He wasn’t really in “goblin mode” after all. Elon Musk tweeted a series of suggestions for improving Twitter last week after it was revealed that he had become the company’s largest individual shareholder. They included questions about whether the site’s headquarters should be converted into a homeless shelter and whether advertising should be removed from the platform’s premium service.
Many of these tweets were later deleted, including one that included a meme of Breaking Bad lawyer Saul Goodman with the words “In all fairness your honor, my client was in ‘goblin mode.'”
We have to take those tweets seriously now that Musk has offered more than $40 billion (£30 billion) to buy the microblogging site, whether he was being mischievous or not at the time – it’s hard to tell with the world’s richest person.
Given Twitter’s critical role in shaping news and political agendas on both sides of the Atlantic, its ownership is a touchy subject, especially if it is about to fall into the hands of a $260 billionaire. Musk is the CEO of two companies that intersect with the regulatory and political spheres – the electric carmaker Tesla and the rocket firm SpaceX – and is one of the site’s most popular accounts with 81.6 million followers.
“The Beltway and the EU will have a field day with this,” said Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities, a US investment firm. “Musk owning Twitter is a nightmare for many people, and this will be scrutinized by regulators on both sides of the Atlantic.” Nonetheless, Ives does not believe that rival bidders will be able to outbid Musk’s $54.20-per-share offer. Musk has a lot of money and a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter, giving him a strong position as the company’s board of directors ponders its next move.
If he succeeds, things will change. In a letter to the board on Thursday, Musk stated that Twitter is “the platform for free speech around the world,” but that it “needs to be transformed as a private company” to achieve this “societal imperative.”
He appears to be most concerned about Twitter’s moderation policies. He asked users whether the site adhered to the principle of free speech in a poll he tweeted in March. “Because Twitter functions as a de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy,” he said. “How should we proceed?” He has declared himself a “free speech absolutist,” and in that context, former US President Donald Trump, who has been banned from Twitter, must be hoping Musk’s bid succeeds.
The regulatory environment for social media, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly difficult. The upcoming online safety bill in the United Kingdom will require platforms to closely monitor their content for potential harms such as pile-ons. Even if the site is privately owned, legislators on both sides of the Atlantic who want to make the internet a safer place will not be deterred.
Musk’s other ideas are less controversial. After asking users if they wanted an edit button to rewrite posts after the launch last week, the company confirmed it was working on one anyway. He also suggested changes to Twitter Blue, the premium service, such as removing advertising, which would be a significant commercial shift for a company that relies on ads for 90% of its $5 billion annual revenue.
Investors are most concerned about Twitter’s growth in terms of advertising revenue and subscribers, as TikTok and other similar apps compete for users’ attention. Given Musk’s emphasis on freedom of speech, it’s likely that if the company falls under his control, user growth will become a priority.
According to Twitter’s most recent quarterly results, daily active users increased by 25 million to 217 million over the year, keeping the company on track to reach its target of 315 million by the end of next year.
The drama of the last week should have added a few more users and, given the likely hurdles Musk needs to clear before he wins control of the business, the platform is in no danger of losing its relevance yet.