(CNN Business) — Elon Musk is ready to take over Twitter in a $44 billion deal which, at least judging by some of the reactions, looks like it could reshape the Internet as we know it.
Twitter may seem pretty ordinary on paper. The company’s user base and market value are less than a tenth the size of Meta, Facebook’s parent company. Its total revenue last year was about the same as Western Union’s. And before this month, shares of Twitter were below their closing price since their first day of trading more than eight years ago.
But Musk’s attempt to privatize Twitter has inspired unsolicited comments from US lawmakers, rampant speculation about his impact on the 2024 US presidential election, and even breathless, hyperbolic comparisons to Twitter. the last days of Weimar Germany.
So why, exactly, does the stakes seem so high?
The answer boils down to Twitter’s enormous influence on public discourse and the uncertainty of what happens when the world’s richest man, who revels in his unpredictability, gains singular control over that influence.
Although Twitter reported only 217 million active daily users last year, a far cry from the billions reported by its rival Meta, its users include highly influential politicians, business leaders, artists, activists and intellectuals, public figures with large followings who in turn shape public discourse around politics, media, finance and technology. More than two-thirds of US Twitter users say the platform is an important news source, if not the most important, according to the Pew Research Center. And Twitter’s agenda-setting power appears to be precisely what Musk is interested in and what makes his control of the platform so potentially disruptive.
Musk’s deal to buy Twitter comes at the confluence of multiple ongoing social debates, including about the power and influence of billionaires; the impact of misinformation and disinformation; and the responsibilities that technology platforms have to their users and society, and what new regulations should support them.
By becoming the owner of Twitter, Musk has suddenly collapsed many of these threads into one, just as lawmakers around the world seem poised to make some very big decisions about how social media should work.
“Their purchase of Twitter to take it private makes an essential service even less transparent and more irresponsible,” said Adam Connor, a former Facebook employee and vice president of technology policy at the Center for American Progress. “Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is a flashing red light on why the centralization of our online spaces in the hands of a select few billionaires is so dangerous.”
Musk did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Musk takes control of the digital citadel plaza
Musk, an eccentric billionaire with a history of generating controversy on and off Twitter, has personally pitched the acquisition with sky-high rhetoric. He has argued with his characteristic bombast that Twitter, and his bid to own the social network, “is extremely important for the future of civilization” because the world needs an “inclusive” digital public square that respects the principles of freedom of expression.
Musk’s main criticism of Twitter today is that it is too restrictive. Under his ownership, Musk suggested that Twitter would treat content more permissively, moving away from content removal and account banning. He has also proposed opening Twitter’s algorithm to public review so that, in theory, users can understand how it makes decisions.
What this means for the daily application of Twitter content is not entirely clear; Musk has avoided going into detail, and his objection to Twitter’s approach seems to be rooted more in how much content moderation Twitter needs, rather than whether it should have any. But the way his treatment is framed, and some of the backlash from outsiders, has turned the proposal into a kind of referendum on the future of online discourse.
One of the biggest underlying questions, voiced by industry watchers, political figures and Twitter employees, is whether the company will restore Trump’s account privileges. According to reports, Trump has said he will not return to Twitter even if he is allowed to return to the platform. But relaxing enforcement of the kinds of policies that blocked it could affect far more than just Trump. Several figures who have had their Twitter accounts blocked celebrated the deal on Monday, with some, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, expressing optimism that their access would soon be fully restored.
“This potential deal is so much more than the future of Twitter,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, a watchdog group that has asked Twitter to uphold the rules of its current platform. “A sale to Elon Musk with no strings attached will pollute the entire information ecosystem by opening the floodgates of hate and lies.”
All this comes at the exact moment when everyone, from former President Barack Obama until the legislators of the European Unionhave proposed holding social media platforms to a stricter standard on content moderation, not the most laissez-faire Musk preferred.
For a platform as important as Twitter, reducing content moderation could have huge consequences for both the way individual users experience the site—especially the most vulnerable users, including women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color. diverse races—as well as for the national and international dialogues that take place on the platform and ultimately influence world events.
Elon Musk’s growing empire, beyond Twitter
There is also the potential impact of the deal on Musk’s personal influence, particularly in relation to two of his other companies, Tesla and SpaceX.
Assuming the deal goes through, Musk will oversee the most valuable American car company, a leading private aerospace company, a tunneling company recently valued at more than $5 billion, a brain chip startup, and a social network with hundreds of people. million users.
Not only can Musk use his power over Twitter to ensure the platform gives him maximum leeway to tweet as he sees fit, but the acquisition gives him new political clout that only a billionaire can acquire, which could benefit to some of his other businesses.
Musk’s stance on content moderation has already endeared him to conservatives, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and more than a dozen House Republicans, who lobbied Twitter’s board to accept the agreement by suggesting that a rejection could be considered a betrayal of the interests of the shareholders. Several Republican governors have also said that Musk should consider moving Twitter’s headquarters to his estate.
As well as gaining credibility with some politicians, some, including one of Musk’s most high-profile rivals, have suggested that the Tesla chief executive can also earn a valuable bargaining chip on Twitter.
“Did the Chinese government gain a bit of influence over the town square?” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos mused on Twitter. Bezos, whose rocket and space tourism company Blue Origin competes with Musk’s SpaceX. Bezos added that while he thinks the chance of an outright censorship of Twitter in China is low, Musk’s ownership of Twitter could certainly mean more “complexity” for Tesla within China, which is now one of the biggest markets. from the car company.
Even if Musk’s Twitter rejects censorship requests from authoritarian regimes, it could make other concessions. As Brad Stone of Bloomberg pointed out, Twitter has had a policy of labeling state media organizations and government accounts, and not promoting them in recommendations. “The Chinese government surely hates these restrictions,” Stone wrote.
Now imagine that transactional logic applied to any situation in which Musk’s interests collide with those of others, which happens not infrequently. Musk has fallen out with journalists, lawmakers and even the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Would Musk go so far as to use his Twitter ownership as a tool for favors and score-settlement? On Monday, Musk hinted to the contrary when he said he hopes “even my worst critics will stay on Twitter, because that’s what free speech means.”
Of course, none of that constitutes promise to his critics, and Musk has been known to abruptly change course before.