Regardless of how one feels about Elon Musk, one has to appreciate the fact that at least some Twitter employees have hit the panic button for investing in the firm rather than competing against it. Reuters took note of this reaction in the aftermath of Musk gaining a seat on the board — and why.
Are Twitter employees in general really this invested in moderating the content of its users, or is this just a noisy fringe?
News of Tesla (TSLA.O) Chief Executive Elon Musk taking a board seat at Twitter (TWTR.N) has some Twitter employees panicking over the future of the social media firm’s ability to moderate content, company insiders told Reuters.
Within hours of the surprise disclosure this week that Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” acquired enough shares to become the top Twitter shareholder, political conservatives began flooding social media with calls for the return of Donald Trump. The former U.S. president was banned from Facebook and Twitter after the Jan 6. Capitol riot over concerns around incitement of violence. …
Despite Twitter’s reiteration this week that the board does not make policy decisions, four Twitter employees who spoke with Reuters said they were concerned about Musk’s ability to influence the company’s policies on abusive users and harmful content.
With Musk on the board, the employees said his views on moderation could weaken years-long efforts to make Twitter a place of healthy discourse, and might allow trolling and mob attacks to flourish.
Uh … four whole employees, eh? That represents about 0.053% of Twitter’s employees, which number over 7,500 as of the end of last year. Presumably the other 99.9% paid attention to the company’s explanation that board members don’t set policy, at least not on their own.
And how many of those 99.9% really care all that much about Twitter’s ability to moderate commentary on their own platform? I’d bet that it’s a lot higher than 0.053%, but I’d also bet that the activists at Twitter are still more of a uber-vocal fringe — but a fringe that has enjoyed a lot of leverage over the past few years. We can thank Congress for that in large part, which browbeat social-media platforms into more aggressive comment moderation after the 2016 election and hysteria over Russian disinformation via stupid memes.
Honestly, this Panic At The Twitsco story smells more like media narrative than actual news. That hasn’t stopped Musk from enjoying himself over it, via Twitchy:
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 7, 2022
Are we sure that even represents a change in the Twitter environment?
There are other reasons for concern over Musk’s surprising move on Twitter, though. While disruption in the company’s sorry state of affairs holds some promise, a battle of the billionaires is not the best way to secure free speech, even in the social-media industry. More innovation and less monopolism would be better, and more enforcement of anti-trust regulations would help with both. While Musk is entertaining and very innovative, he’s still going to be oriented to his own interests first, whatever they are … and they’re not necessarily going to coincide with ours all the way down the line.
Also, more information on exactly how Musk executed this strategy has come to light, and it doesn’t exactly proclaim transparency. Musk apparently delayed filing required disclosures for almost two weeks while executing the acquisitions, and in doing so scored a nine-figure discount at the expense of stockholders:
Elon Musk was 11 days late in publicly declaring he had amassed a large stake in Twitter. That omission may have earned him $156 million, according to a half-dozen legal and securities experts.
That’s because of a 50-year-old law that requires that investors notify the Securities and Exchange Commission when they surpass a 5 percent stake in a company. Musk reached that benchmark March 14, according to the filings. But he made his public disclosure only Monday.
In between, he continued to buy stock at the price of around $39 per share, bringing his total stake to 9.2 percent. After his disclosure, Twitter’s share price rose roughly 30 percent and is now above $50 per share.
The late filing netted Musk $156 million, said David Kass, a finance professor at University of Maryland’s business school. “I really don’t know what’s going through his mind. Was he ignorant or knowledgeable that he was violating securities law?” he said. Whoever was handling the trades for Musk should have known, Kass said.
If that’s accurate, it might enhance some admiration for Musk’s cutthroat business skills, but it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for reform. Want to bet that some of those stockholders will sue to make up the difference? The SEC already has an ongoing fight with Musk over his tweets in 2018 suggesting he might dump his Tesla stock. This alleged violation looks more serious than a Twitter poll, and with the SEC still pushing courts to hold Musk accountable, another investigation seems almost inevitable.
None of this means that Musk won’t work to reform Twitter from the inside out, of course. It does mean that we should be clear-eyed about those prospects, though, while we pass the popcorn nonetheless.