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The Musk Era of Twitter

We have been following and opining about the Elon Musk – Twitter saga for several months now, but it seems that this infamous acquisition is finally over. After very close calls with a lawsuit, and a lot of bad blood built up between Musk and Twitter’s board/staff, the deal closed on Thursday night. Mr Musk was seen walking into the Twitter office carrying an entire sink last week, and although the exact metaphor was not immediately clear, the controversial figure is now heading the company. Since taking over, Musk has fired several of the top executives, including Parag Agrawal, CEO; Ned Segal, the chief financial officer; and Vijaya Gadde, the head of legal policy, trust, and safety.

The New Era

Musk has described himself as a “free speech absolutist”, which sounds quite nice and noble, but there are dark ramifications of such a stance. For example, Twitter has long been a platform for people to spread harmful misinformation. During the pandemic, the company had to clamp down on accounts that were sharing lies and conspiracies about the COVID vaccine and alternative cures, which have been estimated to have killed tens of thousands of people. Donald Trump has been permanently banned from the platform since he lost the 2020 election, but Musk has promised to reverse Trump’s ban. Twitter had originally banned Trump for his repeated violations of their terms of service – such as spreading misinformation and repeatedly inciting violence – but they had to keep his account live while he was still the President of the United States. After his term ended, Twitter acted quickly to de-platform him.

Musk’s stance will immediately be put to the test. There are important elections coming up in the United States and Brazil. Up until now, Twitter has promised to ban misleading claims about voting and election outcomes, but that was before Musk took control. The key here is that there might be true consequences – not just shareholder wealth fluctuations – based on Musk’s purchase of Twitter. Leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro, who would typically have to moderate themselves to some degree to use the platform, will likely have much more leeway to use hate speech and spread disinformation.

The Wild West

Musk has repeatedly stated that Twitter is returning to how it was a little over a decade ago. While it can be sold as a company “getting back to its roots”, the reality is that Musk is disregarding over a decade of lessons and growth. The main lesson has been that even the wild west needs a sheriff because people, especially anonymous ones, will abuse freedom. The company learned a lot about its role in geopolitical affairs, and it has had to push itself to keep the “digital town square” civilised. From a business perspective, it is questionable whether brands will be so keen to advertise on a more lawless platform. Twitter, after all, makes its revenue from advertising, and big brands that spend the most want to keep their images clean. If the advertisers disappear, Musk’s era at Twitter will not last too long.