Elon Musk Set to Buy Twitter
Luke Rapallo '24
On Monday, April 25, 2022, Twitter announced that the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, would be purchasing all the remaining shares of Twitter for a whopping $44 billion dollars, making Twitter a privately held company. This potential purchase sent the internet into a frenzy, frantically wondering how it would affect Twitter specifically, and how it would impact how conversation functions on a larger level across the entire internet. Will this acquisition be a net positive or a net negative for the internet as a whole? What are the potential effects of this purchase? Specifically, how will it impact economic trends and internet dialogue?
Elon Musk has made his intentions as the owner of Twitter clear quickly, saying that he wants to reduce bans and promote “free speech.” Musk tweeted about this on several occasions saying things like, “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated” and “For twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.” While that last tweet makes it seem as if Musk intends on remaining politically neutral, directly after posting those statements, he posted a series of anti-leftist messages, such as “The far left hates everyone, themselves included!” and a political cartoon which implies that the left is becoming too radical, forcing politically neutral people to the right. This could become a point of concern for some, as his personal political biases could affect how he intends to enforce his new rules. Musk isn’t helping to quiet these concerns, as in the past few days, he has been discussing lifting former President Donald Trump’s ban off of the platform. On the subject, he said, "I do think it was not correct to ban Donald Trump, I think that was a mistake…I would reverse the perma-ban.” While this quote could just be him continuing his free speech crusade, this compounded with his earlier quotes makes it difficult to believe he will remain impartial in his decisions.
Some people may be wondering, what level of restrictions does Twitter already have that Musk intends on loosening? According to a release from Twitter, the preexisting rules are divided into several different categories:Violence, Terrorism, Abuse/Harassment, Hateful conduct, Self-Harm, Spam, Identity theft, illegal goods and services, Manipulated Media, and posts that violate copyright/trademarks. This leaves the question, which of these restricted aspects exactly does Musk intend on changing? This could be an area of concern for some Twitter users, as these rules cover a lot of area that most people agree should remain restricted, like violence and terrorism. As it currently stands, Twitter enforces their rules with a sliding scale, in which the severity of the punishment corresponds to the severity of the violation. The lowest level of punishment is tweet-level enforcement, which would include things such as labeling a tweet as potentially incorrect or offensive, limiting tweet visibility, and requiring removal of a post in order to continue tweeting. These three limitations would be used in order to prevent the spread of harmful or incorrect statements. This is most likely the section that Musk intends on winding down, which would most likely increase a misinformation issue that already plagues Twitter. There are also concerns with how well automation can complete this task, as it is impossible to hand review every tweet. The level of restriction directly above a tweet-level restriction would be Account-level enforcement. Twitter discusses account-level enforcement saying, “We take action at the account level if we determine that a person has violated the Twitter Rules in a particularly egregious way.” The tactics they would use in this situation include requiring profile edits, putting an account into “read only mode”, verifying account ownership, and finally, permanent suspension from the platform being the most drastic action Twitter could take. Tweets that require action on this level are less likely to be defended by Musk, as it would be hard to argue that tweets discussing and advocating for things like violence and terrorism should be allowed on the platform. With a better idea of how conversation will be affected on the platform, what led Twitter to agreeing to this purchase?
Why was Twitter available to purchase in the first place? Twitter has always had issues with monetizing their platform. This is due to the fact that the way their platform is designed is not naturally conducive to advertising. Twitter relies heavily on impressions for visibility, making what the average person sees effectively a meritocracy, so when that visibility is paid for, it feels cheap or unearned to the average user. According to Forbes, Twitter’s issues are getting worse with time. “Twitter’s struggle over the years to turn profitable is no secret for investors, but over recent quarters, the company’s path to profitability has become more difficult. This is primarily because advertiser interest in the social networking platform has been dwindling.” This lack of advertiser interest is coming at the serious detriment of the profit margins of the company. While this allowed the purchase to be much easier for Musk, it is also certainly an issue he needs to resolve if he wants to re-acquire a significant portion of the $44 billion he shelled out for the company. A first step to rectify this issue would be to generate more interest in the website, as according to Forbes, “Twitter’s biggest issue is monetizing its user base, as well as its still relatively lackluster user base growth.” If he is able to generate more interest in the platform, monetization will likely come shortly behind.
Overall, Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is a fascinating development towards a company that had not been making much progress in recent years. Will Twitter finally find a sustainable monetization plan for their platform? We will soon see how his decisions will affect discourse (specifically political discourse) on the internet in the moment and for years to come.