8 Good Reasons To Be Suspicious of Elon Musk’s Twitter Takeover

And if Elon is genuine about the significance of the platform, these are things he should probably address in the open

Let’s start with an important caveat: I’m not an Elon Musk hater. I’ve been in plenty of arguments supporting his “shoot for ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶m̶o̶o̶n̶ Mars, land amongst the stars” visionary approach, and why it’s refreshing and valuable for humanity.

But at the same time, this Tweet (yup) perfectly captures why it would be downright stupid to not take a closer look:

I would expect Elon to agree with the optics on this, the below, and the fact they need to be addressed. (Please don’t cancel me, Elon.)

So let’s dig in.

1. Elon Musk actually has a terrible record when it comes to walking the talk on free speech

He doesn’t act like somebody who respects free speech. It actually looks a lot like he doesn’t care for free speech at all when it’s inconvenient. What will happen when he’s in charge of Twitter? How will he address this?

Or just read this piece Bloomberg just published tracking his record.

Maybe it’s because he doesn’t actually understand what free speech means? (Or, given his intelligence, is choosing not to?)

2. His apparent (intentional?) amateurish understanding of “free speech”

…it often feels like there are a few too many times when he seems to think that whatever idea just popped into his head is the most brilliant idea in the world, and it’s not possible that people who have actually thought these things through might have some further insight.

This whole buy-Twitter / “free speech” crusade feels like one of those times.

His aspirations sound identical to what led to the creation of Wild West-style Twitter copycats Gab, GETTR, and Parler — all of which were forced to introduce their own moderation policies.

…amusing when a new Twitter-wannabe enters the market and screams about how they are going to “support free speech, unlike Twitter.” Gab claimed that, and then couldn’t find enough users to actually want to stick around its cesspool. Then there was Parler, which initially claimed that it would only moderate based on the 1st Amendment, but then started just making up its own rules on who to ban (and its then CEO even bragged about “banning leftist trolls”) once it realized that such a standard makes no sense. Or how about GETTR, set up by a former Trump advisor, that still pretends to be about free speech, but bans accounts of anyone who mocks one of its biggest investors. And, of course, there’s now Trump’s own Truth Social, which makes clear it will ban users for making fun of Trump, and has already banned people for mocking its CEO

What the above example doesn’t even explicitly point out, is when you are the de facto town square, and people start doing things in real life as a result of what they see on your platform, your responsibilities change in a hurry.

Benedict Evans, above, is alluding to when Facebook was a key factor in the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. But here are countless other cases: mobs in India lynching and murdering people because of viral misinformation on Whatsapp, mobs fighting in the streets in Texas because of trolls in Russia having their way on Facebook, and much more. What happens if genocidal mobs start acting on misinformation in the United States, thanks to a firehose of unfettered, violence-inciting misinformation on a free-for-all Twitter? What will Elon do?

All these issues around free speech are especially concerning when he seems to be inclined and eager to run Twitter in a pretty simplistic, hands-on manner 👇

3. He seems to be okay with arbitrary decision-makers, as long as it’s him

We know that Musk is a notorious micro-manager. And it looks like that will likely extend to Twitter. This is a problem.

Musk going on a tweet-spree these past days to let people know he’ll make sure they’re verified may be well-intentioned, but is basically replicating the very issue he’s claiming he’ll solve (and in a scarier context).

Today’s verification process: a convoluted and seemingly arbitrary system that seems to use favoritism.
Elon’s verification process: unclear, but you’re in luck if you get on Elon’s radar and he likes you.

Or, in a different form:

This month, Musk was complaining that Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s founder, had too much power, arguing that the way Meta was structured, “Mark Zuckerberg the 14th” would someday be running it.

Now Musk will own Twitter outright as a private company. He will report to himself.

Any serious verification system cannot have Musk — or anyone else — involved when they feel like it.

Again:

… a transaction that will shift control of the platform populated by millions of users and global leaders to the world’s richest person.

This tendency to be selectively outraged is part of an important trend…

4. Why all the misdirection?

Elon is showing a pattern of playing into his followers’ emotions for personal benefit rather than objective truth, while pretending it’s all righteous/ for the public good. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s something we’ve seen all too much lately: populist politicians and/or billionaires marketing themselves as “fighting for the people”/ “against the shadowy powers that be”… while speaking from both sides of their mouths or constantly deflecting hard questions with non-answers.

Here are just a few examples (there are many):

> When the former Reddit CEO — one of the best possible people to provide advice on Musk’s plans—posted a very rational, thoughtful tweetstorm predicting why Elon would struggle with his free speech absolutist approach, what was Elon’s answer? A deflective total non-answer.

> When a member-funded non-profit focused on accountability in tech published an open letter making some very reasonable requests (which even acknowledge and built on some of Elon’s vague suggestions) — but through the lens of being opposed to the takeover —he once again deflected in an awfully misleading way:

>When Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, via Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Company, who was one of the largest and longest standing shareholders of Twitter, tweeted his opposition to Musk’s offer, Musk didn’t take too kindly to it:

Which, on the face of it, is an awesome call-out! Having Saudi Arabia and its infamous track record with journalists and freedom of speech be a major shareholder of Twitter is a deeply problematic and disturbing conflict of values. And dangerous. The problem is, Musk didn’t seem to care much about such affiliations when
a) The Saudis were major shareholders of Tesla up until 2019 (and their divestment had nothing to do with Musk taking issue with their ethics)
b) He was flaunting the Saudis as his would-be financiers when he claimed to be taking Tesla private.
c) As mentioned, he didn’t have much of a problem asking the Chinese government to censor its critics on social media.

When Tesla ran into image problems in China, the company responded by asking the Chinese government to censor critical posts by social media users there, Bloomberg reported last year.

d) Nor did he mind speaking at a Kremlin-sponsored event about building factories in Russia just 9 months ago

Once you know these details, it looks like righteous posturing, exacting the type of thing Elon and many others claim to despise.

> When Twitter’s board was initially against his offer, he continually perpetuated the notion/ riled up his hordes of followers, around that idea that just because Twitter’s board didn’t collectively own a huge slice of the company, it was somehow invalid and not representative of the shareholders. That’s not how business works, and he knows this. That board didn’t magically install itself, or get there without the knowledge or acceptance of shareholders up to this point. There is no precedent that says a board should hold significant shareholdings of the company. Deciding it’s inconvenient to his plans and vilifying it, as if it’s some sort of pirate board, was blatant misdirection — all by using his influence on Twitter to do so.

> He pulled a similar move in fanning the flames of folks up in arms on Twitter about the board not allowing shareholders to take the deal directly — all without Musk actually ever making a direct tender or showing he intended to, as Matt Levine perfectly outlined for Bloomberg.

> In general, at no point has Musk offered anything even resembling a thoroughly thought-out plan for Twitter (back-of-the-napkin ideas shared via tweets — and then deleted —don’t quite cut it), or how he’ll tackle any of the core topics he’s now spent almost a month on, continually riling up the masses. Maybe the best example was his performance at the TED conference, where his shallow answers were roundly criticized.

Taking the concept of sincerity further…

5. Why does he actually want to buy Twitter?

Does Elon truly care about free speech suddenly, to this degree?

Objectively, it doesn’t really add up conceptually:

Musk’s stated reasons for buying Twitter are self-contradictory. He’s going to unlock Twitter’s profitability but also not run it to make money. He’s going to make the platform better for “absolute free speech” but create a subscription tier (impediment to unfettered speech!)

Or is it all just chess moves?

Musk has some history here: In 2018 he pretended that he was going to take Tesla Inc. private; he wasn’t, and eventually he settled fraud charges with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

If you’ve been observing Musk’s use of Twitter, you will see he has wielded it expertly as a tool of self-serving market manipulation. He is a unique brand of hype-man, and Twitter has been his weapon of choice:

It isn’t without clear self-interest. His rise to become the world’s richest man was aided by his savvy use of Twitter to build support for his vision of the future, one that has helped him raise billions of dollars over the years from investors to fund Tesla Inc. TSLA -1.14% ▼ and Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

It has helped him propel Tesla to its outsized market cap — larger than top 9 auto giants combined, despite achieving less than 5% the vehicle sales of those giants. Remember when his tweets about Tesla caused federal regulators to assign him a “Twitter sitter”? More recently he has taken to swinging cryptocurrency prices, tweet by tweet.

It is very hard, therefore, to not believe there’s a deeper motive, which aligns much more clearly with Musk than his sudden fervent (and incredibly vague) vision for “free speech”.

This analysis from Ranjan Roy at Margins makes a compelling case:

We’ve since learned the timing at least confirms something very strategic. Elon started buying shares in TWTR at the end of January. At same time, he began this legal escalation with the SEC. One involved SEC filings while the other involved lengthy legal motions, but they were both happening in exact parallel.

I believe a large part of this is Elon making a move to make sure his Twitter account cannot be limited, and certainly, never banned.

He’s already argued the SEC was limiting his free speech when it ‘restricted’ his tweeting. He’s concurrently framed the entire purchase of Twitter under some nebulous vision of free speech. From both a timing and strategic perspective, the two moves almost certainly had to be done in tandem.

After the past few weeks, can you imagine the public outcry if regulators tried imposing any limits at all? Even if he doesn’t end up owning Twitter, could you imagine Ron DeSantis if Elon was forced to take down a tweet? Now just imagine he does end up owning Twitter and taking it private. Musk can break every securities law related to public communication ever invented, and at worst, he’ll be fined relative pennies. If the GOP wins back Congress, could you imagine any regulator going after Elon if he reinstates Trump?

If Twitter is existential to his overall business interests and his account feels threatened in any way, $46 billion for Twitter is a bargain for maintaining, and increasing, his $270 billion net worth.

Why in the world wouldn’t he want absolute control of his weapon of choice, which has been so incredibly effective and profitable for him, and to be able to shape it and wield it as he chooses with zero oversight or limitation? This all seems far less about “free speech” for everyone, and more about his “free speech” and the power it wields for him.

Speaking of trust (or lack thereof)…

6. What will happen to your data?

This pretty much covers it:

The amount of data Elon Musk would have access to if he privatized Twitter ‘cannot be compared to’

Should Musk take ownership of Twitter, the Tesla CEO would have near-complete control over an amount of user data “that cannot be compared to anything that has ever existed, and allows intervention into the integrity of individual behavior and also the integrity of collective behavior,” Zuboff said.

There are entirely different (and more numerous) checks and balances on public companies. Not so for a private company.

Trevor Noah’s take today summed it up:

Whether you are for Elon Musk or against him, you’ve got to admit it is pretty crazy that one man is in control of all of that. Before this Jack Dorsey didn’t own Twitter. A lot of people might think that. No, he just owned 2% of the shares, and even as CEO he still had to answer to the board, and the board had to answer to the shareholders, and Twitter itself had to answer to the SEC. But now as a private company it’s *just Elon Musk*.

It’s also one thing for a publicly traded company to be taken private that is a traditional business. It’s quite another when it’s a business that hoovers up so much personal data. Especially when the man running it has such a dependent relationship with China.

7. Is this “The Future of Civilization”?

In an interview at the TED 2022 conference a week ago, Musk insisted he didn’t “care about the economics at all.” This whole fixation with Twitter, was rather all about “the future of civilization” — and the importance of “having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive.”

The problem is that his vision of “free speech” is literally the antithesis of fostering a space that is “maximally trusted and broadly inclusive”. But let’s just look past that all for a second to another way of seeing the problem.

Musk said that Twitter is the world’s de facto town square. Have you ever been to an actual town square? In real life they have rules, expectations, and limitations.

Rules, like, for example, in a normal town square you won’t get very far being a perpetual bully, and certainly not openly and pointedly harassing people, especially violently. You’ll probably get ostracized at best, asked to leave, or arrested at worst. I.e. expectations we have in civil society of how we treat others and public spaces.
Perhaps most importantly, there are also built-in limitations that allow town squares to function:
- It’s virtually impossible to participate completely anonymously, or with zero repercussions for your actions. The more influential you wish to be in the town square, the truer this becomes.
- Influence and arguments in real life happen in far more elaborate and nuanced terms than 280 characters and memes that retain everybody’s attention for a few, disjointed minutes.

Let’s run a couple of little thought experiments.

  1. Imagine you took all of these rules, expectations, and limitations away from the real town square. Or, put another way, enabled “ultimate free speech”. Unfettered participation, no matter what, under any conditions. There is no chance you will enjoy the same benefits that have made town squares what they are. It would become a seedy, probably dangerous, huckster-driven environment of noise.
  2. A town square is also where debates happen and decisions are made. What happens when there is no moderator? No limits or rules? Who do you think will be heard? The most reasonable perspective, or the loudest and most aggressive? Will the brightest minds even bother participating? This is arguably already Twitter’s reality, and rather than trying to improve upon it, this supposed key to the future of civilization would lean into the worst version of itself.

But maybe people do want that huckster-driven noise?

8. These are Musk’s biggest boosters (and who he enjoys catering to) — will he listen to others?

Precisely because Musk has talked such a big game about why Twitter is important for civilization, as its new leader, he’s a bit like a President who just won a highly contested election (sup Macron): will he be the President for everyone? Or just his side?

It’s an important question, because if you’ve observed Musk and Twitter at all, you’ll see most of his support and interactions, including during this takeover bid, fell into 3 predictable buckets.

Elon Takeover Supporter — Type 1:
Cryptobros” and Valley/Tech Insiders who feel that they should be elevated for their accomplishments above any other subject matter experts.

It’s always hard to tell in the crypto crowd what’s real and what’s satire

(“Only people I respect should be able to hold me accountable”)

In other words, folks who care about as much about “free speech” as they do about their interpretation of value and accomplishments counting more than others, thanks to a central power of their choosing.

It’s not like Elon is in any way sympathetic to, or almost exclusively listens to, the crypto and tech insider crowd. What could possibly go wrong?

Elon Takeover Supporter — Type 2:

Twitter’s adoption of a “poison pill” ( = ensuring board approval required for somebody, like Elon, to take more than 15% of Twitter) brought lots of Silicon Valley personalities out of the woodwork with tweets of faux outrage or doom and gloom for any scenario where Musk’s bid wasn’t accepted. It all seemed very contrived, especially for such smart folks.

The answer can be found in the fact that the vast majority of these folks are exactly in line with Elon’s attitude toward Twitter. It also seems they were instrumental in driving the purchase:

Before and during Mr. Musk’s breakneck takeover of Twitter, a close-knit group of libertarian-leaning activists and businessmen have been encouraging him to get involved.

Most of the influential free speech maximalists are Silicon Valley technocrats or populist political types that dislike the scrutiny, accountability, and limitations that Twitter currently represents.

Days before then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill in October 2020, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) likened the moguls to colossal tyrants whose supposed liberal-leanings biased their decisions against conservatives.

“In any world, handling control of our democracy, handling control of free speech to a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires — modern day oligarchs with unlimited power and a brazen willingness to use that power — would pose profound dangers,” he said on a call, according to Newsweek.

Now Republicans including Cruz are cheering as the world’s richest man Elon Musk takes control of Twitter, in hopes he will wield that same power to their liking — by making the social network’s content moderation practices far more hands-off.

Their claims often share the above conspiracy-laced motivation that the platform censors them, despite evidence over and over that right-leaning perspectives dominate. Now was no different.

Elon Takeover Supporter — Type 3:

This final category, which makes up a huge volume of interactions, are quite simply Elon fanboys/girls who think the man is a faultless genius. It is cult-like.

Yes, somebody really proposed that Twitter — with its 280 char count, fortune cookie “wisdom”, and optimized for quantity of reactions not quality of contributions — would be where meaningful thoughts and opinion get to “duke it out”.

If you didn’t also laugh bitterly and incredulously (or throw up a little?) reading that, maybe you’re the wrong audience for this post.

But the important part is that they can be quite aggressive, an army of trolls encouraged by Musk’s own many examples of similar behaviour.

Rumman Chowdhury, who directs Twitter’s AI ethics team working on algorithmic harms, observed “Musk’s immediate chilling effect” at the company.

“Twitter has a beautiful culture of hilarious constructive criticism, and I saw that go silent because of his minions attacking employees,” she wrote on Twitter, lauding the company for doing right by its employees by keeping Musk out of the henhouse. She later muted the thread, observing only that “the trolls have descended.”

Here is M.G. Siegler’s experience with Elon’s fanbase (click through for all hyperlinks):

People who follow Elon Musk — of which there are roughly 80 million — are even more insane. I don’t mean that as an insult. They’re just wild. I honestly can’t recall a fanbase that is so rabid online. Just his reply to my tweet with one word is what drove most of the madness around the tweet (with a hat tip to a meme-ish Quote Tweet from Marc Andreessen, which I believe is how/why Musk saw it anyway). Within minutes of Musk’s reply, I was getting hundreds of tweets directed at me about things ranging from space exploration to NFT scams to Joe Biden’s Tesla snub — and everything in between. Many were quite literally gibberish. It was fascinating to behold. Mildly scary, to be honest. One person commands this much craziness. Again, I knew this, but I hadn’t really seen it in action.

This well-used meme sums it up pretty well:

(I identify as a weird nerd, though, so this image hurts me 🥲)

Will anything Musk proposes be gobbled up and magnified back at him like a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Twitter does have a ton of potential. Maybe Elon can unlock it. He’s done incredible, singular things. I hope he can do it again here.

But it’s fair to ask questions when somebody with as much money and influence as he has takes control of the world’s “town square”.

Bonus:

You could argue his offer & whole “Fiduciary Responsibility” angle were off

Musk claiming his offer of $54.20/share was a 54% premium on Twitter’s value is arguably misleading. Just 1 year ago Twitter shares were was valued at over $70/share, and over $65/share as recently as October.

Via Bloomberg

Some will argue that over its lifetime the value is closer to a $45/share value (which, even then makes his offer less impressive), but this doesn’t take into account the dramatic changes happening at Twitter.

Over the last two years, Twitter has innovated more through additions, acquisitions, and overall future-looking diversification, than it has at any point over the last 10 years. For most of the suggestions Elon has made, from moving away from ad-revenue to incorporating long form content and more, the foundations were already built by Twitter these past 2 years.

Between newsletters (and much more expected on this front around long form), Spaces, Twitter Blue, and now all things NFTs, there is a lot of promising new ground to explore and emerging lucrative market white space. Where Facebook is fading/ divesting to VR, Twitter is rising as the sole source of social information. (TikTok, Snap, and Insta are social entertainment first and foremost).

Any reasonable shareholder who believed in Twitter to begin with, could not possibly believe now would be a good time to sell low. The upside in the coming years would have been different and significant.

“‘No board in America is going to take that number,’ said Jefferies analyst Brent Thill.”

Lastly, we need to remember that shareholder primacy is an unfortunate reality, but shareholder value isn’t the only thing that matters. Barring an absolutely overwhelming offer — which this is certainly not — leaders will also consider the impact on users and society (and their legacies). And the optics on that front are not good.

This also leads to the necessity of a “poison pill”. If you’re the Twitter board, your options were limited: either you accept the hostile takeover, which is not acceptable across a variety of fronts outlined above, or you do something about it. They tried.

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Mario Vasilescu

Mario Vasilescu

Rethinking the attention economy and wonder wandering.

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