Elon Musk is set to take control of Twitter in a $44 billion deal that, at least judging by some of the reactions, feels like it could reshape the internet as we know it.
Twitter may seem rather ordinary on paper. The company’s user base and market value are less than a tenth the size of Meta, Facebook’s parent company. Its total revenue last year was roughly the same as Western Union. And prior to this month, Twitter’s stock was below the closing price from its first day of trading more than eight years ago.
But Musk’s bid to take Twitter (TWTR) private has inspired unsolicited input from US lawmakers, rampant speculation about its impact on the 2024 US presidential election, and even breathless, hyperbolic comparisons to the last days of Weimar Germany.
So why, exactly, do the stakes feel so big? The answer boils down to the outsized influence of Twitter on public discourse, and the uncertainty of what happens when the world’s richest man — who revels in his unpredictability — gains singular control over that influence.
Although Twitter reported just 217 million active daily users last year, a far cry from the billions reported by rival Meta, its users include highly influential politicians, business leaders, entertainers, activists and intellectuals — public figures with large followings who in turn shape the public discourse surrounding politics, media, finance and technology. More than two-thirds of Twitter’s US users say the platform is an important — if not the most important — source of news, according to the Pew Research Center. And Twitter’s agenda-setting power seems to be precisely what interests Musk, and what makes his control of the platform so potentially disruptive.
Musk’s deal to buy Twitter sits at the confluence of multiple ongoing societal debates, including about the power and influence of billionaires; the impact of mis- and disinformation; and the responsibilities tech platforms owe to their users and society, and what new regulations should back them up.
In becoming Twitter’s owner, Musk has suddenly collapsed many of these threads into one, right as lawmakers around the world seem poised to make some very big decisions about how social media ought to work.
“His purchase of Twitter to take it private makes an essential service even less transparent and more unaccountable,” said Adam Connor, a former Facebook employee and vice president for technology policy at the Center for American Progress. “Musk’s Twitter takeover is a flashing red light on why the centralization of our online spaces in the hands of a select few billionaires is so dangerous.”
Musk didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
Musk takes control of the digital town square
Musk, an eccentric billionaire with a history of courting controversy on and off Twitter, has personally pitched the acquisition in soaring rhetoric. He has argued with characteristic bombast that Twitter, and his bid to own it, “is extremely important to the future of civilization” because the world needs an “inclusive” digital town square that abides by free-speech principles.
Musk’s main critique about Twitter today is that it is too restrictive. Under his ownership, Musk has suggested, Twitter would treat content more permissively, pivoting away from content removals and account bans. He has also proposed opening up Twitter’s algorithm to public review so that, in theory, users could understand how it makes decisions.
What this means for Twitter’s everyday content enforcement isn’t entirely clear; Musk has avoided going into specifics, and his objection to Twitter’s approach seems rooted more in how much content moderation Twitter needs, rather than whether it ought to have any at all. But his framing of the deal, and some of the reaction by outsiders, has nevertheless turned the proposal into a kind of referendum on the future of online speech.
One of the biggest underlying questions in this category, expressed by industry watchers, political figures and Twitter employees, is whether the company will restore Trump’s account privileges. Trump has reportedly said he will not return to Twitter even if he is allowed back on the platform. But relaxing enforcement of the types of policies that got him banned could affect many more than just Trump. Several figures who have had accounts banned from Twitter celebrated the deal on Monday, with some such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene expressing optimism that soon their access may be fully restored.
“This potential deal is about much more than the future of Twitter,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, a watchdog group that called on Twitter to keep its current platform rules. “A sale to Elon Musk without any conditions will pollute the entire information ecosystem by opening the floodgate of hate and lies.”
All of this comes at the exact moment when everyone from former President Barack Obama to European Union lawmakers have proposed holding social media platforms to a tougher standard on content moderation, not the more laissez-faire approach preferred by Musk.
For a platform of Twitter’s importance, downshifting on content moderation could have massive consequences both for the way individual users experience the site — especially its most vulnerable users, including women, the LGBTQ community and people of color — and for the national and international dialogues that play out on the platform and ultimately influence world events.
Musk’s growing empire
There is also the deal’s potential impact on Musk’s own personal influence, particularly in connection with two of his other companies, Tesla and SpaceX.
Assuming the deal goes through, Musk will oversee the most valuable American car company, a leading private aerospace business, a tunneling company recently valued at more than $5 billion, a brain-chip startup and a social network with hundreds of millions of users.
Not only can Musk use his power over Twitter to ensure the platform gives him maximum leeway to tweet as he sees fit, but the acquisition gives him newfound political leverage as only a billionaire can acquire, which could benefit some of his other businesses.
Musk’s stance on content moderation has already endeared him with conservatives including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and more than a dozen House Republicans, who had pressured Twitter’s board to accept the deal by suggesting a rejection might be considered a betrayal of shareholder interests. Multiple Republican governors have also said Musk should consider moving Twitter’s headquarters to their states.
In addition to earning credibility with some politicians, some, including one of Musk’s most high-profile rivals, have suggested the Tesla CEO also stands to gain a valuable bargaining chip in Twitter.
“Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?” Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos mused on Twitter. Bezos, whose rocket and space tourism company Blue Origin competes with Musk’s SpaceX, added that while he believes the prospect of direct Twitter censorship in China is low, Musk’s ownership of Twitter could certainly mean more “complexity” for Tesla within China, which is now one of the car company’s biggest markets.
Even if Musk’s Twitter rebuffs censorship requests from authoritarian regimes, it could make other concessions. As Bloomberg’s Brad Stone noted, Twitter has had a policy of labeling state-run media organizations and government accounts, and not promoting them in recommendations. “The Chinese government surely hates these restrictions,” Stone wrote.
Now imagine that transactional logic applied to any situation in which Musk’s interests collide with others, which tends to happen not infrequently. Musk has feuded with journalists, lawmakers, and even the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Would Musk go so far as to use his ownership of Twitter as a tool for favors and score-settling? On Monday, Musk offered a hint to the contrary when he said he hopes “even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”
Of course, none of that constitutes a promise to his critics — and Musk has been known to abruptly change course before.