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How ‘free speech absolutist’ Elon Musk would transform Twitter

Elon Musk.
Musk has one of Twitter’s most popular accounts, with 81.6 million followers. Photograph: Reuters

It turns out he wasn’t in “goblin mode” after all. Last week Elon Musk, in his characteristically antic manner, tweeted a series of suggestions for improving Twitter after he was revealed to have become its largest individual shareholder. They ranged from asking if the site’s HQ should be turned into a homeless shelter to whether advertising should be removed from the platform’s premium service.

Many of these tweets were subsequently deleted, including one sharing a meme depicting the attorney Saul Goodman from the series Breaking Bad with the words: “In all fairness your honor, my client was in ‘goblin mode.’”

Whether Musk was being mischievous or not at the time – it’s hard to tell with the world’s richest person – we have to take those tweets very seriously now that he has offered $43bn (£33bn) to buy the microblogging site.

Given Twitter’s pivotal role in shaping the news and political agenda on both sides of the Atlantic, its ownership is a sensitive issue, particularly if it is about to be placed in the hands of an entrepreneur with a $260bn fortune. Not only is Musk one of the site’s most popular accounts with 81.6 million followers, he is the CEO of two companies – the electric carmaker Tesla and the rocket firm SpaceX – that intersect with the regulatory and political spheres.

“The Beltway and EU will have a field day with this,” said Dan Ives of the US investment firm Wedbush Securities. “Musk owning Twitter is a nightmare for many and this will go through regulatory scrutiny on both sides of the pond.” Nonetheless, Ives doesn’t see rival bidders trumping Musk’s $54.20-a-share bid. Musk has a lot of money and a 9.2% stake, giving him a strong position as the Twitter board – which he declined to join at the weekend – ponders its next move.

Change is on the cards if he succeeds. Musk said in a letter to the board on Thursday that Twitter is “the platform for free speech around the world” but cannot achieve this “societal imperative” in its current form and “needs to be transformed as a private company”.

His main concern appears to be with Twitter’s moderation policies. In March he tweeted a poll asking users whether the site adhered to the principle of free speech. “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy,” he said. “What should be done?” He has declared himself a “free speech absolutist” and, in that context, the Twitter-banned former US president Donald Trump must be hoping Musk’s bid succeeds.

However, the regulatory environment for social media is getting ever tougher. In the UK, the forthcoming online safety bill will require the platforms to monitor their content closely for harms such as pile-ons (one of Twitter’s nastier phenomena). Even if the site is under private ownership, it will not be able to swerve legislators on both sides of the Atlantic who want to make the internet a safer place.

Other suggestions from Musk are less contentious. Last week he asked users if they wanted an edit button to rewrite posts after launching, prompting the company to confirm it was working on such a function anyway. He also mooted changes to the premium service, Twitter Blue, such as removing advertising, which raises the prospect of a radical commercial departure for a business that makes 90% of its $5bn annual revenue from ads.

Investors’ main concern with Twitter is growth, in terms of advertising revenue and subscribers, with the likes of TikTok providing fierce competition for users’ attention. Given Musk’s emphasis on freedom of speech, presumably user growth will come into focus if the company ends up under his ownership.

According to Twitter’s latest quarterly results, daily active users rose by 25 million over the year to 217 million as the company stuck to its target of 315 million by the end of next year.

The drama of the last week should have added a few more users and, given the likely hurdles Musk needs to clear before he wins control of the business, the platform is in no danger of losing its relevance yet.

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