“Chief Twit”. “Space Karen”. “Grimes’ ex-boyfriend”. “The richest man in the world”. Or just Elon Musk. It’s been difficult to ignore his name in the news over the past month. The multi-billionaire’s recent acquisition of the social media company Twitter has spurred not only controversial headlines in the media, but also discontent from employees and the general public. At the one-month anniversary of his leadership, the future of Twitter has never seemed so bleak. So, what exactly has been unfolding on your favourite social network over the past month, and to what degree is the public right to panic about it?
Elon Musk became Twitter’s largest shareholder in April 2022 with a 9.1% stake, when he turned down an invitation to join its board of directors. Later in April, he attempted a hostile takeover of the company, offering $44 billion, which the board unanimously accepted.
In an unexpected turn of events, the businessman reneged on the agreement in July, claiming that the network was in “clear material breach” of the deal by “refusing Mr Musk’s data requests” regarding the number of fake accounts on the platform.
The company sued Musk, but just weeks before the trial was due to start in October, he reversed course again. He finally closed the deal on the 27th of October and became CEO of Twitter after firing its top executives the next day.
“I did it to try to help humanity, whom I love”
– Elon Musk
“The bird is freed”
“I did it to try to help humanity, whom I love” tweeted the businessman before acquiring the company. On October 26, one day before closing the deal, we saw multi-billionaire Elon Musk walking into Twitter headquarters carrying a sink. Perhaps he loved humanity so much that he wanted to offer it one last Twitter meme before plunging the company, its employees and the public into despair.
At the time, the self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” told advertisers, the company’s main source of revenue, that he wanted Twitter to become a “common digital town square”. The businessman went on to admit that Twitter shan’t become a “free-for-all hellscape”, pledging to establish a “content moderation council” that will rule on major content decisions and account reinstatements.
“A fork in the road”
Shortly after firing the company’s top executives and instating himself as CEO, Musk chaotically sacked half of Twitter’s 7500 employees overnight. Crowds of disgruntled employees rightfully flocked to media outlets to tell their stories. Laptops wiped, employees kicked out of meetings and locked out of offices are just some stories of the brutal sacking methods at Twitter that made waves online.
The firing continued later in the month when the remaining survivors received an email reminiscent of strict parents when their child gets a bad grade. At 2 AM, the CEO warned his employees that work will become “extremely hardcore” with “long hours at high intensity” and “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade”. He allowed people to quit with 3 months’ severance pay if they didn’t align with his view for the future. A further 1200 employees quit the following day.
Since taking over, half of its top 100 advertisers stopped advertising on the platform completely.
Musk predicts a dire future for Twitter. Since taking over, half of its top 100 advertisers stopped advertising on the platform completely, with an additional 7 slowing down exponentially. In firing more than half of Twitter’s intellectual capital he sought to dampen the economic downturn facing the firm. The executive claimed that “there is no choice when the company is losing over $4m/day”.
Employees: just a cost to be cut?
This was just one of the CEO’s desperate attempts to address a problem that he caused in the first place. The mere possibility of a Musk-led ship made advertisers ponder an exodus, as millions of right-wing and conservative accounts returned to support their favourite ideological influencers. Britain First, a far-right extremist group that was banned in 2017 for posting xenophobic content returned within days of Musk’s coronation.
Meanwhile, left-wing figures are fighting for their place on the platform and begging their followers to bear with them, in an attempt to prevent Twitter from becoming a majority right-wing network. Faced with heightening distrust, Musk gives off the impression that what is happening is unjust, and he is the mere victim of “activists trying to stifle free speech”.
Treating employees like a cost might help slow down Twitter’s balance sheet decline, but in the long run, it will prove itself as a shot in the dark for what the network represents.
Why? Because the real problem is the rising distrust in Musk’s ability (or, some might say, willingness) to curb hate speech on the platform and keep Twitter from becoming the new controversy HQ. Moreover, an understaffed, overworked and underpaid company won’t be able to deliver a service at the highest standard. Cutting employees to curb costs will only drive down the quality of the service, and therefore deter potential advertisers, resulting in a downward spiral for the company.
The billionaire seems most driven by the quest he has assigned for himself to become the guardian of free speech.
Vox populi, vox dei
The billionaire seems most driven by the quest he has assigned for himself to become the guardian of free speech. His success is debatable, but as long as he keeps breaking his promises, the public is right to panic. Amongst these, recount the pledge he made when he took over Twitter to establish a content moderation council.
Musk’s council has yet to come into existence. Decisions to reinstate accounts are left in the hands of vox populi. The rule of the people undeniably dominated the businessman’s decision to reinstate Donald Trump’s Twitter account after he was banned for incitement of violence in 2021. 51.8% out of 15 million people voted “Yes” on a poll made by Musk on the platform asking whether to bring the former President back. He declined, having already committed to his up-and-coming right-wing social platform, Truth Social.
This was just by chance. 62.000 accounts have been reinstated so far, belonging to the likes of antisemite Kanye West and misogynist Andrew Tate, all in the name of “free speech”. However, by doing this, Musk is actively working to sabotage his own platform and actually endanger free speech.
Twitter transcends the likes of trivial social media content through its credibility. It awards blue “verified” badges to politicians, journalists and celebrities. Its accessible interface and limited character count allow memes to coexist with breaking news and ordinary people directly addressing official accounts, gathering millions of impressions at a time. It has been used in the past to coordinate activist groups and protests.
Allowing banned accounts back will negatively impact this ecosystem.
Allowing banned accounts back will negatively impact this ecosystem. Allowing accounts, be they “blue” accounts, to spread whatever message they like online, will take away both from the credibility of the platform and implicitly from the credibility of other participants. In this context, it should come as little surprise to users that advertisers will pull out and public figures will distance themselves from the movement. The survivors, the ones that were banned in the first place, might be those who thrive in this environment. And what good will that do to the platform?
Free speech needs to be upheld on social networks to the extent that it exists in society. If we don’t tolerate discrimination or incitement to violence in our day-to-day lives, why should we tolerate it online? To those that will argue that the danger is minimized when it is online, so “less real”, I point towards the numerous cases when hate speech online migrated into the “real world”. If Elon Musk’s vision for Twitter coincides with his views on how the ideal society should look, the public is right to panic.
For now, it seems like Musk is being constrained by external actors. The future is bleak, and the story is still unfolding, but one thing is for certain: we may not see something as chaotic until the day Kanye West acquires Donald Trump’s loosely moderated conservative platform Truth Social.