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Elon Musk goes shopping

Elon Musk goes shopping

Twitter’s board has accepted Elon Musk’s offer to buy the social media company for around $44 billion. But what’s he going to do with it?

“Elon Musk has bought Twitter for approximately $44 billion… he’s going to be paying each share of Twitter $54.20…” 

MSNBC

When Elon Musk took a nine per cent stake in Twitter and then offered to buy it outright, you might have thought he was only toying with the idea.

After all, he likes to promise the earth.

A hyperloop to speed people between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A million robotaxis on the road by 2020. Brain implants that enable humans to communicate telepathically. And a self-sustaining city on Mars. 

Brave new worlds that, for all of Elon Musk’s genius, are all too often built on little more than a wing and a prayer.

But things move quickly when, like Musk, you have billions of dollars to spare, having made a fortune as a co-founder of PayPal and then even more money from Tesla, the electric vehicle company. Even quicker if you’re Elon Musk, a man known above all for his unpredictability.

With $21 billion in cash, and $25.5 billion in financing, Elon Musk is buying Twitter. 

It’s thought to be the biggest purchase to take a company private for at least 20 years.

In exchange he gets a social network with far fewer users than Facebook and Instagram, that has only been profitable for two of the past 10 years, and that has become a flashpoint for misinformation and political hostility.

“Tonight a deafening silence from the president’s Twitter account in his waning days as commander in chief. Twitter, run by CEO Jack Dorsey, saying after a close review of the president’s recent tweets [that] it banned him ‘due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

NBC news

It doesn’t sound like a golden ticket to money or to popularity.

So what’s Elon Musk up to?

***

Elon Musk is a prolific tweeter. 

He joined the platform in 2009, three years after it was created, and now enjoys sharing memes and news about Tesla and SpaceX to his 85 million followers, mostly, according to him, from his “porcelain throne”.

He’s also found romance, reportedly meeting Grimes, his former partner who he has two children with, on Twitter. 

But some of Elon Musk’s tweets have got him into trouble.

“Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has denied that he meant to call a British cave diver a paedophile when he dubbed him ‘pedo guy’ on social media.”

CNA news

And he is being sued by Tesla’s investors for tweeting about the company’s stock which they claim caused “billions of dollars in losses”.  

But Elon Musk’s desire to buy Twitter is nothing new. In 2017, he replied to a tweet asking how much it would cost. On 16th April of this year, he replied to that same thread with an upside down smiley emoji. 

So why’s he bought it?

***

“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. I don’t care about the economics at all.”

Elon Musk, TED talk

Elon Musk has said he wants to quote, “unlock” Twitter’s “extraordinary potential” as a more open “arena for free speech”.

“In a statement released by the company, Mr Musk said free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated…”

MSNBC

The tech tycoon has described himself as a “free speech absolutist” but the problem with allowing unfettered freedom of speech on Twitter is that some views will get amplified more than others. 

The mechanism for deciding what is and isn’t acceptable on the platform is called moderation and Elon Musk says he wants to scale that back.

Buying Twitter may help his other businesses too. Here’s Ros Gerber, a friend of Elon Musk and investor in Twitter speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme… 

“It’s a very important mouthpiece actually for Tesla and the message that his largest asset uses for advertising so the integrity of Twitter does have a strategic importance within Elon Musk’s empire.”

Ros Gerber, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme

***

Elon Musk may have his work cut out. He’s chosen to buy Twitter at a time when the social media industry is coming under more stringent regulation.

Last week the EU announced the Digital Services Act, meaning companies like Twitter, Meta and Google will be required to do more to tackle illegal content or they could face billions in fines.

“The DSA will bring more transparency and control for users, as well as clearer responsibilities and accountability for very large online platforms…”

European Commission spokesperson

And the UK’s online safety bill will come into force around the end of this year too. 

Elon Musk has pledged to “defeat the spam bots or die trying” and “authenticate real humans”, something that would make Twitter a safer space but making that possible with the technology available will be difficult. 

And his plan to reduce content moderation would only lead to more spam, pornography, misinformation, violent incitement and hate speech.  

It could also lead to former president Donald Trump returning to the platform. He was permanently banned after the Capitol riot in January 2021.

“Mr Trump lost his primary megaphone overnight when Twitter permanently shut down his personal account, breaking off connection to his 90 million followers. They also suspended one used by his campaign.”

CNBC

But earlier this month, Elon Musk said he was “very cautious” about permanently banning users.

And although he’s not directly commented on Donald Trump, he did tweet this at the time: “A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”

So the takeover has left many liberals feeling nervous.

Twitter will now become a private company. Corporate conservatism has lost out to individually based libertarianism. What’s clear is that Elon Musk will be able to continue to freely influence millions of people, all from his porcelain throne called Twitter.

Today’s story was written by Imy Harper and Xavier Greenwood with additional reporting by Sebastian HervasJones.