When the news broke that Elon Musk had finally been obliged to buy Twitter, the company he had tried – for months – to get out of purchasing, it reminded many observers of the 1979 commercial for Remington shavers in which the corporation’s president, Victor Kiam, proclaimed that he liked the electric razor so much “I bought the company.”
This was a mistake: Kiam merely liked the business he bought, whereas Musk is addicted to his company, in the sense that he cannot live without it. In acquiring Twitter, he has therefore forgotten the advice given to Tony Montana in Scarface: “Don’t get high on your own supply.”
In the immediate aftermath of the $44bn acquisition, though, he was as high as a kite. He showed up at the company’s San Francisco office carrying a kitchen sink. “Entering Twitter HQ – let that sink in!” he tweeted with a video of him in the lobby of the building.
His next act was to fire three of the company’s top executives – chief executive Parag Agrawal, chief financial officer Ned Segal, and legal, policy and safety head Vijaya Gadde – who will now be free to spend some time with the severance payments they have acquired: Agrawal gets $57.4m, Segal $44.5m and Gadde $20m.
This was classic macho posturing on the new owner’s part, but also confirmation of the trio’s cunning in mounting the legal challenge that obliged him to buy the company and generate such agreeable Christmas bonuses for them.
What Musk is about to discover, however, is that buying Twitter was the easy bit. As if to confirm that, Donald Trump declared on his personal Twitter-clone platform Truth Social that he was “very happy that Twitter is now in sane hands, and will no longer be run by Radical Left Lunatics and Maniacs that truly hate our country.”
Instead of which, it will now be infested by alt-right supremacists, QAnon conspiracists and sundry nutters who preferred the country when it was a slave-owning “democracy”. And for whom Musk will henceforth have to take responsibility.
Running Twitter is not like building cars or rockets – something Musk is clearly very good at – but having him responsible for an important part of the world’s public sphere could turn out to be like entrusting a delicate clock to a monkey.
Part of our problem with technology is our gullible belief that if someone has become incredibly rich then they must also be incredibly smart. Recent events have seen a welcome dent in that delusion. (See the trouble that Meta – née Facebook – is in .)
Musk, for all his bluster, is no different. He paid ludicrously over the odds for Twitter and is now in hock to bankers, who have no sense of humour. If he unleashes “free speech” on Twitter – as he has repeatedly promised to do – then he will rapidly find there are a lot of people in the US who are irredeemably hostile to China, whose supreme leader is likewise rather humourless. And half of Tesla’s cars are built in China. Go figure, as they say.
John Naughton chairs the advisory board of the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at Cambridge University
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