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What Musk wants to do with Twitter

Loading playerThe news of the acquisition of the social network Twitter by the American entrepreneur Elon Musk for about 44 billion dollars (about 41 billion euros) was followed with great attention and punctuality by newspapers and international news sites, provoking in particular a extensive and transversal interest among market, new media and technology experts, as well as a long series of questions and concerns.

Twitter has been in recent years and still is one of the most influential platforms in the public debate, especially the US one, although it is not among the most popular social networks ever (it has about 200 million daily active users). Musk is considered to be the richest person in the world and is known for being the CEO of the electric car company Tesla and the company SpaceX, which brings satellites and astronauts into space. On top of all this, he is widely considered to be the most ambitious, unpredictable and charismatic of the Silicon Valley group of billionaire corporate executives.

Precisely in that group, as American journalist and political scientist David Rothkopf pointed out, Musk was so far the only one who did not own some large company in the media sector.

The richest guy on the 2021 Forbes 400 owns the Washington Post. Number 2 now owns Twitter. Number 3 owns Facebook. Numbers 5 and 6 started Google. Numbers 4 and 9 started Microsoft. Number 10 owns Bloomberg. Free speech? You decide.

– David Rothkopf (@djrothkopf) April 25, 2022

The richest person in the world on the Forbes 2021 chart – Jeff Bezos – owns the Washington Post. The second – Musk – now owns Twitter. The third – Mark Zuckerberg – owns Facebook. The fifth and sixth – Larry Page and Sergey Brin – founded Google. The fourth and ninth – Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer – founded Microsoft. The tithe owns Bloomberg.

If the explanation of the vast interest generated by the news of the Twitter sale to Musk appeared immediately understandable, the reasons for the acquisition and the forecasts regarding Musk's future plans beyond his recent statements are much more uncertain and undefined at the moment. .

Musk, moreover present and active on Twitter for a long time, had written in recent days that he wanted to extend the freedom of expression currently guaranteed on the social network and make the functioning of the platform public and accessible even in the more technical aspects, “by making the algorithm open source “. As has been requested for some time by many experts who deal with platform regulatory policies.

He also talked about the possibility for users to edit their tweets, a possibility currently absent, and expressed the desire that people with a large following were more active on the platform. She had expressed a preference for monetization through subscriptions over monetization through advertising. And he wrote that he wanted to improve the paid version of Twitter, make payments in cryptocurrencies possible, and step up the steps to remove fake accounts and automatic bots that spread messages to influence public debate.

If our twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!

– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 21, 2022

Apart from that, most of the comments and analysis circulated both before and after the official acquisition are lacking in detail and reflect a certain disbelief and a shared inability to predict the repercussions this event may have on both the evolution of Twitter. than on Musk's reputation, heritage and projects.

– Read also: The Twitter founder is also happy that the company switches to Elon Musk

A few days ago, in an article in which she was still quite skeptical about the Twitter sale, journalist Megan McArdle noted in the Washington Post that the deal – the deal should be finalized by 2022 – doesn't make much sense for Musk. first of all from a financial point of view. In fact, you risk seriously compromising his assets, estimated at around 268 billion dollars but mostly made up of Tesla shares, “which would begin to lose value when he sold an appreciable amount” to finance the operation. In general, then, the value of Tesla's shares has long been believed to be highly overestimated by many observers, as suggested by the fact that the company's market capitalization is roughly equivalent to that of the other ten automotive companies in the world combined, while producing a small fraction of their machines.

The other possible cause of problems for Musk is linked to the realization of his intentions, with respect to which a general distrust prevails in the newspapers. One thing is to buy Twitter and one thing is to transform it into what he wants, wrote McArdle, essentially sharing the perplexities of many commentators who find Musk's approach to a debate involving platforms engaged by years – and with very limited success – in managing the difficulties posed by the need to protect freedom of expression, counteract disinformation and expressions of hatred, respect the laws of individual countries and maintain a model of economic sustainability.

– Read also: Elon Musk and freedom of expression

Changing Twitter isn't like buying a house and deciding whether to renovate, wrote McArdle: A homeowner doesn't have to deal with 7,500 employees, each having their own ideas of what the house should look like in the end. And in the meantime he doesn't have to deal with the management of other matters, while Musk will have to take care of “restructuring” Twitter while remaining CEO of Tesla and SpaceX.

Regarding the possible resistance that Twitter could oppose to attempts at change, McArdle referred to a “sensitivity” and “corporate culture” which, especially with regard to content moderation choices, is the result of progressive adaptations to the inclinations of a relevant left-wing user base, to the preferences of advertisers who don't want to upset that base and also to the preferences of executives and the progressive part of the staff who work at Twitter.

Musk, who had previously opposed the politicization of the platform in the past, recently argued that the policies of any social media platform “are good if the most extreme 10 percent on the left and right are equally dissatisfied.”

A social media platform's policies are good if the most extreme 10% on left and right are equally unhappy

– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 19, 2022

However, the more progressive part of Twitter is the one most engaged on a daily basis in handling the many “gray areas” of moderation, McArdle wrote. Areas that no new Musk policy would be able to eliminate and with which employees whose work is essential to keep the platform engaging, preventing it from turning into a platform devoid of moderation, full of unwanted or unlawful content, would continue to compete on a daily basis.

– Read also: Substack's approach to content moderation

Many comments then focused on the possibility that the new policies of Musk, who defines himself “an absolutist of freedom of expression”, will allow former President Donald Trump to return to Twitter, after his expulsion due to the responsibilities attributed to him in providing support for the attack on the US Congress of January 6, 2021 through lies and coercion. Responsibility for which other platforms, such as Facebook, had made decisions similar to that of Twitter.

According to the New York Times, Musk's openness towards the idea of ​​reducing moderation interventions on Twitter on political issues could have as a first effect the further weakening of the already rather sluggish growth of Truth Social, the platform developed by one of Trump's companies as an alternative to the social media from which it was removed.

American journalist Derek Thompson also asked in an article in Atlantic whether a future reintegration of Trump on Twitter could possibly give him an advantage ahead of a candidacy in the 2024 presidential election. He did not provide answers, and he did not rule out the hypothesis that any new media attention to Trump's tweets will actually end up eroding the consensus around him among the moderates within the Republican Party.

In all cases, Thompson wrote, criticism of Musk and attention to the influence of his decisions in the political debate could only increase, probably beyond what is appropriate for “one who has worked and continues to work with the federal government.” (SpaceX sends satellites into space on behalf of the US government, among others). Due to Musk's popularity, according to Thompson, it is likely that issues relating to extremism and abuse on the platform will become even more central to the debate in the coming months, even regardless of any new moderation policies.

– Read also: How difficult it is to make a law on moderation of online content

“It's really very important that people have the perception that they are and are actually able to speak freely within the limits set by the law,” Musk said in a recent interview with TED conference chief Chris Anderson, in which he added that not being interested at all in the economic aspects but in the “future of civilization”.

In general, a substantial uncertainty regarding Musk's future plans is widely shared among journalists, commentators and analysts, also in consideration of the personality and aptitudes of the subject. “Anyone who is extremely sure of how it will turn out does not know what they are talking about,” wrote Thompson, summarizing the acquisition in these terms: “An executive in the auto and rocket business who has made a name for himself in the digital payments, bought a website where people scream at each other about the news “.

The proven successes of Musk as an executive of his companies, added Thompson, do not offer any guarantee of success even in the management of a social media: “it is as if the best lion tamer in the world pays to be locked up in a tank of sharks with a great white shark ». Despite all the uncertainties, according to Thompson, Musk's acquisition of Twitter should still be good for a publicly traded company that has lost a total of $ 861 million in its history as a public company, and whose corporate leadership is basically made up of a group of people who – unlike Musk – never use Twitter.

As regards the broader and more complex issue of freedom of expression, the forecasts are rather pessimistic. In many analyzes, there is generally a tendency to consider negatively the impact of choices made by private companies in matters of public interest. Regardless of which political party may be satisfied now dissatisfied with this or that intervention, “private power will always protect private power and not public interests,” Atlantic wrote.