The tech universe’s biggest bad boy has bought one of the most influential social media platforms. While some are predicting calamity, others are cautiously optimistic. We look at the immediate fallout, reactions and prognostications.
Editor’s note: Details of the lead-up to this acquisition are in our previous Big Story.
What we know: about the final sale is that the sale price is $44 billion—one billion higher than the original offer. But the actual price per share—$54.20—is likely the same. The number of shares he finally bought may be higher. It will be “wholly owned” by Musk—and there are no co-investors.
What we don’t know: How he’s going to pay for it. Musk secured $25.5 billion of debt and margin loan financing from banks—and will provide “an approximately $21 billion equity commitment.” But we don’t know if he plans to shell out that money—or if he’ll get an assist from private equity firms. But most of this will become clear once Twitter makes its required filings with the Securities and Exchanges Commission this week.
The world responded to the biggest news in the tech world as follows:
Wall Street: Investors are worried that Musk plans to finance that $21 billion equity commitment by selling Tesla stock—which soon plunged 12.2%, wiping out more than $125 billion off the company’s market value. Also a worry: that all his talk about free speech will put him at odds with China—which is a key market for Tesla. And above all, Wall Street is concerned that Musk will be distracted and overstretched—given that he already has Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink and The Boring Company on his plate.
Jeff Bezos: The Amazon founder played on that China angle, trolling Musk with this “interesting question”: “Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?” But then he rolled back the shade in subsequent tweets: “My own answer to this question is probably not. The more likely outcome in this regard is complexity in China for Tesla, rather than censorship at Twitter.”
Jack Dorsey: The former Twitter CEO is very happy about Twitter’s decision to sell to Musk—and made it clear in a series of tweets:
“In principle, I don’t believe anyone should own or run Twitter. It wants to be a public good at a protocol level, not a company. Solving for the problem of it being a company however, Elon is the singular solution I trust. I trust his mission to extend the light of consciousness… This is the right path...I believe it with all my heart.”
And Jack being Jack added a link to Radiohead’s ‘Everything in its Right Place’ to underline his endorsement. Radiohead is a band best remembered for its “searing indictment of capitalism.”
Twitter employees: are understandably most anxious about their future. The company’s top lawyer Vijaya Gadde started to cry during a virtual meeting with her teams—“as she expressed concerns about how the company could change.” Gadde is seen as the “moral authority” within the company—in charge of navigating tricky issues like hate speech and harassment. The biggest concerns among the staff:
“Employees said they worried that Mr Musk would undo the years of work they had put into cleaning up the toxic corners of the platform, upend their stock compensation in the process of taking the company private and disrupt Twitter’s culture with his unpredictable management style and abrupt proclamations.”
Point to note: Many Twitter employees make 50% or more of their total compensation from Twitter stock—whose value is now limited by Musk’s buy price. These will convert to cash when the company changes hands. The good news: there are no layoffs on the horizon—and the staff will receive their same benefits packages for a year.
As for employee #1: CEO Parag Agrawal didn’t answer any questions about his future—which looks the most precarious. Musk has sharply criticised the company’s management in recent weeks. And the two men have very different takes on the importance of free speech on the platform. Agrawal has previously said:
“Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation. The kinds of things that we do about this is, focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.”
OTOH: Musk is very clear that he views Twitter as the world’s bastion of free speech (more on that later). And when Agrawal was appointed CEO, Musk tweeted out a morphed image of a photo infamous for being the earliest example of misinformation. Basically, the original included both Joseph Stalin and his secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov—who was airbrushed out after being executed for being an enemy of the state. In Musk’s version, Agrawal is Stalin and Dorsey is Yezhov:
Cancel Twitter? For all the grand pronouncements about leaving Twitter, not many have headed for the door. Only actor Jameela Jamil and activist Shaun King have made good on their promise.
Musk hasn’t shared any details on his plans for the platform since the deal went through. But given his previous pronouncements, there are two key areas where we might see the biggest changes:
Free speech: When announcing the deal, Musk reiterated his commitment to that core value: “[F]ree speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” But many worry that this will mean little or no content moderation—and therefore more toxic tweets, bullying and harassment—which will all go unchecked in the name of democracy.
Kara Alamo on CNN sums up the fears of many—especially women and people of colour:
“But I predict that allowing harmful forms of ‘free speech’—like misogyny and hate—on Twitter will actually have the effect of silencing many people and will be disastrous for the social network. That’s because thoughtful users aren’t going to voluntarily keep using a platform on which they're bombarded with abuse. And the first people to flee are likely to be those who are on the receiving end of the worst of it: women and people of colour.”
OTOH: There are many who think Twitter has veered too far toward political correctness and policing. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote:
“Silicon Valley’s tech lords have decided they want to be arbiters of speech on political topics like climate change and the origins of Covid. Nudging the moderation dial back several notches might promote broader engagement, though expect progressives to scream. One start might be to break what looks like a monoculture at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters.”
And also this: Noah Smith points out that Musk’s commitment to free speech may also spur him to strongly push back on misinformation ops run by totalitarian governments like China and Russia. FYI: Musk has promised to “defeat the spam bots or die trying!” And he may get rid of features that make it easy to summon mobs who bully and threaten users. Example: “If anyone can figure out how to change the quote-tweet function so as to preserve engagement and discussion while not biasing the platform toward the formation of cancel-mobs, it’s probably Elon.”
Point to note: Even those who are upbeat about Musk—and his genuine love for Twitter—doubt that he will do much about extremism and abuse on the platform.
What Musk says: His most recent tweet declared: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.” But more revealing is this April 19 tweet: “A social media platform’s policies are good if the most extreme 10% on left and right are equally unhappy.” So all the rightwingers rejoicing in the sale may be equally outraged in the months to come.
Transparency: A big part of Musk’s plan will be an open-source algorithm—which allows users to see the code:
“The algorithm determines the priority in which tweets get served up to users, either expanding or limiting how many millions of people see them. Specifically, he said he wants to make the algorithm that recommends whether a tweet gets promoted or demoted ‘open source,’ or available for the public to view and improve upon. That, he said, will help prevent ‘behind the scenes manipulation.’”
This should make digital rights activists who’ve been calling for this very happy. Point to note: The made-in-India Koo has already made their algorithm public—so this isn’t just a Musk thing. But he wants to take it further and allow users to tweak their Twitter algorithm to meet their needs.
But, but, but: Tech experts are sceptical as to whether revealing the algorithm will have its intended effect:
“Even if Twitter made its secret formula public, including the math it uses to ‘train’ its machine learning algorithms, an outsider looking at it wouldn’t be able to make meaningful conclusions from it… An outsider would also need to see the underlying data used to ‘train’ those algorithms—the billions of bits of data showing who looked at, liked or shared tweets, among many other possible factors.”
And revealing that kind of data raises huge privacy red flags. But everyone agrees Musk’s intent is the right one—even if the challenge is immense.
The bottomline: for Indians is that much of this debate over Musk’s free speech ‘absolutism’ is moot. He has made it clear that Twitter should “match” the laws of each country regarding speech. In India, the government has virtually unchallenged power to order Twitter to take down/block tweets and accounts—thanks to the recent changes to our IT rules (explained here). Twitter initially tried to resist the pressure—and finally buckled to it. Don’t expect Musk to change that status quo.
A Trinamool Congress strongman is accused of sexually exploiting an entire village in Bengal.Read More