After months of back and forth since Elon Musk offered to buy Twitter last spring, the highly publicized $44 billion acquisition closed late Thursday — just one day short of a court order to complete the purchase.
Musk has often described what the social platform would look like under his ownership. That has ranged from softening standards to tamp down misinformation, inviting back former President Donald Trump, introducing features that create new revenue streams — and layoffs, which he lost no time doing on Thursday evening by firing the company’s top management, including CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal, and Vijaya Gadde, head of legal policy, trust and safety, as well as Sean Edgett, the company’s general counsel.
“The reason I acquired Twitter because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence,” Musk tweeted in an appeal to advertisers on Thursday.
“There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide society,” he continued.
How will Musk’s “digital town square” look? Here are five ways Twitter will change now that Elon Musk is its owner.
Reduced content moderation
The Tesla CEO and self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” has hinted at relaxing censorship on the app, with exceptions for spam accounts and explicit calls for violence. Though he assured advertisers Thursday the app will not become “a free-for-all hellscape,” Cheyenne Hunt-Majer, a big tech accountability expert at Public Citizen, worries that Musk will eliminate most content moderation currently in place, leading to an increase in “violent rhetoric, hate speech [and] maybe even criminal content.”
Hunt-Majer also notes that finding the nuanced line of an “explicit call of violence” is not as simple as it looks.
“What’s likely to happen, given Elon’s really strong anti-censorship rhetoric, is that he’ll just be more lenient than he will be strict,” Hunt-Majer told TheWrap. “The likelihood is he’ll allow more speech than he will disallow. His default will be to be more open, and that’s gonna really open the door for a lot of violence, disinformation [and] election interference.”
Similarly, Paul Barrett, deputy director and senior research scholar at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, said that loosening content moderation standards will increase “the amount of hate speech, harassment, election denial and racism on the site.”
Many conservatives are already excited for Musk’s takeover, as the change will likely usher in an influx of right-wing users who have found refuge on conservative platforms like Trump’s Truth Social, Parler and Rumble while the social media platform has been strict on censoring misinformation, according to Hunt-Majer.
“You’re gonna see is a fairly swift gravitation to Twitter, from a lot of the users [of Parler and Truth Social],” Media Matters president Angelo Carusone told TheWrap. “And even if they keep both accounts up and running, they’ll basically use Twitter more than they use those other ones.”
Despite Musk’s attempt to smooth over concerns of advertisers, who provided 89% of Twitter’s revenue last year, Barrett notes that “if users flee, advertisers will follow, leaving Twitter, never a financially stable business to begin with, in even worse shape.” On the other hand, The Wall Street Journal noted that Musk might take care to rein in extremism because of his concern about advertisers.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that Musk told potential investors in his pending Twitter buyout that he plans to cut nearly 75% of the company’s 7,500 workers. “The company also planned to make major cuts to its infrastructure, including data centers that keep the site functioning for more than 200 million users that log on each day,” the Post reported.
Barrett predicted what actually happened Thursday: “Musk will fire most of Twitter’s top management.”
He also predicts Musk will “begin to substantially reduce its payroll, meaning that there will be fewer people on staff devoted to promoting trust and safety.” He also predicted that “hundreds, if not thousands, of Twitter employees will not wait to be fired” and will quit given the turmoil that Musk’s takeover will entail.
Trump and other banned users might return
Back in May, Musk teased that he might reverse the ban on Trump from the social media platform put in place in January 2021 after the Capitol riot.
“Permanent bans should be extremely rare and really reserved for accounts that are bots, or scam, spam accounts,” Musk said at FT Live’s Future of the Car conference. “I do think it was not correct to ban Donald Trump.”
In line with Musk’s previous comments, Barrett predicted the billionaire would end bans on “purveyors of harmful content,” including Trump and Ye, the artist formerly know as Kanye West, “whose flagrant antisemitism has been on display lately.”
Hunt-Majer warned of the dangerous implications of allowing these figures back on the platform, saying “what they’re able to do with the echo chambers they create in their followings… has real-world consequences.”
In the press release announcing the billionaire’s potential acquisition, Musk also mentioned the introduction of “new features” to the app, though little is known about what he has in mind beyond the ability to edit tweets that the company has already begun to roll out.
Hunt-Majer believes the billionaire aims to rival Chinese app WeChat, which rolls financial transactions and digital communication into one, adding that Musk might add a transaction or crypto service.
Media Matters’ Carusone also mentioned that these features might mimic WeChat or Telegraph by creating closed groups, where small communities can organize. These groups represent a “very weak” mechanism to enforce content moderation, according to Carusone, who says this function would open up a “hotbed of misinformation and lies.”
The sale also transforms Twitter from a public to a private company, reducing its shareholders to a small circle. Privatization also means that the company wouldn’t be compelled to file disclosures to the SEC, allowing Musk to operate without public scrutiny into the company’s financial performance.
In plain terms, Musk will have less oversight and fewer people to please as he makes the changes detailed above. Musk paid shareholders $54.20 a share, a 64% premium over where Twitter stock was worth when the sale was announced in April. The billionaire put up about $27 billion to fund the deal, most from selling Tesla stock last spring, with $13.5 billion from loans and another $5 billion from elite investors like Oracle founder Larry Ellison. Musk will need to repay those bank loans, but he won’t be beholden to Wall Street demanding consistent growth.
“The viability of Twitter as a business could well get swept away as Elon Musk takes over,” Barrett said. “As the controlling owner of a privately held business, he can choose to take losses and cross-subsidize the company with revenue from Tesla. But making Twitter profitable never seemed to be Musk’s goal.”