“The bird is freed,” tweeted Elon Musk late on October 27th, after at last completing his acquisition of Twitter. The world’s richest man (and third-most followed tweeter, fast closing in on Justin Bieber) now owns arguably the world’s most influential news platform. He has already reportedly sacked Twitter’s chief executive and has changed his own Twitter profile to “Chief Twit”.
Mr Musk spent most of the past six months trying unsuccessfully to wriggle out of the deal. In April he agreed to pay $44bn for the company, just as tech stocks started to slide. By July Twitter’s market value had fallen below $25bn. Since then the climate has only soured. This week Alphabet, Amazon and Meta all saw double-digit percentage drops in their share price. Twitter’s much-criticised board has in the end extracted what looks like a sweet deal for shareholders.
Is it a good deal for Twitter’s 240m daily users? Mr Musk has promised a more relaxed approach to content moderation on the platform, describing himself earlier this year as a “free-speech absolutist” and suggesting that only tweets that violate the law should be taken down. Like most social-media platforms, Twitter currently bans some posts that are undesirable but legal: it recently suspended Kanye West, a singer, for a string of anti-Semitic remarks, for instance.
Yet Mr Musk seems to be cooling on this idea. On the day the deal was closed, he tweeted a message addressed to Twitter advertisers promising that “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!” Other social-media bosses have watered down their free speech absolutism in recent years, following Donald Trump’s presidency and the covid-19 pandemic, both of which sparked online waves of misinformation. Mark Zuckerberg, who had previously defended the principle of “everyone having a voice” banned once-permitted content including anti-vaccination material, Holocaust denial and QAnon conspiracies from Facebook in 2020.
The other niggle is digital ads, which is currently how Twitter makes nearly all its money. Mr Musk has said that he “hates advertising”. There has been speculation that he might try to turn Twitter into a subscription product instead.
Making this pay would be difficult. Twitter has a modest subscription option called Twitter Blue, costing $4.99 a month. But Twitter’s accounts suggest that the average American user brings in over $6 a month in ad revenue. Would people pay? Some might, but Twitter needs plenty of tweeters to keep its content coming. Mr Musk seems to be backpedalling here, too. He proclaimed on October 27th that “I also very much believe that advertisng, when done right, can delight, entertain and inform you…low-relevancy ads are spam, but highly relevant ads are actually content!”
Any meaningful changes will be made harder by the immediate need to contain costs. Twitter is probably overstaffed: last year it had 1.5 employees for every $1m in revenue, compared with 0.6 at Meta. At the same time, if reports are true that the company is losing 75% of its workforce—either because they get the boot or are repelled by Mr Musk—getting anything done, let alone anything big, may prove harder.
Mr Musk may not be in it for the money. But the private backers he brings along, including a few fellow billionaires and a Qatari sovereign-wealth fund, probably fancy a return on their investment. Twitter may be freed, but its owner may find himself in a $44bn cage. ■