Elon Musk’s Twitter Will Be a Wild Ride

From a New York Times story by Kevin Roose headlined “Elon Musk’s Twitter Will Be a Wild Ride”:

Buckle up.

Elon Musk, who for months has been strenuously trying to back out of a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion, now appears ready to buy the company after all. In a surprise letter to Twitter on Monday night, Mr. Musk offered to take Twitter private at his originally proposed price — $54.20 per share — marking a possible end to one of the most dramatic legal feuds in Silicon Valley history.

It’s worth noting that the deal could still fall apart — Mr. Musk is famously subject to 11th-hour mood shifts — but the most likely outcome now is that the world’s richest man will in fact become Twitter’s new owner, possibly as soon as this week.

Much is unknown about what Mr. Musk will do with Twitter if he acquires it. The mercurial billionaire has made only the vaguest of public statements about his plans for the company and its products.

But we now know, thanks in part to a bevy of text messages released as part of the protracted legal battle, that it will be nothing like business as usual. And there are at least six predictions I feel confident making, if the deal does in fact close.

A juicy set of text messages between Mr. Musk and his friends and business associates emerged last week, as part of the legal battle. In them, Mr. Musk made clear that he was unhappy with Twitter’s current leadership — in particular with Parag Agrawal, the chief executive, who took over last year from Jack Dorsey.

The texts revealed that Mr. Agrawal had initially sought to work constructively with Mr. Musk, and that the two even had a friendly dinner near San Jose, Calif., in March. But the men eventually clashed. Mr. Agrawal, at one point, told Mr. Musk via text message that his habit of tweeting things like “Is Twitter dying?” was “not helping me make Twitter better.”

“What did you get done this week?” Mr. Musk shot back. “This is a waste of time.”

From reading Mr. Musk’s texts, it’s clear he believes that Twitter’s leadership is weak and ineffective, and lacks the ability to carry out his vision for the company. If Mr. Agrawal doesn’t immediately resign once the deal is complete, I’d expect Mr. Musk to fire him on Day 1 and name himself or a close ally as a replacement.

Mr. Musk has also expressed displeasure with other Twitter executives, and it’s hard to see how he could fire Mr. Agrawal without also clearing out most or all of the company’s top leadership and installing his own slate of loyalists.

Another easy prediction to make about Mr. Musk’s takeover is that it will generate enormous backlash among Twitter’s rank-and-file employees.

Twitter, more so than other social media platforms, has a vocally progressive work force and many employees who are deeply invested in the company’s mission of promoting “healthy conversation.” Those employees may believe — for good reason! — that under Mr. Musk’s leadership, Twitter will abandon many of the projects they care about in areas like trust and safety. Or they may simply not want to deal with the drama and tumult of a Musk regime, and start looking for jobs elsewhere.

Some employees have already quit, anticipating a Musk takeover. And it’s safe to bet that many more will follow if the deal actually closes.

It’s worth noting that in his texts with Mr. Musk, Mr. Agrawal claimed that a “large silent majority” of Twitter employees supported Mr. Musk’s vision. But virtually every Twitter employee I’ve spoken to in the last six months has told me that he or she plans to leave if Mr. Musk takes over.

It’s also worth noting that Mr. Musk may not mind if thousands of Twitter employees show themselves the door. He has implied that the company’s staff is bloated, and now that he needs to justify a $44 billion price tag, an exodus of unhappy employees might be the kind of savings he’s looking for.

Mr. Musk, who has framed his bid for Twitter as an attempt to preserve free speech on the platform, has long said that, if successful, he would allow former President Donald J. Trump to reclaim his Twitter account, which was permanently suspended last year after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

That will happen almost immediately, I predict. (And, yes, Mr. Trump will come back to Twitter if he’s invited, no matter how much fun he’s having on Truth Social.)

But Mr. Musk’s “replatforming” will extend far beyond the former president. A host of right-wing culture warriors could come back to the service with Mr. Musk’s blessing, including those who were barred for expressing hateful views, spreading false conspiracy theories and harassing other users. (In his text messages, Mr. Musk told Mr. Agrawal that he wanted to reverse all permanent Twitter bans “except for spam accounts and those that explicitly advocate violence.”)

Mr. Musk, who styles himself a centrist but often crusades against the “woke left,” has made no secret of his plans to make Twitter a friendlier platform for right-wing voices. He has expressed supportfor The Babylon Bee, a conservative satire site whose Twitter account was suspended after it published a transphobic humor piece about a Biden administration official. And Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose personal Twitter account was suspended this year for repeatedly sharing misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines, has urged Mr. Musk to reinstate her along with other right-wing commentators, including Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars.

Along with one-off reversals of high-profile bans, I’d also expect that Mr. Musk would tear up Twitter’s existing rules and rewrite new ones, and that he might dismantle Twitter’s content-policy and trust-and-safety teams, which are responsible for enforcing the platform’s rules as they currently exist. (That is, if those teams don’t quit en masse first.)

He might even name his own set of free-speech absolutists. One friend of Mr. Musk’s suggested that he install someone like Blake Masters, the Republican Senate candidate from Arizona, as Twitter’s head of enforcement, according to the trove of text messages released during the court battle. (Mr. Musk did not respond to the suggestion.)

Mr. Musk’s takeover could happen before next month’s midterm elections. And if it does, there could still be time for him to make decisions, like allowing Mr. Trump back on the platform or loosening restrictions on political ads, that could reshape the conversation about some races.

But Mr. Musk — who, let’s not forget, runs several other companies — will have his hands full between now and November. And I don’t think that, with only a month left until the elections, there will be a straight line from Mr. Musk’s takeover to, say, a Republican sweep of close House and Senate races.

The 2024 election, though, will be a different story. By then, if the deal is consummated, Mr. Musk will have been able to more fully mold Twitter in his own image. The platform could look radically different by then — more right-wing trolls, fewer guardrails against misinformation and extremism — or it could be largely the same. But Mr. Musk will be firmly in charge, and if Twitter still plays anywhere near the role in American political and media culture that it does today, he will emerge as a central, polarizing figure in the 2024 election cycle.

Republicans are, for obvious reasons, excited about Mr. Musk’s taking over. But the ultimate political consequences of his ownership are harder to predict. It’s theoretically possible — though, I concede, probably unlikely — that Mr. Musk’s owning Twitter could be good for Democrats in 2022 and 2024, if it allows more Republican politicians to stake out extreme positions on Twitter that end up backfiring on them at the ballot box.

But whatever moves Mr. Musk makes before 2024, it’s a good bet that they will be closely scrutinized for signs that he is putting his thumb on the scale.

Some of the most revealing exchanges in Mr. Musk’s trove of text messages were about his thoughts on Twitter’s products.

In particular, Mr. Musk was dismissive of Twitter Blue, the company’s subscription-based product that gives users access to premium features like ad-free articles and an undo button for tweets. Perhaps surprisingly, given his love of cryptocurrency, Mr. Musk also appeared skeptical of proposals to rebuild Twitter on a decentralized blockchain, saying that “blockchain Twitter won’t work.”

Based on his statements, and pitches he made to investors this summer while trying to pull a deal together, I’d expect Mr. Musk to make several changes to Twitter’s products early on. First, he will move to shut down many of Twitter’s noncore features — including some of those in Twitter Blue, but also any other features that don’t generate much revenue for the company. He will try to rid the site of spam bots, a problem that he has long singled out as one of the worst parts of Twitter. (And which formed the basis of his spurious attempt to get out of the Twitter deal, back before he decided to buy it again.)

Mr. Musk will also try to shift Twitter away from advertising revenue and toward other moneymaking opportunities — including payments features, data-licensing agreements and a mysterious new subscription product, which he has called only X, and which he has claimed will have 104 million paying users by 2028.

Perhaps the easiest prediction to make about Mr. Musk’s Twitter takeover is that it will make him an even bigger celebrity.

Mr. Musk is, of course, already one of the most well known people in the world. But until now, his power has largely been a function of his extreme wealth and the size of his online following. He could get in flame wars, make crude jokes about senators or threaten to move his companies out of California, and all of this mattered a great deal to the people involved — but it was all ultimately soft power that was contingent on Twitter’s willingness to let him keep throwing bombs at his 108 million followers, and the public’s willingness to keep paying attention.

Owning Twitter is different. If the deal closes, Mr. Musk will have direct control over one of the world’s largest megaphones, and will be able to use it entirely as he sees fit — whether that’s to turn it into a lawless free-for-all, take revenge on his political enemies, promote his own business ventures or do something else entirely. And given Mr. Musk’s penchant for seizing the spotlight, we can expect that whatever he chooses to do with Twitter, it won’t be boring.

There was already no escaping Mr. Musk. Now, looking away will be truly impossible.

Kevin Roose is a technology columnist and the author of “Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation.”

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