Business

The Internet's town square has rarely been so divided

Billionaire Elon Musk is snapping up the social media company Twitter

TWITTER.COM now rests in the hands of Elon Musk, business magnate and ‘free speech absolutist'.

Barring some unforeseen hiccup or sudden change of heart, the famously mercurial Musk will acquire Twitter some time this year as part of a $44 billion takeover deal, in what's considered to be one of the largest private buyouts ever recorded.

It's a critical moment in a breathless saga which has seen Musk question Twitter's commitment to free speech, become the firm's majority shareholder, make claims about developing a rival social media platform, and ultimately refuse a board seat in his pursuit of acquiring 100 percent of Twitter stocks. In a deal that's still to be approved by shareholders, it will be subject to a regulatory review.

Exactly what changed within Twitter Towers remains unclear, given the board initially instituted a ‘poison pill' measure in response to Musk's buyout plan, only to renege on their decision and hand over the keys to the world's richest person.

Perhaps most baffling is the speed at which the takeover bid has occurred, which feels strangely fitting for a platform on which the original defining feature was swift, SMS-styled communication in 140 characters or less.

Upon announcing the news, Elon Musk proclaimed his desire to enhance the “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” before doubling down on Twitter becoming an international forum for free speech. Such lofty statements preceded a string of vague pledges including the verification of all human users and steering Twitter's business away from advertising.

No mean feat, considering how advertising accounted for $1.1 billion of the company's $1.2 billion revenue – ostensibly all of it – during the opening three months of 2022. How, exactly, Musk intends to strike a balance between his vision of Twitter as a free speech haven with the business relationships that keep the lights on is, fundamentally, the billion-dollar question that could well shape the future of the platform.

Throughout its history, Twitter has always wrangled with profitability. It's less of a social media behemoth in terms of financial return and more a cornerstone of the online ecosystem with huge cultural cache.

A platform of civil discourse, albeit with a relatively low number of active daily users – 216 million, as of April this year – when compared to the likes of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and the certified new kid on the block, TikTok.

The conundrum as to how to boost Twitter's fortune won't be solved overnight, and Elon Musk's cavalier attitude towards advertising certainly won't inspire confidence among Twitter's inner circles. Nevertheless, he himself conceded that the acquisition is not about economics, partly explaining his decision to shell out $44 billion for a company valued at almost half that figure just three months ago.

It also goes some way to explaining why he's brokered a Twitter takeover deal where others – namely Disney, Google and Meta's Mark Zuckerberg – have walked away from the table. This is the action of a playful and at-times impetuous billionaire for whom Twitter has been a constant throughout a career of very public highs and lows. Presiding over his more than 90 million followers, Musk typically tweets up to 10 times every day, and it's within this rapid-fire stream of consciousness where many have found cause for concern. And rightly so.

Sharing memes and ruminating on US politics is one thing, but Musk's Twitter presence has also landed him in troubled waters both in an official capacity and in the court of public opinion. We've seen first-hand how one man's hubris has financial implications on some of the world's biggest companies in real-time. And it often begins with a tweet.

2018 was a particularly taxing year for the volatile visionary. Excessive automation at Tesla slowed production of the Model 3, a misjudgement that Musk later admitted was his own. Yet it was the SEC's decision to sue Musk for misleading investors, an allegation stemming from a barbed @elonmusk tweet, which ultimately resulted in him stepping down as Tesla chairman.

It's small wonder, then, that there is now a palpable sense of uncertainty clouding the 2022 Twitter takeover, even from within the company itself. Just last week, CEO Parag Agrawal told the firm's 7,000-plus employees that “we don't know what direction this company will go in” should Musk's takeover be fully consummated. If the Tesla founder were to take the business private, and away from any potential shareholder scrutiny, who then will hold power to account?

Twitter has arguably been one of the more morally principled social platforms over the years, willing to draw lines where others are not. In its most famous example, removing then-President Donald Trump from the service in January 2021.

Will those principles be eroded in Elon Musk's pursuit of ‘absolute' free speech? Should Twitter discourse really be at the mercy of a multi-billionaire with a history of rash declarations? And how will advertisers react to rumblings of relaxed content moderation and a ‘slight cost' for commercial and government users?

The drama inherent in Elon Musk's modus operandi means few can predict what he will do next. One thing's for sure: it's likely to rip up the pages of the corporate takeover playbook.

:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken

:: Next week: Richard Ramsey

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