Elon Musk vs. Twitter Part IV: Musk's Must-Do List
Our media reporter Sara Fischer unpacks the challenges at Twitter that Musk could inherit — and what he might do about them in the latest episode of How it Happened: Elon Musk vs. Twitter podcast. She takes listeners inside Twitter to understand how the platform has struggled with content moderation over the years.
What will Elon Musk do with Twitter?
But the question is, What's he gonna do with it?
RICH GREENFIELD: I mean, you've got one of the most innovative product people worth more money than anyone else on planet Earth.
KATE KLONICK: Elon Musk doesn't know anything about free speech and doesn't know anything about governance. In my mind, he's just a random person who happens to have billions and billions of dollars.
SARA FISCHER: I’m Sara Fischer, the media reporter at Axios and your guest host of this episode of “How it Happened.” Erica Pandey will be back with the next episode.
As of this taping, Oct. 21, we know it’s more likely than not that Musk will own Twitter, a crucial global platform that has been the site of social movements and also a hotbed for misinformation.
What exactly is he taking on? And what is his vision for changing it?
In this episode, I'm going to be sharing my reporting to take you inside Twitter. You'll meet former Twitter employees, financial analysts, and a major player in the social media landscape who once advised President Trump.
I’ll take you through the ways this platform impacts geopolitics, the engineering and business challenges that have beset Twitter for years, and the tension between free speech ideals and the urgent problems that arise when anyone can say anything — even threats of violence.
And you’ll learn why Elon Musk thinks this platform matters and what we know currently about how he wants to change it.
ELON MUSK ARCHIVAL: I think there's, there's the, the risk civilizational risk, uh, is decreased. If Twitter, the, the more we can increase the trust of Twitter as a public platform.
FISCHER: From Axios, this is “How It Happened: Elon Musk vs. Twitter. Part IV: Musk’s Must-Do List”
Musk bid on Twitter at a moment of company stagnation and lack of direction. It's been a dark period for Twitter. But it wasn’t always this way.
Free Speech and Twitter
Twitter was launched in 2006 by Jack Dorsey and a handful of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who were all building a completely different startup at the time. Dorsey is largely credited with the idea of a free app that could let users share short status updates with one another.
After making a splash at a tech festival in 2007, Twitter quickly accrued a massive user base of global celebrities, businesses and government leaders, making it one of the hottest Silicon Valley startups of the aughts. People from all over the world flocked to this platform.
We reached out to Musk for comment on this series, and he declined. We reached out to Twitter as well, and the company declined to offer comment.
As Twitter became a global phenomenon, its promise and its pitfalls came down to a defining issue: free speech.
Free speech is an ideal, but in practice, it’s limited to some extent everywhere. The question is, how? And how much? Twitter’s global reach only makes this more complicated.
On one hand, it operates in many countries where free speech is lightly regulated and a free and independent press can thrive, like the U.S.
On the other, it also operates in countries where free speech is not tolerated, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In those countries, citizens have been persecuted for speaking out against the government.
SPEAKER ON AL JAZEERA ENGLISH: Ever since July 2016, when an attempted coup failed to depose Erdoğan, Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the world.
FISCHER: You’ll recall the Arab Spring, which started in late 2010.
SPEAKER ON AL JAZEERA AMERICA: [Crowds protesting] The protests in Tunisia grew as quickly as the anger, and soon calls for reform were as loud online as they were on the streets.
FISCHER: It was considered the first of many social movements amplified on Twitter that led to regime changes and to policy changes.
Speech isn’t just speech. It mobilizes people to action, including sometimes violence. Speech online is connected to actions in real life.
Early social media presented itself as a place for free speech, including Twitter. But completely unregulated, unmoderated speech? That’s never been the case. Twitter has rules that users must follow. For example, it bans threats of violence, terrorism, self-harm and the exploitation of minors. Disciplinary action can range from Twitter removing a tweet to kicking a user off the platform.
According to TIME, between July 2020 and December 2020, the company took disciplinary action against a record-setting 1.1 million accounts. On Jan. 8, 2021, after the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol building, Twitter cited these rules as the reason for kicking former President Donald Trump off the platform.
SPEAKER ON CBS THIS MORNING: Mr. Trump lost his primary megaphone overnight when Twitter permanently shut down his personal account.
FISCHER: So far, Twitter has treated most users equally; everyone has the same free speech protections and the same free speech rules on Twitter.
But it has a really big exception for Tweets from elected and government officials.
Let’s say an elected official, like a head of state or member of congress, tweets in a way that violates the platform’s policies.
Instead of removing the tweet, as Twitter would with most users, Twitter will typically leave up the tweet BUT place it behind a notice that warns users that the content has violated a rule and that the user must make an informed decision to click through to see it.
They do this because of the public interest and, at times, the necessity to know what an elected official is saying. But even this exception had … an exception.
When Twitter suspended Trump's account
In the U.S., Twitter faced public criticism for years for leaving former President Trump on the platform. The criticism increased in intensity as Trump’s rhetoric devolved into calls to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Twitter eventually suspended his account after the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Of course, this decision faced blowback, too. Fox at that time…
SPEAKER ON FOX NEWS: Just days after Donald Trump called for breaking up the Big Tech monopolies in order to preserve democracy, the Big Tech monopolies have silenced him.
FISCHER: In fact, a lot of the interest around Musk owning Twitter quickly boiled down to Donald Trump. Musk has said he’d reverse Trump’s Twitter ban.
Here he is at the Financial Times’ Future of the Car Summit in May of 2022, just weeks after initially offering to buy Twitter.
ELON MUSK ARCHIVAL: I, I do think that, uh, uh, it was not correct to ban Donald Trump. I think that was, that was a mistake, um, because it, uh, it alienated a large part of the country and did not ultimately result in Donald Trump not having a voice. He is now going to be on Truth Social, um, as will, uh, a large part of the, sort of the, the right in the, in the United States.
Um and so I think this could end up being frankly worse than having a single form where everyone can debate. Um so um I guess the answer is that I would reverse the perma ban. I'll say I'm not, I don't own Twitter yet. So this is not like a thing that will definitely happen, cuz what if I don't own Twitter?
FISCHER: Of course, Donald Trump and other banned users have plenty of other options to participate in public discourse without Twitter. Trump has launched his own social media platform called Truth Social where he has over 4 million followers.
ELON MUSK ARCHIVAL: This is the point that I'm trying to make, which is perhaps not getting across is that banning Trump from Twitter, didn't end Trump's voice. It will amplify it among the right. And this is why it is morally wrong and flat-out stupid.
FISCHER: Musk is saying kicking Trump off of Twitter creates social media silos.
And Musk has tweeted about Trump and Twitter, of course. My colleague Zach Basu is reading Musk’s tweets. Here are some from earlier this year.
@elonmusk:Truth Social (terrible name) exists because Twitter censored free speech.
@elonmusk: Even though I think a less divisive candidate would be better in 2024, I still think Trump should be restored to Twitter.
FISCHER: And he’s tweeted about Twitter’s relationship with free speech, seeming to implicitly reference events like Trump being removed from the platform.
@elonmusk:Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?
FISCHER: Jason Miller, a spokesperson for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, now runs GETTR, a social media platform that bills itself as a quote-unquote "free speech" alternative to Twitter.
JASON MILLER: I was one of those people who admittedly never thought that the Silicon Valley tech platforms would go and completely deplatform a sitting president of the United States.
FISCHER: GETTR rose in prominence as conservatives began to question whether Twitter had a liberal bias, especially after Trump was suspended from the platform. Miller still remembers that moment.
MILLER: And I remember it just completely blew my mind that what message was sent about free speech rights, not just in the United States and around the world, but even taking a step back, realizing that once a sitting president of the United States, regardless of what you think about President Trump, if you like him, if you hate him, uh, if you're a different country and you could care less. But the message that sends is that really the guardrails are off now for the Silicon Valley tech companies, that they can deplatform and kick anyone off that they want at any time for purely political reasons. And there are no repercussions.
FISCHER: Here’s how Twitter explained the decision at the time in its own statement, quoted here on NBC News:
SPEAKER ON NBC NEWS: Twitter run by CEO Jack Dorsey saying, after close review of the president's recent tweets, it banned him due to the risk of further incitement of violence.
Rise of Truth Social and GETTR
FISCHER: Fast forward a year and a half. Dozens of social media apps like Truth Social and GETTR have launched in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection. They’re looking to ensure that banned users have their own outlet for expression.
These Alternative apps are collectively averaging roughly a million downloads per month, according to research from mobile analysis firm Apptopia.
They brand themselves as tolerant of all political ideologies and are seen as having more lax enforcement of content moderation rules.
According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center on the seven most prominent alternative social media apps, all seven emphasized quote un-quote “free speech.” It also found that roughly two-thirds of all users on these apps identify as Republican or lean Republican.
Which brings us back to Musk, who is concerned about social media silos — and what he has said publicly about free speech as a principle. It's unclear at times if Musk is talking about free speech or capturing the spectrum of political ideologies.
He spoke about the need for what he calls a public, digital town square in an appearance on the “All-In Podcast” in May.
ELON MUSK ARCHIVAL: I think there's a need for a public town square, digital town square that, uh, where people can debate, uh, issues of all kinds, um, including the most substantive issues. Um, and in order for that to be the case, you have to have something that is as broadly inclusive as possible, that has as much of the, the, the people on the platform as possible, uh, where it's, uh, it feels, uh, balanced from a political standpoint. Uh, it's not biased one way or the other. Um, and where the system is transparent.
FISCHER: He’s talked about wanting a degree of free speech that is accessible to anyone, anywhere. Here he is at the TED2022 conference in April.
ELON MUSK ARCHIVAL: My strong, intuitive sense is that, uh, having a public platform that is maximally trusted, um, and, and, and, and broadly inclusive, um, is extremely important to the future of civilization.
FISCHER: Here’s the big problem. Musk has also undercut that sentiment, even as he tries to describe how it would play out if Twitter were under his control.
ELON MUSK ARCHIVAL: I think, uh, obviously Twitter or any forum is bound by the laws of the country that it operates in. Um, so to obviously there, there are some limitations on free speech, uh, in, in the U.S. And, and of course, uh, Twitter would have to abide by those, uh, rules.
FISCHER: On one hand, Musk is saying that around the world, Twitter will be a safe haven for free speech. But on the other, he also says it will also adhere to the laws of the countries that its users exist in.
Those things don’t necessarily go hand in hand. This will force him to make tough decisions. Just like those now facing Twitter's current owners.
Here’s Kate Klonick, a lawyer and academic at St. John’s University focused on governance of online speech.
Content moderation at Twitter
KATE KLONICK: The First Amendment protects individual speech against government restriction. So it is really just about the government's ability to stop you from speaking, not about private citizens’ ability to stop another private citizen from speaking.
One of the things that you're seeing is that because the United States it has the First Amendment and because the Supreme Court has traditionally had a very broad kind of absolute ban on a lot of forms of regulation on freedom of expression, you have other countries that are not so restrictive, passing laws that are having effects in their territorial boundaries.
And essentially, one of the things that we're going to kind of see play out over time is the amount of influence that these different countries have. If it makes a lot of sense for the platform to change its overall rules to accommodate the high watermark of another country and what they're demanding for content moderation, then maybe that's something that they'll start to do and moving away from kind of a more free-speech protected environment. You're getting all of these different rules in all of these different places, and it's not clear how, if there are kind of legal restrictions, these will play out jurisdictionally over time.
So it's one thing to have a philosophy about what's allowed on Twitter. It's a completely different thing to try and enforce whatever rules you put in place.
And that’s been Twitter’s most painful problem. They call it content moderation. Basically, it’s how to set rules, how to enforce them, what to do when they’re violated, and how many warnings users are given after breaking rules before they are suspended entirely.
These are questions that every platform is struggling with — and even if they can set clear rules, scale is a huge challenge. Artificial intelligence is not in a place to handle these issues entirely, and so human review of content is still crucial, but the volume of content being created at any given moment overwhelms the pace of human review.
JENNA GOLDEN: And I think that a lot of the companies, Twitter, Facebook, Google to name a few, really started to evaluate, is this worth it? Do we have the man- or womanpower internally to manage all of the content and to really give it the look that we need to give it?
FISCHER: Jenna Golden is the former head of political advocacy sales at Twitter.
GOLDEN: I believe the company now has maybe close to 5,000 employees. When I started, we were less than 1,000 employees. When I left, we were probably close to 3,500 employees. I left the company in July of 2017. So if you think about the amount of content, billions of tweets that are pumping through Twitter on a daily basis and the company taking a moment to step back and say, if we really wanna do this right, and if we really want to be able to look at every piece of content and make sure that it passes the rules and the smell test, can we even possibly do that? Do we even have the resources to do it? And I think the answer was no. And I think in addition to that, this is just a messy space and it is really hard to figure out the rules.
FISCHER: Kate Klonick on where Musk fits into all of this.
KLONICK: Elon Musk doesn't know anything about free speech and doesn't know anything about governance.
In my mind, he's just a random person who happens to have billions and billions of dollars. I don't think that there's anything more to take from that except that it’s a sad commentary on Twitter and the space that over the last 15 years it has evolved into, through careful kind of regulation, design choices, a lot of learning.
It has had some real low moments. And so, it is, I guess, kind of sad to kind of see someone come in and decide that they're just gonna throw it all out the window.
FISCHER: On Oct. 10 of this year, Musk tweeted about dealing with free speech issues on Twitter. Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, had put out an antisemitic tweet days earlier. Musk wrote in a reply to a different Ye tweet before Ye was ultimately locked out of his account:
@elonmusk: Talked to ye today & expressed my concerns about his recent tweet, which I think he took to heart.
Maybe Musk can handle content issues that way with a handful of celebrities and pals. But the idea that Musk, a man running numerous global companies, is calling people about their individual problematic tweets is absurd.
As of this taping, Ye has announced that he is taking his social media presence to Parler, another free-speech alternative to Twitter that he’s also agreed to purchase. Many observers saw this move as taking a page from Musk’s book.
In general, Musk has not been clear about what rules he would put in place, but back at the Financial Times’ Future of the Car summit, Musk mentioned he doesn’t believe in permanent bans for people who post harmful or violent content that requires removal.
ELON MUSK ARCHIVAL: We should not have permanent bans. Um, now, now that doesn't mean that somebody gets to say whatever they want to say. If they say something that is, um, illegal or, um, otherwise, you know, uh, just, you know, just destructive to the world then, then that there should be perhaps a timeout, uh, a temporary suspension or, or that particular tweet, uh, should be, uh, uh, made invisible or, or have very limited, uh, traction.
FISCHER: Kate Klonick again:
KLONICK: There is a very niche 1997 law review article by David Johnson and David Post that went out of favor very strongly for a while because it was such a like libertarian vision, but I think is somewhat coming true with kind of all of these Truth Social and Parlor and Gab types of things, which is essentially that they predicted that in a borderless world, the market would optimize for platforms that had rules and the different types of rules would be the distinguishing factor in all of these different platforms.
And so that basically what would happen is that would become a market for rules and different platforms would kind of work that way and people would pick between which platforms they wanted to spend time on based on the rights that they had that were associated with those platforms.
FISCHER: Here’s the thing.
Is Twitter profitable?
Musk has a hefty to-do list: He needs to clarify his framework for free speech, dictate a clear content moderation strategy, AND he has to rebuild trust in Twitter.
But even if he manages all of that, he’ll still have a really big problem. Twitter hasn’t been consistently profitable. Rich Greenfield is a media and technology analyst at LightShed Partners who has thought a lot about Musk’s other set of challenges.
GREENFIELD: There's a lot you could do to improve Twitter, move faster, iterate the product. I just think he has buyer's remorse over $54.20 versus $40 or whatever the, you know, whatever number is in his head, that would be more fair.
Innovation and monetization. That’s when we come back.
FISCHER: We’re back. Musk is buying a platform that has been around for years. He’s not building Twitter from the ground up the way he did with X.com or SpaceX, or even how he came in very early on Tesla.
The Washington Post reported that he has indicated he may lay off as much as 75% of Twitter’s workforce if he assumes ownership. So he may try to basically rebuild Twitter as a company from the ground up.
But one thing he’ll inherit no matter what is the ecosystem of the platform.
And there is one thing there that really bugs him: bots, basically automated accounts.
What Musk realistically wants to get rid of is spam on the site — fake accounts used to try to trick real people to do things like buy a fake product.
But he often uses the term “bots” to describe any unwanted or automated posts on the platform. This was a sticking point he cited in wanting to drop his offer to buy Twitter this summer.
But he didn’t just become obsessed with bots this year. Here’s a tweet from 2019.
@elonmusk: Anonymous bot swarms deserve a closer examination. If they’re evolving rapidly, something’s up.
FISCHER: In 2020, Musk went back and forth with other Twitter users about spam and bots.
@elonmusk: The crypto scam level on Twitter is reaching new levels. This is not cool.
FISCHER: A user asks him if there’s anything that can be done about it.
@elonmusk: Report as soon as you see it. Troll/bot networks on Twitter are a *dire* problem for adversely affecting public discourse & ripping people off. Just dropping their prominence as a function of probable gaming of the system would be a big improvement.
FISCHER: Eventually, he replies to a couple of users, discussing how other platforms handle bots.
@elonmusk: Trolls/bots just need to be deemphasized relative to probable real people who aren’t being paid to push an agenda or scam. Google still shows bs/scam pages, they’re just several clicks away.
FISCHER: As Musk’s Twitter bid initially moved forward in April, he tweeted about his intention to remove what he called “spam bots.”
@elonmusk: If our twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!
FISCHER: Then, on May 13, he tweeted that the deal was “on hold” and began trying to get out of buying Twitter. That night, he tweeted this:
@elonmusk: The bots are angry at being counted.
FISCHER: He had initially waived due diligence on the deal, which would have been an opportunity to examine this issue. Now, he was insisting that the company had been dishonest with him about the prevalence of bot accounts.
Three days later, Musk trolled Twitter’s CEO Parag Agrawal about its bot problem. Musk responded to a tweet from Agrawa with this:
@elonmusk: 💩 [Poop emoji]
FISCHER: Over the summer, Musk continued to goad Twitter’s leadership. By this point, Twitter had sued Musk to go forward with the purchase and the trial between them loomed.
@elonmusk: I hereby challenge @paraga to a public debate about the Twitter bot percentage.
Let him prove to the public that Twitter has <5% fake or spam daily users!
FISCHER: Of course, now the bot problem — if there is one — is very likely to become his problem.
Meanwhile, he has another problem. He’s not buying a cash cow. The platform has struggled to make money for years.
Currently, Twitter’s primary revenue stream is advertising, and that’s been the case for a long time. Jenna Golden:
GOLDEN: For the first few years, we were 100% focused on ads. There was no discussion about additional revenue streams, at least that the sales team was tasked with thinking about or working on. There were maybe some rumblings about potential for subscriptions towards the end. But it is interesting that he has made a lot of commentary about thinking that advertising is not the right business model for Twitter.
LESLIE MILEY: Monetizing, it has always been difficult because what drives monetization can sometimes be bad.
FISCHER: Leslie Miley was an engineering manager for the product safety and security team at Twitter from 2012 to late 2015. He was tasked with building and supporting the tools to help users avoid bullying and harassment. He found that Twitter’s revenue model sometimes undercut its principles around accepted speech. Miley brought up Trump’s use of Twitter, for example.
MILEY: Donald Trump equaled engagement for Twitter. Donald Trump drove a ton of usage on the platform and, and that meant that more people were paying attention.That meant that there were more eyeballs to serve ads to, right?
FISCHER: Unpredictable moments, like so many of Trump’s tweets over the years, tend to fuel the most engagement on Twitter.
Twitter's ad business
Today, Twitter's ad business brings in roughly $4.5 billion annually. Most of that is from companies paying to have targeted ads appear in users’ Twitter feeds. But compare that to Facebook's annual ad revenue, which is roughly $115 billion annually, Twitter’s business is tiny. And it's been growing really slowly.
Twitter is a website and an app where you can sign up and tell the world whatever you want in 280 characters. But what else can you do with it? How do you build a business from it? That's the problem that the company has wrestled with for its entire existence. Product development is arguably where Musk is most likely to shine. And product development could unlock new revenue potential.
When news broke on Oct. 4 that Musk wanted to move ahead with his original offer to buy the company, he tweeted this:
@elonmusk: Buying Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app.
FISCHER: An “everything app” — often referred to as a “super app,” is one app for everything you do. In our previous episode, we discussed this vision at length. In short: It’s one interface where it's easy and very user-convenient to do many, many things.
Here in the U.S., platforms like Amazon are experimenting with becoming superapps. Consider that you can watch a movie on Amazon Prime and also order household goods.
Musk will have to figure out how to make Twitter relevant and trusted enough so that users will continue to want to use the platform, be willing to share their data with it, and make in-app purchases. From there, Musk can try to rebuild Twitter to meet his vision.
The allure of working for Musk might bring new talent in, but his deep pockets could help, too. That’s proven true at Tesla and SpaceX, though building big things from scratch also has its own appeal. Rich Greenfield:
GREENFIELD: I mean, you've got one of the most innovative product people worth more money than anyone else on planet Earth. I think the idea of great talent wanting to work at Twitter would be phenomenal for Twitter.
I think he actually has some very good strategies for improving Twitter — hiring great AI and engineers, you know, from a machine-learning standpoint, helping deal with some of the bot problems.
FISCHER: Today, Twitter is struggling to stay relevant. The platform has not been able to meaningfully grow its user base to stay competitive with other companies.
Younger people are turning towards video-based platforms like Snapchat and TikTok. LinkedIn and Instagram have also become forums for global leaders to speak to the world directly in real time.
Many politicians and journalists still rely heavily on Twitter, but it’s possible that Twitter’s most popular days are behind it.
If Elon Musk wants to bring people back to Twitter, he’ll have a massive amount of work ahead of him.
But it could help that Musk is one of Twitter’s remaining power users. He keeps people coming back to watch the “Musk show” play out on his feed — a mix of inappropriate jokes and decisions with sweeping global ramifications.
As Twitter’s reigning meme lord and power tweeter, he has already had a profound impact on the platform — and that translates into power in the real world.
That’s next time, on “Elon Musk vs. Twitter.”
I’m Sara Fischer. Amy Pedulla is reporter/producer. Naomi Shavin is senior producer. This series was reported by the Axios newsroom, including Erica Pandey, Dan Primack, Miriam Kramer, Joann Muller, Javier E. David, Jonathan Swan, Ina Fried, Hope King, Ashley Gold and me.
Fact-checking by Jacob Knutson. Zach Basu is reading Elon Musk’s tweets.
Scott Rosenberg and Alison Snyder are series editors. Sara Kehaulani Goo is the editor-in-chief and executive producer.
Mixing and sound design by Ben O'Brien. Music supervision by Alex Sugiura. Theme music and original score by Michael Hanf.
Special thanks to Axios co-founders Mike Allen, Jim VandeHei and Roy Schwartz. And thanks to Lucia Orejarena, Priyanka Vora and Brian Westley. If you’re enjoying the season so far, please take a moment to rate and review the show.
We’ll be back soon. Thanks for listening.