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This Again?

Twitter Will Be an Albatross Around Elon Musk’s Neck

It’s not clear whether the billionaire mogul wants the company to flourish financially or just become subservient to his whims—but it can’t do both.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Elon Musk

Elon Musk has done everything he could think of to get out of buying Twitter—after, of course, agreeing to buy it. This has made for some considerable confusion. He has announced several times that he was withdrawing his bid or placing it “on hold.” He has accused the company of many different varieties of shenanigans, from inflating user numbers to just being poorly run in general. He even sued the company to try to block the deal. And when inspiration was at its ebb, he just tweeted a lot. Sometimes, the tweets were bad. Actually, the tweets were bad more often than not.

Distractions only last so long, however. Now it seems as if Musk is going to end up owning Twitter—unless, of course, he doesn’t. It’s all so hard to keep track of!

Here’s the tick-tock: On Tuesday, it was reported that the South African billionaire was absolutely going to buy the company—even though Musk had not yet agreed to dismiss the lawsuit he’d levied against his future asset. (Here, there may be many twists and turns to come: The firm’s shareholders have yet to be paid, and, while Musk has secured funding, he has shown no inclination to, you know, actually close the deal; the acute case of cold feet he experienced almost immediately after agreeing to purchase the company appears to be lingering.) If Musk regrets getting ahead of himself, that’s pretty reasonable. There’s no guarantee that acquiring Twitter won’t end up being a catastrophic decision. As one Twitter wag (naturally) put it: “Elon Musk paying $44 billion to stop being dragged is great.”

Musk’s motivation for closing this revived deal now is simple: He is trying to extricate himself from a mess of his own making before it goes even further sideways. His lawsuit against Twitter has already led to embarrassing revelations—if it went to trial, which it is scheduled to do next week, surely many more would follow. In all likelihood, Musk could have bought the company at a lower price, but to do so would have only prolonged his legal misery. Musk now has the opportunity merely to obtain Twitter at the price he agreed to—after six months spent publicly slagging the firm and trying to crab-walk out of the deal.

Musk initially argued that he was buying Twitter in order to save it from itself—and by extension, to save democracy and perhaps the world. Who knew that so much hinged on Twitter? Well, Musk, for one, did, and his contention was that the company had gone irretrievably “woke.” What did that mean? As near as Musk let on, Twitter had become too quick to ban controversial accounts—such as that of former President Donald Trump, which Musk has said he would reinstate. He also insisted that Twitter was failing at its core function, which was to serve as a “town square” for the internet: a place where people can gather together and angrily shout at one another.

Musk’s vision was naïve when it wasn’t completely incoherent—for example, far too few people are sufficiently active and engaged on Twitter to reasonably call it a “town square” for the planet. It is, in spite of its relatively small size, a profoundly influential platform for what gets talked about, however—which is one reason why he may have bought it. Musk’s vision for what Twitter should be rests on a way-too-generous assumption that most Twitter users are good-faith actors. Given the fact that Musk is, himself, one of the platform’s biggest trolls, it’s hard to understand his belief in this theory. And while Musk has made big promises to expand the platform’s user base, one of the factors that has heretofore prevented this expansion is the site’s propensity for enabling abuse and harassment. Here, Twitter has endeavored to banish hostile users from the platform; Musk wants to bring them all back.

Many are particularly concerned about the possibility of Musk allowing former President Donald Trump to return to the platform. It’s understandable that some may harbor these worries, given the fact that Trump used his account to, among other things, launch an attempted coup. But there are reasons to believe that this fear may be somewhat overblown—at least in the short term.

It’s not obvious, for instance, that Trump’s Twitter account will automatically reacquire its Eye of Sauron–like powers. More distant from the public gaze, Trump is an increasingly paranoid and diminished figure who now monomaniacally rants about his increasingly insane conspiracy theories about how the 2020 election was stolen. It’s possible that once he returns to Twitter, Trump will reclaim the mantle of the craziest person of power on the app. Even this doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll return with the agenda-setting power he once enjoyed. (This may change, of course, if he returns to the White House in 2025.) The bigger concern is what would happen if Musk were to wildly change the platform’s approach to abuse and harassment, thus opening the floodgates to thousands of vile people who will promptly make the platform even more of a cesspool than it already is.

Musk is also going to have a problem attracting and retaining talent. He has spent most of the last six months on a scorched-earth campaign against Twitter’s leaders and its employees; odds are good he will try to effect some kind of purge upon assuming ownership. Of course, Twitter’s current employees may bail in advance, even with the labor market slackening and fears of a recession still looming. Musk certainly has his share of acolytes in Silicon Valley, but that doesn’t mean his version of Twitter—one governed by his zany whims—would be a particularly attractive place for many tech workers to contemplate working. A brain drain seems imminent, and Musk may struggle to bring in employees who aren’t suboptimal. Just because there are scores of people ready to swear out a blood oath to Musk’s ideological version of Twitter doesn’t mean they will be successful.

In all likelihood, Musk doesn’t have a grasp on his larger political problem. Twitter is currently seen as a left-leaning website—mostly for spurious culture-war reasons. The right has been very good at playing the victim and denigrating the platform. Musk has spent a great deal of time and effort making nice with people who spend most of their time whining about Twitter; as a result, the dominant (and correct) view is that he will steer Twitter in the direction of being more conservative, rather than ecumenical. Musk is surely aware of Twitter’s various right-wing competitors: Parler, Gab, and Trump’s Truth Social. He’s seen what happens when you veer rightward and go full “free speech.” It may be that he doesn’t care—Twitter is simply his favorite toy, and he intends to do what he likes. But if he wants to run the company like a business, then the needs of the bottom line may be sufficient to check Musk’s worst impulses. But it is far from obvious that Musk actually wants to run it like a business.

For all of Musk’s little ideas—he is a proponent of the “edit button,” for instance—he doesn’t understand that changing Twitter in any substantive way without breaking Twitter in some equally meaningful way is probably impossible. Social media’s business model is advertising, addiction, and distraction. If Musk wants to make money, he’ll have to play ball with advertisers and keep the site’s current users merrily scrolling, while trying to attract some portion of the massive number of normies who’ve heretofore opted out of creating a Twitter account to the platform. If Musk’s vision of the new Twitter is just a retread of the old Twitter, only with the voices of the site’s most disruptive and anti-social users amplified, he’s only going to hasten the company’s decline. Which, in the end, may not be so bad as all that.