Following Twitter’s suspension of the Babylon Bee, Elon Musk appeared to get a little irritated. In late March, Musk asked his more than 80 million followers what to do about Twitter’s failure to adhere to free speech principles:
Is a new platform needed?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 26, 2022
With the plethora of new platforms emerging, many followers and commentators suggested that the Tesla and SpaceX CEO just buy Twitter. Musk once again proved that his timeline is one to watch because he’s willing to spend a gobsmacking amount of money in response to a Twitter poll. Musk just bought a 9.2% passive stake in the company. Talk about sending a message. According to CNBC:
Outspoken Tesla CEO Elon Musk purchased a giant stake in Twitter that makes him the largest outside shareholder in the social media stock, not long after criticizing the company for failing to uphold the tenets of free speech.
Musk owns 73,486,938 shares of Twitter, which represents a 9.2% passive stake in the company, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission 13G filing released Monday. The stake is worth $2.89 billion, based on Twitter’s closing price on Friday.
According to the Financial Times, Musk now owns more than four times the shares held by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The purchase sent Twitter’s stock price up 25% in pre-market trading and cost Musk $2.89 billion. Musk is a frequent target of progressive politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) because he refuses to line up behind their agenda the way many other CEOs do.
Last fall, Musk asked his followers if he should sell 10% of his Tesla stock in response to politicians like Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) saying that his unrealized gains on the company are tax avoidance. Nearly 60% of respondents said yes in the Twitter poll, and Musk sold 3.6 million shares. Once again, when asking about Twitter, Musk was not fooling around with his poll:
The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 25, 2022
Buying enough stock to influence Twitter policy is preferable to building another platform. The power of a social media platform is the network an individual builds. Many Twitter users have been on the forum for more than a decade. That network cannot be replicated easily on a new platform, making organizing and distributing information to a new network more difficult.
Content suppression on Twitter is nearly as disruptive to a person’s influence as outright suspension. In many cases, Twitter understands this and chooses to de-emphasize the reach of certain users rather than suspending them and risking a public outcry. On my timeline, which is not an especially large network, Twitter hides almost all replies to tweets I send under a label that says, “Show additional replies, including those that may contain offensive content.” That reduces my interaction with others in my network, making exchanging ideas and information less effective.
One way to avoid content suppression on the platform is to build lists. On the lists I made that contain accounts that break news and have interesting ideas, I see every tweet in chronological order from those users. Apparently, Twitter is aware of this flaw. On the web-based version, it now takes two clicks to get to my lists as Twitter tries to push users toward moderated content.
Hopefully, Musk’s intervention is not too late. Right now, his shares do not have any voting privileges on Twitter’s board. Maybe the threat of the unpredictable billionaire purchasing enough stock to earn board representation will change Twitter’s trajectory. Of course, it could also mean that they will just double down on censorship. The impact of Musk’s investment remains to be seen, but the debate over free speech and social media platforms just got more interesting.