Apr 30, 2022 - Economy

The bright side of Elon Musk's Twitter takeover

Photo illustration of Elon Musk against an abstract background.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Some Twitter power users, including journalists and politicians, are apoplectic about Elon Musk’s planned takeover of the platform. But there are plenty of optimists, in tech and among the general public, who believe Musk could make Twitter better.

Why it matters: With the deal expected to close later this year, what happens on the platform and to the platform will likely shape both the 2022 midterms and the next presidential election.

State of play: Twitter has struggled as a public company. By taking it private, Musk could experiment more boldly because Twitter wouldn't have to live up to quarterly pressures to show results.

  • Musk also has a huge following on the platform. He tweets a lot about product ideas and engages with feedback. And the people who support his takeover believe a leader who isn’t a “buttoned-up suit” could bring new energy and creativity.
  • “I almost think of it as — imagine if MrBeast bought YouTube,” said Galileo Russell, HyperChange TV founder, referring to one of YouTube’s most popular creators. (Russell is also an investor in Tesla.)

The big picture: Musk's stance on "free speech" is driving a lot of the consternation. He says he wants less content moderation, and people are worried he may reinstate former President Trump's account.

  • A lot of people — especially people who are already subject to a lot of online harassment — are worried about the prospect of Twitter loosening its moderation policies.
  • "I'm not saying I have all the answers here, but I do think we want to be very reluctant to delete things, and just be very cautious with permanent bans," he said at the TED2022 conference two weeks ago.

What they're saying: "There is definitely a partisan divide," when it comes to who is happy or not about the deal, said Courtney Radsch, a fellow at the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.

  • "A lot of the people who are [very] concerned about Twitter are the people who are very invested in Twitter" and have spent many years building up their presence on the platform, she added.

Reality check: It will likely be impossible for Musk to apply a blanket policy about what can be said or shared. He'll certainly also fail at making everyone happy because what is considered acceptable free speech depends on who's in power.

  • As high stakes as things are in the U.S., Twitter is a global platform. He'll realize pretty quickly that he'll have to moderate some content in order to stay available in many countries, Radsch said. 
  • On the other hand, if he decides to be the free speech absolutist he says he is, he could completely resist complying with national laws that try to restrict speech (like in Russia, Nigeria, India and Pakistan) or force him to moderate content (like in the EU).
  • "Wouldn't that be an interesting experiment?"Radsch said.

Our thought bubble: Skepticism about how Musk will handle Twitter is warranted.

  • Musk’s unpredictability makes it hard to trust him. And that unpredictability, from someone so wealthy and popular, also inspires fear. 
  • And while he has built multiple consequential companies, in fields that aren’t easy, the means through which he built them, as well as his personal behavior, have also warranted a yearning for him to be more responsible and "act like an adult."
  • But social media as we know it is less than two decades old and it has a long list of problems. In about the same amount of time, Musk’s companies have helped electric cars become mainstream and gotten space rockets to land themselves back on Earth. The fact that he actually put together the financing to buy Twitter was a surprise to many observers too.
  • So are we sure he can’t make Twitter better?
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