Elon Musk

Why Does Elon Musk's Potential Twitter Takeover Scare the Media So Much?

"I think it's very important for there to be an exclusive arena for free speech," says Musk.


Elon Musk's offer to buy Twitter, turn it into a private company, and correct what he feels is the company's waning commitment to free speech principles has drawn both praise and criticism. Many people who share Musk's dissatisfaction with the platform—including Republicans and conservatives who think it discriminates against provocative right-wing speech—are eager to see Twitter in his hands. At the same, many supporters of the establishment media say they're worried that Musk's approach would mean more harassment and disinformation on the platform.

Twitter's board has given every indication that it sides with the traditional gatekeepers of information and that it is inclined to fend off Musk's bid. The company adopted a poison pill approach late last week. This is a well-known corporate tactic intended to thwart a potential buyer. In this case, Twitter would flood the market with additional shares available for sale if Musk's stake in the company reached 15 percent. Effectively, Twitter plans to dilute his stake and make it much harder for him to reach the 51 percent threshold. And if Twitter is ultimately interested in Musk's offer, this gives the board more time to consider it, and time as well to look for other potential buyers.

We thus have a pretty good idea what the board of Twitter wants: It wants to hold onto power. The board's offer to make Musk a member was probably born of a desire to control and quiet him; as a board member, he would have an obligation not to publicly disparage the company, and thus he would no longer be able to tweet his thoughts about all the ways Twitter should be different.

What, exactly, does Musk want to change about Twitter? He offered some thoughts during a TED interview last week.

"I think it's very important for there to be an exclusive arena for free speech," said Musk. "Twitter has become sort of the de facto town square, and it's really important that people have the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law. One of the things that I believe Twitter should do is open source the algorithm and make any changes to people's tweets, if they are emphasized or de-emphasized, that action should be made apparent so that anyone could see that action has been taken, so there's no sort of beyond the scenes manipulation."

Later in that interview, Musk endorsed a feature many people have demanded: a Twitter edit button, so users could alter tweets after sending them. Facebook has this function, so it must be workable in some sense. (On Facebook, a little note appears showing that the post was edited.)

Musk also talked about removing ads for premium subscribers and providing other perks for those willing to pay more.

It's hard to argue that these proposals lack merit. More transparency would be a massive improvement: It's critical for users to know why and how the platform decides to reward and punish certain tweets. The ultimate goal should be to devolve content moderation to users. Instead of Twitter deciding for users what it thinks they ought to see—what it thinks is dangerous, or true, or safe—the platform should give individuals more options to curate their Twitter experiences.

Musk appears to share this vision. Yet many progressive critics are acting as if him taking control of the company would be the most horrible thing to ever happen. Literally.

Here's a Salon writer saying Elon Musk's takeover could cause a death blow to the free world.

Axios writes that Musk has gone into "full goblin mode" and is acting like a super villain.

City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis implied that Musk's takeover would be akin to the rise of Nazi Germany.

These people are desperately scared by the mere possibility that a wealthy person with somewhat different politics—and a somewhat more favorable disposition to unfiltered speech—is going to tweak their favorite toy.