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Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover

Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover

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There were legal wranglings, lots of firings and plenty of missteps when one of the world’s richest men bought Twitter. Why did Elon Musk do it and what does it mean for the social network?

“Why does Tesla exist? Why are we making electric cars? Why does it matter? It’s because it’s very important to accelerate the transition to sustainable transport.”

Elon Musk at unveiling of Tesla Model 3

Since 2008, Elon Musk has been the head of Tesla, the pioneering electric vehicle company.

Born in South Africa, he was an awkward kid from a rich family who, by the time he was 30, had made millions of dollars designing online city guides.

“Just three years ago I was showering at the YMCA, sleeping on the office floor. Now I’ve got a million dollar car and quite a few creature comforts. It is a moment in my life.”

Elon Musk on CNN, 1999

And through the money transfer service PayPal, his rocket company SpaceX and eventually Tesla, he became much wealthier.

“Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk is officially the richest person ever with a net worth of $271.3 billion.”

Forbes

There are plenty of billionaires most of us haven’t heard of, but over the past decade or so Elon Musk has developed quite a reputation.

But this year, he has been associated with one company in particular: arguably the world’s most influential social media site: Twitter.

“Elon Musk has bought nearly 10 per cent of Twitter for an investment of around $3 billion.”

CNN

In April 2022, after weeks of taking shots at Twitter for – he says – failing to uphold free speech, Elon Musk became the company’s biggest shareholder. 

And more was to come.

A few days later he tried to buy Twitter outright for $44 billion dollars. That’s a lot of money, even for one of the world’s richest men.

A turbulent few months ensued.

First Twitter tried to keep him close by offering him a place on its board, but he rejected that and made a hostile bid to buy it instead.

Then Elon Musk tried to back off – saying he was worried about the number of fake accounts on the site – only to be sued by Twitter which wanted to close the deal.

The lawsuit was about to go to trial when Elon Musk backed down, saying he’d buy it for the original price he offered.

And on 4 October 2022, the deal was done.

“Elon Musk has now completed his $44 billion deal to buy Twitter after months of legal battles. And he’s changed his own Twitter title to Chief Twit… Mr Musk just tweeted ‘the bird is free’ to his 110 million followers.”

BBC News

So what has happened since then?

In a word, chaos.

Elon Musk sacked top executives and a week later he fired almost half of Twitter’s staff.

“This morning thousands of Twitter employees are out of a job. After roughly half the staff received this message via email Friday: ‘Today is your last working day at the company.’ Elon Musk saying in a tweet he had: ‘No choice.’ All of this just seven days after he acquired the company.”

NBC Today

In a recent episode of Tortoise’s Slow Newscast we reported that Twitter’s former CEO Parag Agrawal already had a plan to cut the workforce by almost half. But since taking over Elon Musk has got rid of almost three quarters.

That’s because, after the first round of dismissals, he then asked those remaining to sign a pledge to be “hardcore” or else quit. Hundreds of staff resigned.

“It shouldn’t be Elon’s Twitter. It should just be Twitter. And this is one of the mistakes he’s made by being so vocally frontman of the business right now.”

Ross Gerber, Tortoise Slow Newscast

Ross Gerber is a private investor in Twitter and Tesla. He’s a big fan of Elon Musk, but told Tortoise that he thinks Musk should’ve set up a content moderation committee to decide which banned accounts to reinstate. Something he promised to do, but hasn’t so far.

Instead Elon Musk used the results of a poll posted on his own feed to let Donald Trump, the former US president, back on Twitter.

“This was exactly what I told him not to do, which is be the singular judge of content in the world. It’s a horrible job to be in, because the subtleties and nuances of free speech and hate speech is a tough one.”

Ross Gerber, Tortoise Slow Newscast

Elon Musk fired a lot of people who worked in content moderation, so it’s perhaps not surprising that, according to researchers, hate speech on Twitter has increased substantially since he took over. (Although he says it’s down.)

So why is Elon Musk and his takeover of Twitter so significant?

The reason this story matters is because Twitter matters.

It doesn’t make much money, but it’s the nearest thing there is to a global town square where people can exchange news, information and opinions in real time.

The site has over 200 million users, including some of the world’s most important figures, from presidents to celebrities to activists.

I’m hoping in the next month, which I doubt, but maybe quarter, that he’ll have a new CEO for Twitter. I don’t think he’s suited to be CEO of Twitter. 

Ross Gerber, Tortoise Slow Newscast

Ross Gerber wants Elon Musk to step back and let someone else run it day-to-day. But that would still allow Elon Musk to do pretty much whatever he wants with it.

Elon Musk might, in time, make Twitter better. But right now there’s a real danger that misinformation could become even more rife, and importantly, marginalised voices could be forced off the platform.

If people can’t be heard in the global public square, that’s a problem.

This episode was written by Xavier Greenwood and mixed by Katie Gunning.