What Elon Musk Really Wants From Twitter. To Champion ‘Free Speech,’ or Something Else?

Why does the world's richest human want to be in charge of the world's most influential social media platform?

PUBLISHED NOV 4, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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Elon Musk is now in control of the world's most influential social media outlet. What happens next?

Elon Musk is now in control of the world's most influential social media outlet. What happens next?   Sergei Elagin / Shutterstock   Shutterstock License

Late on Nov. 3, a company-wide email which was simply signed “Twitter,” and not by Elon Musk, the world’s richest human, informed the employees of the San Francisco-based social media company that layoffs would begin the following day. The email did not say which or how many employees would get the ax, however, according to a New York Times report.

Even as Musk reportedly prepared to put thousands of Twitter employees out of work, he also canceled monthly “rest days” for those who remained. The Twitter policy granting each employee one day off per month in addition to paid vacation and sick days was designed to minimize employee burnout and exhaustion, a common problem in the technology industry.

Chaos Becomes the Norm on Twitter 

On the site, weirdness reigned as well. Most shockingly, in one of his own frequent tweets, Musk appeared to endorse a baseless smear against Paul Pelosi, husband of United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had been attacked and severely injured in his San Francisco home. 

The man arrested for the attack, David DePape, was reportedly driven by extreme right-wing conspiracy theories and had targeted Nancy Pelosi whom he believed was “leading a dangerous and corrupt political establishment,” according to a report by Politico.

Some Republicans and conservative activists, however, sought to deflect responsibility for any connection between their own longtime rhetoric and Depape’s actions. Instead, they floated a sordid theory claiming that the 82-year-old Paul Pelosi was essentially responsible for his own attack because he had invited DePape into his home for illicit purposes. Witness evidence and statements by DePape himself and Paul Pelosi completely contradicted the fabricated smear.

That didn’t stop Musk, however, from tweeting a link to an article from a site known for publishing misinformation, with his own comment, “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye.” Musk later deleted the tweet, but without any further statement, apology or explanation.

When Musk first made his proposal to buy Twitter, he said that his main reason was that he hoped to turn the platform into an outlet for “free speech.” But his Pelosi tweet only appeared to confirm fears that by “free speech” what Musk really meant was “right-wing disinformation.” Republicans and other figures on the political right have long complained that social media platforms—Twitter and others—impose “censorship” on their viewpoints.

What Does Musk Really Want?

Musk himself has claimed that he doesn’t care about making money with Twitter. 

“This is not a way to sort of make money. My strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important,” he said in April, shortly after he announced his unsolicited bid for Twitter. “So the future of civilization, but you don’t care about the economics at all.”

So what is Musk’s actual agenda for Twitter? 

The real question may be, what is the agenda of the people who put up the money? A brief look at some of Musk’s top investors suggests that Musk’s real purpose may not be money as much as control of information—refashioning Twitter into the right-wing propaganda outlet that Musk’s own online behavior and the behavior of his fans indicate that it is already becoming.

Musk has a reported net worth of $200 billion (down from $223 billion before his purchase of Twitter). Most of that “worth” is in the form of stocks in his various companies—and much of that stock is in his electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla. According to a Reuters analysis, Musk had about $20 billion in cash after he sold some of his Tesla stock last year, then again in April and August of 2022. 

But that otherwise impressive sum fell well short of the $46.5 billion he would need to cover Twitter’s purchase price, plus closing costs on the deal. 

So Musk recruited other investors. Those included Larry Ellison, co-founder of the technology company Oracle and the fifth-richest person in the world with a reported net worth of about $99 billion. What was Ellison’s motive to write a $1 billion check to help Musk buy Twitter?

Only Ellison knows for sure. But it is a matter of public record that Ellison, a supporter of Donald Trump,  has been involved in Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. In the 2022 election cycle Ellison donated $20 million, the most he has ever donated in a single cycle, to Opportunity Matters, a SuperPAC that backs Republican candidates including at least four who have also denied the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, the site’s co-founder, put $978 million worth of stock toward Musk’s purchase. Though he had consistently allowed Trump’s often disruptive presence on Twitter while Trump was in the White House, it was Dorsey who gave the go-ahead to suspend Trump from the site permanently following the January 6, 2021, insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol. Musk has said he would reinstate Trump’s Twitter account, and Dorsey publicly stated that he agreed with Musk, and Trump should be allowed back on the platform.

The CEO of Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, had his company invest $500 million in Musk’s purchase of Twitter. Why? According to Changpeng Zhao, his company made the investment because “we want to be extremely supportive of free speech.”

Hate Makes a Comeback

Multiple research studies have debunked the “censorship” claim. A 2021 study at New York University found that, to the contrary, social media algorithms tend to amplify right-wing voices and in any event, there is no evidence that they are being suppressed. 

Another study in 2020 by the site Politico and the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (a nonpartisan think tank that monitors online extremism) found that right-wing voices “continue to shape the worldviews of millions of U.S. voters” on social media, and drive online conversation to a far greater extent than traditional news outlets or liberal commentators—contradicting “the prevailing political rhetoric from some Republican lawmakers that conservative voices are censored online.”

As if Musk’s own tweet wasn’t evidence enough that the site would take a markedly more tolerant approach to far-right conspiracy theories and falsehoods, within hours of his taking control numerous conservative personalities “began recirculating long-debunked conspiracy theories, including about COVID-19 and the 2020 election,” according to a report by the business magazine Fortune

Hate speech also ran amok. In the first 12 hours of Musk’s ownership according to researchers at Montclair University, the site hosted an average of 398 “hate-filled” tweets per hour—that is, tweets that used vulgar or hostile language to attack “individuals based on race, religion, ethnicity, and orientation.” Over the previous seven days, Twitter saw a maximum of 84 “hate-filled” tweets in an hour.

A Saudi Arabian Spying Operation?

Then there’s Saudi Arabia. The country’s Kingdom Holding Company and company founder Prince Alwaleed bin Talal,  a member of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family, the House of Saud, reinvested its existing Twitter stock into Musk’s purchase. The $1.89 billion investment makes bin Talal’s company—which is 16.9 percent owned by the Saudi government’s Sovereign Wealth Fund—the second-largest investor in Twitter.

The Saudi involvement prompted two U.S. Senators, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Ron Wyden of Oregon, to call for a national security review of the Twitter sale. Murphy pointed to the “vast stores of data that Twitter has collected on American citizens,” which could now be shared with the Saudis, also saying that the “potential that Twitter’s foreign ownership will result in increased censorship, misinformation, or political violence is a grave national security concern.”

Wyden added that “the United States has a national security interest in protecting Americans’ data from murderous foreign governments, and this Saudi regime absolutely fits that description.”

The Saudis using Twitter as a way to illegally gather data on the regime’s opponents, or anyone, would not be without precedent. In August, a Twitter employee named Ahmad Abouammo was convicted in a federal court of passing user data of critics of the Saudi regime to Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, through one of the prince’s aides. 

Twitter investor Bin Talal was one of more than 30 top Saudi royals who in 2017 were arrested and imprisoned by bin Salman. Though Riyadh’s luxury Ritz-Carlton Hotel served as the arrested royals’ cushy “prison,” reports later emerged that bin Salman subjected his fellow royals to psychological and even physical torture during their confinement there—and forced them to grant him large shares of their financial assets to buy their release.

While details of bin Talal’s confinement are unclear, his targeting by bin Salman in the crackdown has raised questions as to how completely he really controls his Kingdom Holding Company, which is now Twitter’s largest minority owner.

Another wealthy Middle Eastern country, Qatar, also invested in Musk’s purchase, to the tune of $375 million. 

‘They’re Trying to Destroy Free Speech in America’

If you wondered how Musk planned to keep advertisers—who accounted for 89 percent of Twitter’s reported $5.1 billion in total revenue in 2021 (the other 11 percent came primarily from licensing data)—on board even as the site headed toward becoming the “free-for-all hellscape” he explicitly promised them it would not be, you would not be alone. 

As the various unsavory developments unfolded in the wake of Musk’s takeover, a series of major corporations, including General Motors and Audi,  said they would “pause” their advertising. IPG Media Brands, a global marketing agency that represents such high-profile companies as Nintendo, CVS Pharmacy and Unilever (maker of Dove soap, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and dozens of other products) also recommended that its clients hold off on buying Twitter ads for at least a week to see how the Musk situation developed.

On Friday morning, the same day he was reportedly set to begin mass layoffs at Twitter, Musk complained (via his own account), “Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists. Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America.”

How Does Musk Make Money Off This Mess?

So how did Musk plan to make money off of Twitter? In his inaugural week helming the company, he floated several ideas, mostly revolving around the idea of converting the free-to-use site over to a paid-subscription model. Most notably, Musk announced that he would start charging a monthly fee of eight dollars to users for Twitter’s “blue check” verification. There are currently about 423,000 verified users on the platform.

The verification system dates back to 2009 and was designed to provide users with assurance that the person whose name was on a Twitter account was really that person, not an imposter. Twitter’s CEO at the time, Biz Stone, introduced the system after Tony LaRussa, then-manager of Major League Baseball's St. Louis Cardinals, sued the company because an imposter using his name ridiculed the auto-accident death of two Cardinals players. Fake celebrity accounts were a recurring issue on the site during that period. (LaRussa later dropped his lawsuit.)

But Musk apparently sees the system, in which verified user accounts are marked with a blue checkmark insignia, as nothing more than a status symbol. He called it a “lords and peasants system” and described the difference between verified and unverified users as “bullshit.” Under the new “Twitter Blue” system, anyone who pays the fee would receive the blue check, without needing to verify their identity. 

Verification, a process used by other social media sites as well, serves as a means to combat the spread of misinformation online. Without it, users with politically nefarious motivations or just trolls who want to create chaos can pose as actual journalists or political figures to spread falsehoods and propaganda. According to a New York Times report, Musk planned to lift the verification requirements and put the fee-based system in place on Nov. 7, one day before the 2022 midterm elections.

Competition With Porn Sites?

Musk was also reported to be contemplating putting at least some videos posted on Twitter behind a “paywall,” meaning they would be viewable only by users willing to shell out a fee. Twitter is one of the few remaining mainstream social media platforms that continue to allow sexually explicit posts, including videos. Charging for access to those adult videos would inevitably put Twitter in competition with PornHub, OnlyFans and other porn sites.

Musk according to a New York Times report has also considered a plan that would charge fees that would allow any user to send direct, private messages to celebrities and other high-profile users—a feature that seems more likely to cause those high-profile users to leave the site to avoid the inevitable flood of harassing messages from strangers, than to increase their use.

Would those paid services actually increase Twitter revenue, or just drive away users? That question is impossible to answer until it happens, but charging users for services that were originally free has always been a tricky proposition at best.

Is Musk Already Softening ‘Free Speech’ Stance?

As for Musk himself, he may have inadvertently revealed his own agenda by his tweet apparently endorsing the smear against Pelosi. But he also announced that he would create a “content moderation council” and said he had been in discussions with a range of civil rights and advocacy groups to discuss how Twitter would "continue to combat hate and harassment and enforce its election integrity policies."

Trump also said that he would not allow Trump or others who had  been suspended from the platform for violating the site’s rules back on board “until we have a clear process for doing so, which will take at least a few more weeks.”

Musk’s apparent tamping down of his “free speech” stance immediately drew the ire of conservative commentators. Right-wing podcaster Tim Pool called Musk’s new stance “complete bullshit,” and a popular far-right Twitter account known only as “Catturd” complained, “The new Twitter moderation council is just a bunch of far-left fanatic groups who were never targeted here. No average Joes, no real Conservatives, no one to represent the PEOPLE ACTUALLY TARGETED!”

“Why is it in any way part of Twitter’s goal to ‘combat hate?'” right-wing YouTube personality Lauren Chen tweeted. “This is not sounding like a triumph for free speech.”

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