Is Elon Musk buying Twitter bad for the world?

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Despite some recent confusion, it looks like Elon Musk’s Twitter bid will go ahead. While Twitter’s impact on the world is enormous, it’s never yet been a hyper-successful business – but is Musk the right man for the job? Tom Jarvis, founder and CEO at social agency Wilderness, takes a look at his credentials and the challenge ahead.

I’ve seen several excitable posts about Elon Musk's proposed acquisition of Twitter. But I think it's a bad thing for social media, for Twitter, and potentially even for Elon Musk.

Should everyone in tech really be rejoicing at the idea of a man who has become a troll taking over Twitter under the guise of free speech? This is a man who has previously Tweeted that his own company’s stock price was too high (before selling off a huge volume), leading to an SEC investigation. Who called a Thai diver who saved a young child's life a "pedo" leading to a lawsuit. Who called a critic "an idiot". Who made crass jokes about Bill Gates and ageist comments about Bernie Sanders and suggested we should "Nuke Mars!", all while admitting that his Tweets are complete nonsense. I’d argue that Musk doesn’t suffer from anything like the amount of scrutiny that someone in his position should.

Trolls at the top

The world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Donald Trump was removed from Twitter, but it seems that Musk is aiming to emulate him as the “troll in-chief”. But Musk also wants to decide the direction of the platform all for himself. He has suggested, loosely, that his main goal is to allow more speech on the platform, which in effect suggests less moderation on Twitter.

Let’s assume the acquisition goes through, Musk takes Twitter private and removes much of Twitter’s moderation. What that might look like is not difficult to imagine: we’ve seen it with Parler, Gettr and now Truth Social. Platforms that allow a broader, often more right-wing and extreme dialogue doesn't tend to attract a mainstream audience.

Algorithms and audiences

One thing Musk has suggested he would do at a recent Ted conference is to make Twitter’s algorithm “open source”. But it’s not that simple. As Nick Seaver, an anthropologist at Tufts who researches recommendation algorithms, says, “The algorithm is not one thing”.

To try and open this up in a meaningful way for the public to understand would be immensely challenging. But it’s a flag waved to some conservatives who believe they are more prone to censorship than those on the left. It’s hard to see what value giving people more awareness of how the algorithm works would have, or if it would change the user experience in any way.

A more-open, less-moderated platform may be less attractive to centralist, left-wing and progressive voices. Many may look to other platforms. Meanwhile, Musk would allow Trump and other groups banned following the January 6th US capitol insurrection back onto the platform. We then risk seeing Twitter move in a more dangerous direction. The platform has longstanding issues with trolling, abuse, and rampant bots. With less focus on moderation and Musk’s desire to be more “open”, these issues could worsen.

Bad for business?

Parler, Gettr, and Truth Social: none of these platforms are deemed brand-safe. A more open, right-wing-appeasing Twitter could be bad for business.

There isn’t an example of a ‘free-speech promoting’ platform that built a significant business. Brands are turned off by the idea of their content appearing alongside extreme, controversial views, comments, and content. It’s hard to see how Musk thinks less moderation can “unlock Twitter’s potential” as a business.

Many have suggested that Musk would bring his ‘product brilliance’ to Twitter. But outside of tweeting about how some celebrities rarely use the platform and that he would “authenticate all real humans”, alongside the introduction of an edit button, it’s hard to see what changes he would make. Twitter has struggled in its current form to drive revenues to match its societal impact. To put it bluntly, it’s been a pretty bad business for a very long time.

Twitter’s brand future

If Musk is to succeed with Twitter, he will have to entice brands to spend on the platform. But Musk has never mentioned how he would look to monetize attention on the platform, instead suggesting that this deal is “not about the money”. With a swath of his own fortune invested this may change, but the challenge for Musk is to build a business that can compete with the Facebook and Google digital ad duopoly.

No small feat: just ask the litany of other social platforms that have tried and failed. This could be an issue for Musk given that he is having to borrow against the value of his Tesla and Space X stock to make the deal.

This represents a huge financial risk and for the shareholders of those companies, and it raises questions about the suitability of the deal. Musk is effectively betting the house on Twitter.

Musk’s credentials

People have bet against Musk in the past, and he has confounded them. He is undoubtedly a visionary leader; he has shown an almost unmatched grit to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges head-on. However, Twitter isn’t sending rockets to Mars, nor re-inventing transportation. It’s a 15+-year-old social network with an outsized societal influence and a stagnant business model. Surely turning Twitter around is going to be less meaningful to Musk than those other challenges?

Perhaps that’s part of the point. Musk has in some ways bought himself the right to a free swing at a fun challenge; a billionaire mid-life crisis – though, in contrast to Jeff Bezos, he’s not shredding pounds and buying a newspaper business. Instead, he’s trying his hand at the ultimate media company. A trainwreck of a business, but if managed properly the most powerful mouthpiece to elevate his own personal brand and other business interests. It could give Musk the sway with some of the most important political and celebrity figures from around the world who need the platform for their own PR needs.

But can he successfully guide Twitter while also remaining its chief troll?