Now that Elon Musk has really, truly bought Twitter, Inc., it's time to come clean that I really never thought he would go through with it. This was based on the fact that he'd offered way too much money for it—having done little-to-no due diligence before arriving at a meme-based valuation—and that after Twitter's board snapped his hand off to accept the bid, he did not behave publicly like someone who really wanted the deal to go through.
Before the bid, Musk said he wanted to take the reins in part to address what he considered a bot problem on the platform. After the agreement, he started railing against the bot problem, saying Twitter was undercounting bots and eventually using this as the reason to try to extricate himself from the deal. In the process, he damaged Twitter: He was saying, in effect, that the company was presenting fraudulent metrics to advertisers, the firm's main source of revenue. Would you actively damage a company for which you were already overpaying by sounding off like this in public? Also, am I the only person who uses both Instagram and Twitter? The latter may have a bot problem, but it's almost negligible by comparison.
Before and after the deal was struck, he often adopted a particular public persona: the magnanimous champion of free speech, offering policy proposals to change the platform experience. But much of the rest of the time, he seemed determined to antagonise the political left that makes up so much of the user base and his legion of prospective new employees. "The far left hates everyone, themselves included!" he tweeted at one point, porting the Trump aesthetic for maximum effect. The trolling included links to a Daily Mail article suggesting that George Soros was involved in opposing his proposed changes to moderation policies, and the guy who said he was taking over Twitter to make it a healthier public square said that the Democratic Party had become "the party of division & hate…now, watch their dirty tricks campaign against me unfold." Twitter is for everyone!
Anyway, the bot thing became his reason for trying to exit the deal. Twitter sued him, saying he had no basis for this, and they had a decent argument, considering he was complaining about bot numbers that he did not investigate or assess in any way before making the deal. As part of the proceedings in Delaware, Musk's texts were made public and it was looking increasingly like he'd have to sit for a deposition. He reversed course, saying he'd go through with it and buy Twitter at $54.20 a share. Again, crazy money.
Then came another public performance that seemed tailor-made to make him an unacceptable buyer for Twitter. He started offering up Russia-Ukraine peace proposals that the Ukrainians considered straightforwardly pro-Russian and that featured weird Russospeak like "Khrushchev’s mistake." He started making a lot of noise that he was going to cut off Starlink, his admirable technological aid to Ukraine's armed forces, on the basis it was too costly for SpaceX. (He claimed it has cost his firm $80 million so far, but we can't exactly trust his public proclamations about his companies' finances.) And finally, as if determined to draw the attention of the United States government, he started chit-chatting with Putin appendage Dmitry Medvedev on Twitter.
"Btw, how’s it going in Bakhmut?" he asked, referencing the city in Eastern Ukraine to which Russian forces—including the Wagner Group, Putin's mercenary army—were at that moment laying siege. "See you in Moscow on the Victory Day!" Medvedev responded. This is almost pantomime stuff, but Bloomberg soon reported that elements of the U.S. government were "discussing whether the U.S. can subject some of Elon Musk’s ventures to national security reviews, including the deal for Twitter Inc." The stars, it seemed for a moment, might align: Musk could extricate himself from both the Twitter deal and the court proceedings trying to keep him in it. The deal was blocked by the Deep State!
Alas, it did not come to pass. Maybe my view was wrong the whole time, and this whimsical and impulsive guy always wanted to buy the company. It wasn't just about the public behaviour, though, or even the ridiculously inflated price he's paying because he thinks "420" is funny. Reuters published an op-ed way back on April 27, right after the deal was agreed, that pointed out a whole host of reasons it did not make sense for Musk. He's styled himself as a free speech champion by taking stewardship of a free speech platform, but his main business, Tesla, produces half its vehicles in China. The Chinese government does not share his professed passion for free speech and will be able to lean on him whenever it wishes. His vision of a less-moderated Twitter does not look like it will sit well with the European Union, either. I'd add that Musk currently runs companies that are fun and cool, but owning Twitter looks like the worst job in the world. Add in that it will complicate running his fun and cool businesses, and it just does not make sense to this layman.
Then you get into how he's going to actually fix up Twitter as a business. He's done somewhat vague and self-contradictory philosophising on this subject, but the main problem he faces is that a platform more open to elements of the radical right may not be palatable to advertisers. I'm sure it will all work out. Or maybe it won't! This is why I have so diligently worked to avoid acquiring lots of followers all these years. (Hah!) Compared to people who've racked up hundreds of thousands, I'll be blasé on my way out. Or maybe things won't really change that much. Musk might get bored and leave it to some CEO who will run it in relatively milquetoast fashion. As a paragon of the Hype Economy, he may be capable of pumping up the share price without much change in the fundamentals of the business.
One thing we all ought to reflect on, though, is this notion that free speech will be saved by a self-anointed Free Speech King. If we want to democratise the online public square, is the solution really to hand control of a major platform over to a single rich guy? Well, in fairness, he's not alone. The consortium he's brought together is a veritable who's who of free speech democracy lovers. You can be sure they're looking out for all of us, regardless of our political affiliations. They just want a free exchange of ideas!
This article was first published on Esquire.