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Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Tesla Inc., listens as Jim Bridenstine, administrator of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), not pictured, speaks during an event at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. SpaceXs Elon Musk and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine staged a public show of support for one another at the rocket companys headquarters Thursday, weeks after the two traded barbs over the closely held companys delayed efforts to fly astronauts for the first time. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Musk, Twitter, Trump

Musk, Twitter, Trump

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Tesla Inc., listens as Jim Bridenstine, administrator of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), not pictured, speaks during an event at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. SpaceXs Elon Musk and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine staged a public show of support for one another at the rocket companys headquarters Thursday, weeks after the two traded barbs over the closely held companys delayed efforts to fly astronauts for the first time. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If Musk got hold of Twitter and let Trump back on, there’s no telling where the political ramifications would lead – but back to the White House is certainly a possibility

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As war ravages Ukraine and a nationalist vies for the French presidency, Elon Musk vies for Twitter. It’s tempting to ignore him as one might a teenager screaming for attention, but the battle for control of the boomers’ favourite social media platform could help determine who becomes the next president of the United States.

The battle could fizzle. Musk doesn’t need Twitter. His $43 billion takeover offer is, as one tech-watcher says, a piece of “billionaire whimsy”. He’d like to see if he can outflank Twitter’s board but despite his record-breaking $264 billion net worth he’s cash-poor and it’s unclear how he would actually raise the finance. 

That said…

  • The board is taking the bid seriously enough to try to derail it with a so-called poison pill that would dilute his stake and voting power by offering other investors a flood of cheap new shares if his holding, now at nearly 9.2 per cent, passes 15 per cent. 
  • The poison pill expires in a year.

So it’s worth asking…

  • What does Musk really want? Free speech, he says. As he put it to the TED founder Chris Anderson last week: “My strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilisation.”
  • Is that code for letting Donald Trump back onto the platform? Yes, among other things. Trump was suspended from Twitter last January after tweeting support for the Capitol rioters. Musk has an ambiguous relationship with the ex-president but could give him back his loudest megaphone. As Felix Salmon of Axios tells Slate.com: “Owning 9.2 per cent of Twitter certainly does not give [Musk] the ability to bring Trump back. Owning 100 per cent of Twitter certainly does.”
  • Is he in it for the money? That too. Twitter’s financial performance has been slack by tech standards over the past five years.
  • There’s scope to juice ad revenues by tweaking algorithms and wooing younger users with looser content moderation, more buzz, or both. Users with big followings who seldom post new content, Musk notes, include Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Barack Obama, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.  
  • Does he look at that lot and see a liberal elite suffocating the kind of libertarian knockabout that he prefers? Absolutely.
  • Is Twitter Musk’s next Tesla? Absolutely not. Tesla took old tech and reinvented it to create demand where there was none. Twitter is relatively new tech in an already saturated market. 

To note: the free speech argument is largely hokum. Contrary to claims by Musk and others, Twitter is not the public square. It’s a private company with every right – and arguably a serious responsibility – to moderate content to prevent the propagation of hate speech and misinformation. Besides Trump, Twitter has suspended Milo Yiannopoulos (for racist harassment), Tila Tequila (for posting neo-Nazi content), Alex Jones (who threatens to cook and eat leftists) David Duke (the former KKK Grand Wizard), and Anjem Choudry (for supporting banned terror groups).

Musk’s whims come and go. He could let this one go at any time and walk away with a roughly $800 million gain on his investment, most of it a function of the market excitement it induced.

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