He was scheduled to give a TED talk today, as chance would have it. Quite a lucky break for the organizers, who got to press him on the news du jour.
If what he says in the clip below fairly describes his vision for the platform, more power to him. And if it doesn’t fairly describe his vision, I hope he buys it anyway. David French put it well in a tweet this morning: “This website is small by social media standards *and* has an incredibly unhealthy culture that is disproportionately impacting journalism and politics. It’s broken. You might think Musk will make it worse, but this place needs real change. I’m *very* open to seeing what he can do.”
What do we have to lose? If all Musk does after acquiring Twitter is block every political operative and reporter from accessing it, he’ll have improved society by 10 percent overnight.
But if this deal is some sort of lark for him, a way to own the libs by pulling off the most audacious and expensive edgelord stunt of all time, then those knocking him for how he’s chosen to spend his money will have a point. Forty-three billion could do a lot of good in the world. Using it to buy Twitter in order to make the Internet safe for sh*tposting wouldn’t qualify as “a lot of good.” It would reek of a Guy Grand prank.
Watching the overheated liberal backlash to the Musk news and the conservative backlash to the backlash play out reminded me of Bill Maher laughing with Joe Rogan over how there’s now a “liberal” view and a “conservative” view of whether the coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab. There’s no reason either side should have strong partisan views on that topic, just as there’s no reason to have strong views on what Musk might hypothetically do with a platform like Twitter. But the modern impulse towards hyperpolarization compels it. Musk — a guy whose car company is designed to help solve the left’s pet policy problem — has been critical of wokeness and is therefore disqualified from Team Blue, which means he automatically gets cover from Team Red. And so today’s reactions to the news fall along predictable lines, even though neither side has any idea what a Musk-owned Twitter would look like.
Where’s the team for the “mildly curious but fatalistic about how terrible social media will always be” cohort?
This acquisition isn’t as easy for Musk as you might assume, incidentally. The company is reportedly mulling a poison pill to try to stop him from purchasing a huge number of new shares. And even if that fails, it’s not as if he has $43 billion sitting in his checking account. Most of his wealth consists of shares in Tesla, and Tesla rules limit how many shares an employee can pledge as collateral for a loan to 25 percent of total holdings.
If he could pledge all the shares he owned as of the end of 2021, he would be able in theory to borrow about $43 billion—just about the value he has put on Twitter. (Because he owns 9% already, he would need to come up with about $39 billion to buy the rest.) But as of last August, according to securities filings, he had already pledged 88 million of those shares for personal loans. That could reduce his credit limit.
Moreover, it isn’t clear whether a bank would even make a loan that big secured by a single stock, especially one as unpredictable as Tesla. In the past two months, the electric-vehicle maker has traded as high as $1,145 and as low as $764. Stocks that swing around wildly make for risky collateral because their value could drop quickly, leaving the bank with losses.
In the end, whether by design or happenstance, Musk’s interest in Tesla will probably amount to a pump-and-dump.
But in case it doesn’t, what does an “inclusive arena for free speech” mean under the circumstances? Presumably it means no more arbitrary blackouts of “unhelpful” news stories like the Hunter Biden laptop expose and no more insta-bans of people who dare to believe there are only two genders, which is all to the good. But in what broad ways would Musk-era Twitter be “inclusive” that, say, Facebook — a much, much bigger platform — isn’t? Slightly looser content moderation rules, maybe? Unbanning Trump and some since-purged QAnoners?
In the end, Twitter is what it is, a place where you trade information at light speed. Sometimes that information is of high quality, i.e. breaking news, which is when the platform is at its most valuable. Most of the time it’s hot takes, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and random thoughts that would have profited from further deliberation. If Musk goes full libertarian on content moderation, he’ll end up with something that’s a cross between Gab and an anti-vaxxer bulletin board. If instead he tweaks the content moderation rules only slightly, he’ll end up with something that’s not really meaningfully different from Dorsey-era Twitter. My guess is that both sides will end up enraged at the final product, lefties because the platform is modestly more tolerant of right-wing populist views and righties because the platform is only modestly more tolerant of right-wing populist views. And if he does somehow reinvent the wheel and meaningfully change the ideological skew of Twitter conventional wisdom, lefties will decamp to some new platform that still caters to them. There’s no shortage.
Maybe people … prefer content moderation?
One easy test of this is that Twitter does have competition from sites with less moderation as part of their pitch. So why isn’t everyone flocking over there? https://t.co/H4syjbTsfz
— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) April 14, 2022
I don’t know what people are expecting from this guy if he takes over Twitter. But given the expectations, he can only disappoint everyone.