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Sensemaker: Musk, Twitter, Trump

Sensemaker: Musk, Twitter, Trump

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Nearly 60 per cent of French voters said they thought Macron beat Le Pen in last night’s debate, in which he said Russia was her banker (more below).
  • Downing Street urged Conservative MPs in the UK to vote today to delay a parliamentary investigation into Johnson’s Covid lockdown party attendance.
  • Putin gave up on taking the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and ordered a blockade instead.
  • Novak Djokovic said Wimbledon was “crazy” to ban Russian players from this year’s tennis tournament.

Musk, Twitter, Trump

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. 


Ackman and Netflix 
Bill Ackman, the hedge fund manager who bet big on rising interest rates, has lost roughly $400 million offloading a stake in Netflix that was once worth $1.1 billion. He didn’t sell some of his shares; he sold all of them, despite pledging when buying them three months ago that he was into the company long-term and despite saying when selling them that he would “not be surprised to see Netflix continue to be a highly successful company”. It hasn’t been successful these past few months. Netflix has lost two-thirds of its value since October and 40 per cent since reporting its first ever drop in subscriber numbers earlier this week. Jane Campion won the Oscar for Best Director with the Netflix film The Power of the Dog, but prizes count for little when customers are churning and deeper-pocketed rivals (Disney, Apple) are parking tanks on your lawn. Speaking of rivals and vehicles, could Tesla be in for a correction now that VW and KIA EV sales are getting serious?


France’s future
If there’d been a knockout blow last night the Macron-Le Pen debate would be leading all the bulletins this morning. What Macron says is true: the future of Europe is at stake in France’s epic arm-wrestle between veiled nationalism and pro-EU centrism. But there wasn’t. Le Pen was much better prepared than five years ago, and much less inclined to look condescendingly across their twin desks than her opponent. Macron did swing and hit by reminding viewers Le Pen took out a loan from a Russian bank in 2015 and hasn’t paid it back. He also parried her attack on his dialogue with Putin by saying it was his duty as head of state. But Le Pen stuck carefully to talking points about the cost of living which may yet erode Macron’s ten-point poll lead in the last four days of campaigning. And her very presence as a contender whose anti-immigrant platform can be discussed in polite company shows how far, with her help, the French mainstream has shifted to the right in Macron’s first term. He concluded by saying he respected her as a rival. She did not reciprocate. 


Heavy weapons
On one side of the world Putin tests a new ICBM to remind Nato of his capacity to engage in mutually assured destruction. On the other, the Pentagon loads enough spare parts and artillery rounds onto C-17 transport planes to assure Ukraine of 20 new fighter jets and a howitzer barrage to match what Russia’s in the Donbas, at least for a few days. In the middle, in something of a surprise this morning, Russian forces closing in on the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol were told to abandon the goal of taking the plant and to blockade it instead so that not so much as a fly can escape. The new instructions are Putin’s via Sergei Shoigu, the seldom-seen defence minister. Their meaning is unclear. Taken at face value they look like a climb-down that could give Ukraine and its allies time to mount the extraction operation the plant’s defenders have been asking for, or even to prepare a counter-attack to break the siege. But Putin can’t claim victory in Mariupol as long as fighters hold out there. They will be wary of a sucker punch, with different sorts of weapons.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Assisted dying
For the first time, the Office for National Statistics has analysed suicide rates among those diagnosed with a terminal illness in the UK. It found people with low survival cancers were at 2.4 times higher risk of suicide than average, while those with certain chronic heart and lung  conditions were at nearly two times higher risk. Why does this data matter? Groups advocating for changes to assisted dying laws see it as evidence that the existing blanket ban on assisted dying is not actually protecting those with terminal illness. They say the ban means that i) people turn to extreme measures to end their lives – Dr Christopher Woollard stole and crashed a light aircraft earlier this year after finding out he had terminal cancer – and ii) fears of being implicated in criminal cases stifle conversations about death in healthcare settings, leaving people with terminal diagnoses without sufficient mental health support.

Will this data change the law? Not any time soon. Attempts in Westminster have stalled despite the efforts of Andrew Mitchell MP and Baroness Molly Meacher. It is looking more likely the law will change in Scotland, Jersey and the Isle of Man, but progress is slow even though polls show the public and doctors increasingly favour provisions for assisted dying. To note: the ONS data has also been used to argue for increased funding for end of life care rather than assisted dying, although there is nothing to say both can’t work in unison. See also our ThinkIn last year on the proposed UK bill. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Cheap green H2
Gas prices have risen so far that green hydrogen made with renewably-powered electrolysis of water is now, for the first time, cheaper in some places than grey hydrogen made from gas. This is only true where renewable power is super-abundant, such as close to hydropower plants in Scandinavia or wind and solar plants without too many other users bidding up prices, as in Namibia. But it’s progress. BloombergNEF has the numbers: $4.84-$6.68 per kilo of green H2 compared with $6.71 currently for the grey variety. Keep building wind and solar capacity, and the gap will widen. Hat tip: Handelsblatt and Carbon Brief. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis and Ella Hill.

Photographs Getty Images

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