So… it actually happened. After more than 6 months of public drama, legal tactics and insufferable absurdity, Elon Musk now officially owns Twitter. We may never — fully and really — know what happened behind the scenes from the first week of April up until the beginning of October’s second week, but now that the deal is complete and the takeover’s already taking place, one thing’s for sure. Well, three things, to be precise: Twitter is never going to be the same again, the whole acquisition has been anything but a smooth ride and this is Musk’s most far-reaching business move ever.
The reason is simple: Tesla and Space X might look important and futuristic, but — for now, and for the foreseeable future — having control of the most influential social network on the planet is priceless. It’s why the eccentric billionaire claims to have “overpaid” for it, after all.
The only real question here — why Musk actually wanted to have control of Twitter in the first place — can only be answered in the fullness of time and, let’s face it, it most certainly will regardless of what any one of us tech reporters think or feel about all this. It’s worth looking at two things, though, that may give people an idea of what’s in store for Twitter: the timeline of events leading up to this and Elon’s first days as Twitter CEO. Both are rather telling and, honestly, a cause for concern regarding the social network’s future.
A series of unfortunate, often inexplicable, events
That timeline is somewhat convoluted, but it looks something like this: at the end of January Elon Musk started aggressively buying Twitter shares. On April 4 it was revealed that Musk owned 9% of Twitter, at which point he was offered a seat on the company’s board if he agreed to not own more than 14.9% of the remaining stock. Musk initially agreed, then on April 10, he declined (which many interpreted as the first clear sign of him planning for something else).
Four days later Musk made a $44 billion offer to acquire Twitter and take it private. It was “his best and final offer” while also claiming that “if it’s not accepted, then he’d have to reconsider his position as a shareholder”. That’s right. The same day Musk made an offer to buy out a company, he made a statement that could cost it dearly in the stock market (probably Musk’s idea of strong-arming Twitter’s board). That’s strike number one.
Twitter’s stock did fall, of course, forcing its board to follow a “poison pill” strategy the very next day so that it would not fall further. After it was revealed by an SEC filing that Musk had secured funding for the acquisition, Twitter’s board entered negotiations with the billionaire and was widely expected to accept his bid at $44 billion (the stock’s price trended upward at the news). The offer was officially accepted on April 25, a decision celebrated by Musk himself with a positive tweet about democracy, algorithms and “authenticating all humans”.
But you do remember what’s coming next, right?
After a two-week silence, on May 13 Elon Musk informed everyone that he is “putting the acquisition on hold” — even though legally there is no such thing once a deal is signed — because “there is no proof that spam/fake accounts account for less than 5% of Twitter users”. While still “committed to the acquisition”, Musk signaled a few days later that if Twitter did not provide proof of the opposite, “the deal cannot move forward”. He followed that on June 6th with an official letter to Twitter demanding as much.
It’s hard not to comment on this. On one hand, Musk is probably right: just 5% of all Twitter accounts being spam or fake or bots sounds rather low. The actual percentage is definitely higher. On the other hand, it was Musk’s and his legal team’s responsibility to perform due diligence on Twitter as a whole before an offer was ever made, let alone before signing an acquisition deal. By suddenly bringing up the bot problem as a deal breaker Musk gave everyone the impression that he was getting cold feet about the whole thing, that he regretted making an offer that high and that he wanted to put pressure on Twitter for renegotiating the price in a new deal. That did not help Twitter’s stock price or its employee’s morale, hurting the company further. That was strike number two.
The whole summer that followed can be considered strike number three. Twitter allowed Musk access to its data to confirm that 5% of fake/spam accounts, but apparently not to his satisfaction because the billionaire announced on July 8 that “he was canceling the acquisition”. Twitter’s board — having already lost much market value and a number of valuable employees who preferred to quit, tired of this circus — had no choice but to take legal action in order to enforce the agreement (which it did on July 9). By that point, of course, it was clear that this shameful mess made everyone involved look bad. Everyone.
What really happened behind the scenes between that day and October 3rd — when Musk announced to Twitter in a formal letter that he will be proceeding with the acquisition after all — is the part that we may never get to find out in detail. Those ten weeks or so had been spent by Musk on suing and counter-suing, on using a fired whistleblower as a definitive source in order to bail out of the deal, on calling various prominent tech figures to testify at the (then) upcoming trial and on attempting to delay said trial as much as possible.
The general feeling, though, is that Musk was practically forced to go through with the acquisition when his legal team became convinced that he would lose that trial (and that a lot of relevant information Musk did not want known would become public knowledge as part of the procedure). And… here we are: the company Musk tried to acquire for two months and then tried to not acquire for four months, is now his to run.
Confusing strong leadership with corporate bullying
After all of that, it’s no wonder that Elon Musk’s first few days as the owner of Twitter were full of cringe-worthy moments and questionable choices. Nope, yours truly did not see how Musk entering Twitter’s HQ and tweeting “Let that sink in!” while carrying an actual kitchen sink would be considered “funny”. No, it does not look good to fire a just-acquired company’s CEO, its CFO and its head of policy on the very first day of taking the helm and have them escorted out of the building. It looks disgraceful and vaguely vengeful.
But hey. That’s Elon for you: all the elegance and empathy of a wrecking ball swinging into a glassware store.
Then there was the absurd stuff, like Elon Musk bringing in his Tesla engineers to “review Twitter’s code” — the who to do what? — and having coder employees come to the office in order to actually print out their work to be examined. Yes, on paper. You can’t make this stuff up. It quickly became apparent how impractical reviewing code without being able to run it can be, of course, but then again maybe that’s what Musk meant when he tweeted back in May that Twitter under his guidance would be “super focused on hardcore software engineering”. Maybe the company’s current coders, working on plain old PCs and not paper, are rather… softcore, you know?
All of this gives the impression of a man who really, really wants to show everyone working in his newly acquired company “who’s the boss” from day one. One who feels like he needs to do that. Kind of pathetic, but… yeah. That’s also Elon for you.
Other moves Musk made were somewhat positive, yet still ambiguous. He promised to set up “a content moderation council”, for instance, but one which will have “widely diverse viewpoints” (why does that sound more like a threat than a good thing?). He also denied that he plans to fire 75% of Twitter’s employees (it was first reported by The Washington Post), although deep cuts are still widely expected. Of interest is also Musk’s public intentions regarding Twitter’s “work from home” policy, which was up until now favorable to employees but is not at all Musk’s cup of tea. Many think that this is how he will practically force a lot of Twitter workers to resign, making it seem less like his choice and more like theirs.
The employee exodus that had already started in April, of course, is also expected to continue and absolutely nobody is talking about hiring new people in the near future. Musk himself has repeatedly stated that he plans to drastically improve the company’s bottom line — and, right now, the easiest way to do that would be to drive down expenses to a minimum. Increasing revenue will be, of course, much harder.
The future of Twitter seems bleak because, well, it is
The question remaining in everyone’s mind, of course, is “Why?”: Musk’s motives behind Twitter’s acquisition will ultimately decide its fate. Why would a mercurial, narcissistic, borderline sociopathic billionaire buy out a social network that is extremely influential but financially unsuccessful? Why would he risk getting involved in the politics of it all, as quite rightly Nilay Patel of The Verge points out?
There have been all sorts of theories as to why Musk really wanted to acquire Twitter, ranging from the highly unlikely (“to extract human behavioral patterns for his humanoid robot in development”), to the rather unlikely (“to make the Everything App”), to the likely (“to influence the US mid-term elections and other legal or constitutional procedures of US interest”), to the highly likely (“to turn it into a more profitable business… then flip it”). There’s also the obvious, Occam’s Razor-style possibility: he did it on a whim, he did it because as a major Twitter shitposter he just likes this service, he did it because he could. Isn’t that how egocentric billionaires often act anyway?
Whatever the case may be, It’s clear that Musk’s much-discussed “free speech absolutist” angle is controversial at best and extremely dangerous at worst. A man not aware of the fact that the balance of political power has moved to the right and the far right globally (rather than to the left as he thinks it has) over the last decade, a person evidently not able to tell the difference between hate speech and “free speech”, is not fit to dictate policy on a social network like Twitter. The very concept of billionaires purchasing social networks — ending up affecting people’s points of view in all kinds of important matters — is problematic to begin with, even if Elon Musk was a conventional kind of billionaire. Which he isn’t.
This brings us to the man’s actual plans for Twitter. Anyone who’s been paying attention to what Musk has so far claimed about those must feel amused, perplexed, frustrated and even angry, all at the same time. In short, he seems to be all over the place about the service’s future. He wants to be seen as someone who “freed” Twitter, for instance, while also promising that “Twitter will match the law of the country operating in” (which the service followed with its own practices anyway). He wants to have every advertiser’s support by claiming that “Twitter will not become a free-for-all hellscape”, while also relaxing moderation, weakening banning rules and reducing the number of Twitter employees who filter out the very content that can make this social network toxic for advertisers.
In essence, Musk either does not fully understand what he’s promising or he’s OK with promising everything to everyone because he just intends to do his own thing anyway.
Unfortunately, looking beyond Musk himself and focusing on how certain quarters welcomed the acquisition, it seems like what Twitter worked so hard to accomplish during the last decade may be undone in the next few weeks and months. Trump supporters, alt-right and even nazi backers, QAnon believers and many others banned from Twitter are having a field day with Musk’s acquisition. Divisive, toxic or downright criminal figures such as Steve Banon, Alex Jones, Roger Stone, Martin Shkreli and others are awaiting official reinstatement under Musk. Many believe that if the billionaire goes through with his “relaxed moderation” plans, then Twitter will look a lot like Truth Social 2.0 in a matter of months. This is far from what advertisers, users not interested in political discourse — or Twitter’s mainstream audience for that matter — would like to see.
The irony in all of this is not lost on anyone. Reporters have been grumbling for years regarding Twitter’s obvious power and reach but apparent lack of vision and direction, as well as its inability to come up with and follow a clear, effective business model. Under Elon Musk, though, it now seems that waters are even murkier for Twitter: the billionaire has talked a lot about a lot of things regarding the embattled social network, sure, but has so far demonstrated no clear, coherent, realistic plan on how he could lead it to smooth operation and financial success.
Short-term, things are going to get worse before they get better for Twitter. Long-term? It’s anyone’s guess, but — right now, at least — things are not looking good. Here’s hope that Elon Musk does not succeed in transforming it into something unrecognizable, bereft of the essence that once made it great.