Will Musk’s Twitter ideal of non-intervention be widely adopted?

Matt O’Brien and Tom Krischer

Allocating $44 billion to buy Twitter was an easy task for Elon Musk.

What follows is the real challenge for the world’s richest man: to fulfill his promise to make Twitter “better than ever” as a lightly regulated haven for free speech.

His vision for improving the 16-year-old company relies heavily on a promise to play as freely as possible on the platform, a commitment held in high esteem by the political right and followers of former President Donald Trump, whose account was permanently banned last year. And for those worried that Musk will open the floodgates to agitators spouting hate, lies and other harmful content that will make the platform too toxic for advertisers and regular users, Musk has made few guarantees.

“The extreme antibody response in those who fear free speech speaks for itself,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

Many of Musk’s proposed changes reflect his own experience as a well-known and outspoken Twitter user with over 85 million followers and a host of pesky impersonator accounts that use his name and photo to promote cryptocurrency schemes. For example, he stressed the need to defeat “spambots” that mimic real users.

But what about the more than 200 million other Twitter users who aren’t banned or spammed? There is still a lot of uncertainty about whether his ideas are technologically feasible and how we will know if these changes will benefit the majority of regular users or serve some other purpose.

“He has made it clear that he has no interest in turning Twitter into a profitable venture,” said Joan Donovan, who studies disinformation at Harvard University. “It’s about the power and influence of Twitter itself and its importance in our culture.”

Experts who have studied content moderation and researched Twitter for years have expressed doubt that Musk knows exactly what he is getting himself into. And some of the problems he identified are not felt by most users.

“To him, spambots are very visible and somewhat personal,” Donovan said. “Most people don’t see a lot of these spam accounts.”

And for those unhappy with the company’s crackdown on hate, harassment and disinformation, there are plenty of young examples of “free speech” oriented platforms that have been launched in the past few years as an antidote to Twitter, mostly by conservatives. Many have struggled to deal with toxic content, and at least one has been disabled by their own technology providers in protest.

“This move just goes to show how effective (moderation features) are at irritating those in power,” said Kirsten Martin, professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame. “I would be worried about how this would change the values ​​of Twitter.”

The fact that none of the other bidders appeared in public prior to Musk’s deal was a sign that other potential buyers may find Twitter too difficult to improve, Third Bridge analyst Scott Kessler said.

“This platform is pretty much the same as it has been for the last decade or so,” Kessler said. “You had a lot of smart people who were trying to figure out what to do and they were in trouble. It will probably be difficult to make much progress.”

Musk received a storm of, if highly abstract, praise from an unexpected quarter — Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, who praised Musk’s decision to bring Twitter back “off Wall Street” and tweeted that he trusted Musk’s mission to “expand the light.” consciousness” is a reference to Dorsey’s idea that “Twitter is the closest thing we have to a global consciousness.”

But others familiar with Twitter say they are still dismayed by Musk’s successful bid to buy the company.

“Twitter is going to let a child-man actually take over their platform,” said Leslie Miley, a former Twitter employee who has also worked at Google and Apple. Miley, who was Twitter’s only black engineer in a senior position when he left the company in 2015, echoed doubts about Musk’s understanding of the platform’s complexities.

“I’m not sure Elon knows what he’s getting,” Miley said. “He might just find that having Twitter is very different from wanting Twitter.”

The more hands-off approach to content moderation that Musk envisions raises concerns among many users that the platform will become a safer place for the disinformation, hate speech and bullying she has worked hard to achieve in recent years. Wall Street analysts say if it goes too far, it could alienate advertisers as well.

In Europe, officials reminded Musk of a new law, the Digital Services Act, that would force tech companies to tighten their grip on their online platforms.

“Whether it’s cars or social media, any company operating in Europe must abide by our rules – regardless of their shareholding,” Thierry Breton, European Union commissioner in charge of the bloc’s domestic market, tweeted. “Mr. Musk is well aware of this. He is familiar with European vehicle regulations and is adapting quickly to the Digital Services Act.”

The Musk takeover has not yet been completed and is awaiting shareholder approval. Twitter previously scheduled its annual shareholder meeting for May 25, but the takeover vote is yet to be on the agenda.

The purchase will take six to eight months, and while there are likely to be some hurdles along the way, there don’t seem to be big enough hurdles to stop the deal, according to Charles Elson, director. from the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, considers it serious enough to stop the deal.

Usually, when companies go private, dissenting shareholders are forcibly cashed out. Some may challenge the share price in court, arguing that Musk should pay more, but that probably won’t delay the sale, Elson said.

It is likely that Musk will dissolve the current board of directors and replace it with a new one that will be consistent with his leadership. Once Twitter goes private, Elson said Musk will face fewer complaints from shareholders, who often bring lawsuits. Private companies also don’t face as much scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has been poking Musk in the eye for years, often because of statements he made on Twitter.

Twitter shares traded near $50 on Tuesday, just below the $54.20 purchase price.

Twitter will give a glimpse of the state of its business when it reports its quarterly financial results on Thursday. The annual meeting of shareholders is scheduled for May.

It’s not just Twitter voters who are worried about Musk’s $44 billion investment.

Shares in Musk’s electric car company Tesla have lost about 17% of their value since Musk announced his stake on Twitter, including a drop of about 10% on Tuesday. Analysts say investors fear Musk will be distracted by the social media company and less involved in running Tesla.

“He’s going to spend more time with another venture,” Edward Jones senior equity analyst Jeff Windau said of Musk, who also runs SpaceX, The Boring Co., which digs tunnels, and Neuralink, a computer interface company. “There is a potential bandwidth limit that you can apply to each of these companies,” Windau said.

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Krischer reported from Detroit. O’Brien reported from Providence, Rhode Island. AP Business Writers correspondents Marcy Gordon of Washington, Barbara Ortutay of Oakland, California, Kelvin Chan of London, and Sam Petrekin of Brussels contributed to this report.