Elon Musk, Twitter’s most prolific billionaire shitposter, now owns Twitter.
Musk and Twitter closed the $44 billion deal Thursday, one day before the Oct. 28 deadline set by Delaware Court of Chancery judge Kathleen McCormick earlier this month, and staves off a legal battle between the two that increasingly appeared to not be going in the Tesla CEO’s favor.
But now, the keys to the social media platform are squarely in the hands of a self-posited free speech absolutist who rolled into Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters carrying a sink (the equivalent of a real-life Musk tweet meant to mean “let it sink in”) and promptly fired multiple top executives.
It isn’t a shocker that some of the first to go were high-ranking names who Musk butted heads with throughout this months-long ordeal. We’re talking about the same person who responded to then-CEO Parag Agrawal’s lengthy Twitter thread about spam and bot account monitoring with a poop emoji and actively emboldened his followers to harass Vijaya Gadde, one of the site’s content moderation spearheads, while the deal was being processed.
General counsel Sean Edgett, who led Twitter’s legal team that pushed Musk to reverse course again and agree to see the deal through just days before he was to be deposed, also got the boot.
After all, Musk believes his purchase of the company will free it enough to become something better and bigger under his leadership. He literally tweeted “The bird is freed” as the executives who have futilely tried to make Twitter a safer platform were shown the door.
As much as Twitter has made strides in content moderation and policing hate speech on its platform pre-Musk, it still had a long way to go. And Musk’s promise to ease content restrictions in service of making Twitter the free speech platform threatens to roll back the progress that has been made. We’re already seeing it as a flood of racist and pro-Nazi posts from anonymous accounts popped up on Twitter in the hours following news of the deal’s closing.
The Twitter account of Ye, the former Kanye West, became publicly visible again on Friday for the first time since he was suspended earlier this month for posting grossly antisemitic messages that sparked a spiral of brands cutting ties with him and the announcement that he would buy conservative social media company Parler (which also isn’t doing too hot).
Musk has really only spoken in platitudes about his ideas on free speech and content moderation, saying that his Twitter would follow speech laws on a nation-by-nation basis and demonstrating a complete lack of understanding and/or respect for what constitutes hate speech. It fits with reports from Twitter employees that his vision for the company feels “incoherent.”
What he has spoken far more about is a focused engineering overhaul of the company’s platform, including its historically bad ad implementation and moderation of spam and bot accounts. The even loftier goal in Musk’s mind is using Twitter as a stepping stone to X, a one-stop online platform modeled after WeChat, China’s top social media app, that would embody the perfectly edgelord name that dates back to Musk’s pre-PayPal days.
WeChat started as a messaging app but now includes tools for banking, shopping, food delivery and more everyday tasks. Its diversification, as well as severe limitations on the operation of international social media services within China by its government, brought the app one billion daily active users, according to Insider.
But building a similar app in the current U.S. mobile space, much less social media specifically, presents a far more complex problem. The segmentation and specification of service apps is an accepted notion here, with plenty of brand recognition. Efforts by social media companies to diversify in any way similar to how WeChat has haven’t gone well either. It isn’t a one-to-one comparison, but Facebook Marketplace comes to mind. The jury is still out about how Twitter factors into plans for X, or even if X is a feasible idea in the first place.
Musk’s hubris isn’t lacking. We aren’t that far removed from his pontificating on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that equated to just giving Putin what he wants.
But all of this is further down the line and loses sight of what Musk actually bought in the immediate. He didn’t buy a tech platform that simply needs new tools and innovations. He bought a collection of the most toxic and habitually online people finding new ways to flame one another in between sponsored posts for Pepsi. As with any social media platform, its true product is its users. It’s truly dystopian to have to write that sentence, but it also isn’t an earth-shattering revelation in the social media age.
Musk’s actions and statements regarding his plans with his new toy fail to inspire confidence that he truly understands what he bought or thought about the challenges that come with it beyond the impulsive, trolly nature of the initial offer. Telling his bevy of acolytes and conservative followers that he’ll ease content moderation while also publicly promising advertisers that don’t want their products advertised next to racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and all other forms of hateful statements that Twitter won’t be “a free-for-all hellscape” don’t mesh with one another. One has to overtake the other.
No one knows how this will play out. It’s one of the more concerning wait-and-see moments the online generation has seen. The scenarios that immediately pop up are Musk’s followers that see him as the arbiter of their ability to spew hate speech turn on him when he realizes content moderation is key to monetizing the platform or Twitter becomes even more scorched earth and user counts continue to drop.
These may be two extremes, and, like most things, the actual future exists somewhere along the spectrum. But that’s all we have right now with an objectively bad platform in the hands of one its most obsessive and controversial users.