken at his word, and that Twitter is in serious need of remediation. The platform displays “substantial bias” and “has been suppressing conservative perspectives and actively engaging in viewpoint discrimination,” claims Rabois, echoing an allegation that has become prevalent on the right.
By taking the issue head-on, Musk has stepped into a highly partisan dispute over free speech that has reverberated widely, with social media platforms a particular focal point. Two different issues have combined to complicate the dispute, often leaving both sides talking past each other.
One involves a disagreement about content, and who should have the power to make judgments about what is permissible. Criticising Twitter’s attempts to weed out misinformation, the Musk ally says: “What they mean by disinformation is people who disagree with them.”
The second issue is a more fundamental question about the meaning of freedom of speech. “I don’t think [Musk] is using the term properly, it’s stirring up a lot of misdirected debate,” says Goldman.
For Musk — and for many on the right — reinforcing freedom of speech has meant removing restrictions they claim are designed to suppress certain points of view. For the left, on the other hand, it has become about protecting the less powerful from the consequences of others’ speech, creating an environment where more people feel they have a voice and can be heard.
This polarisation along party lines has fed a suspicion that Musk’s intervention is politically motivated — something he has done nothing to dispel. Adopting familiar partisan rhetoric, for instance, he tweeted an illustration this week that clearly laid the blame for the widening gulf over speech at the feet of “woke” progressives.
“He fits the typical techno-libertarian model”, says Reich — putting him squarely among those who believe in a limited role for government and the power of technology to improve the human condition. That would put him in the same camp as Peter Thiel, the tech investor who, like Musk, was a co-founder of PayPal, and who has become an important funder of Republican politicians.
Yet people who know Musk say the two men have little in common and are not allies, and that it is wrong to ascribe political motives to his pursuit of Twitter. “He’s not a Republican — he’s not even politically conservative,” says the Musk ally. “He just believes in free speech. That’s not something the Left believes in at the moment.”
Whatever Musk’s motivation, however, critics say his promise to loosen restrictions on speech will backfire. In this view, he is naive to believe that he can jettison content moderation rules without turning Twitter into a free-for-all that will result in a tide of abuse and misinformation, undoing years of work at the company.
Regulators are already on alert. Thierry Breton, the commissioner in charge of the EU’s internal market, has already delivered what he called a “reality check” to Musk, telling the FT this week that Twitter could be fined or even banned if it doesn’t follow the EU’s content rules.
Adjusting content moderation rules is always “fundamentally a zero-sum game”, says Goldman. “You can’t make anyone better off without making someone else worse off.”
The ink is barely dry on the acquisition agreement and Musk won’t take control until late this year. Given the speed with which he has changed his position on Twitter in just the past month, it’s not inconceivable that he will walk away from the deal — something that would cost him a $1bn penalty, about the amount of profit he has made since amassing his stake in the company.
But if his passion for free speech runs as deep as he claims, one of Twitter’s most prolific users will soon take full control of the megaphone — for better or worse.