By Paris Marx
Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter in the name of free speech is the latest example of his hubris. It’s not just that Elon Musk shouldn’t own Twitter — billionaires shouldn’t even exist.
On Thursday, ten days after revealing his 9.2 percent stake in Twitter to the public, Elon Musk delivered an ultimatum: either the board accept his offer to buy the company for $43 billion and take it private, or he’d “reconsider” his position as a shareholder. Such an acquisition could have huge implications for how we communicate online, and the entire affair presents troubling questions about the power Musk is able to exert over our society.
For all its problems, Twitter is central to cultural and political life in the United States and beyond, and Musk has long been one of its most prominent users. He wields it to preach to his adoring supporters, slam his critics, manipulate financial markets, and provide the media with fodder for endless clickbait. But his attempt to use his power to capture Twitter and reshape it for his own ends is serious cause for concern.
What Is in Elon Musk’s Head?
Despite the recent revelation of Musk’s stake in the company, he’s been buying shares since the end of January. In March, he began publicly criticizing the company for supposedly limiting free speech. Musk adopted this language from the right-wing provocateurs he’s increasingly associating himself with, but neither truly care about free speech: they just want a speech that better serves their interests. Musk himself has a history of slandering his critics, getting impersonators banned from Twitter, firing employees who disagreed with his ideas, and even reportedly having a whistleblower framed as a mass shooter.
Hours after his proposal to buy Twitter was announced, Musk appeared onstage at the TED conference in Vancouver. When asked about his intentions for Twitter and its approach to moderation, he gave a very conflicting answer. On the one hand, he presented a vision of Twitter that would be something akin to Gab or Parler, supposed havens of free speech that are more like right-wing cesspools. On the other, he said human moderators could decide what’s acceptable and that the platform should try to eliminate bots and spammers.
Musk claims that buying Twitter is about protecting a virtual public square that is essential for democracy. Yet social media platforms have proven better at amplifying the perspectives of white nationalists and outright fascists than providing a level playing field for reasoned conversation. With his own distorted conception of free speech, why should we expect a Musk-led Twitter to do any better?
At the same time, all this assumes that Musk actually wants to buy Twitter. Yes, he’s submitted an offer and claims he wants to purchase. But Musk is a serial liar who frequently engages in publicity stunts for media attention. One need only think back to the 2018 “funding secured” tweet, where Musk claimed to have the money to take Tesla private. That proved to be untrue — the beginning of his ongoing feud with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
In the case of Twitter, Musk’s efforts are already running into trouble and the structure of the acquisition offer suggests it could be a way out of this whole misguided affair. Musk is facing a shareholder lawsuit because he was supposed to report his position in the company by March 24 — ten days after hitting a 5 percent ownership stake — but didn’t do so until April 4, meaning shareholders potentially lost out on over $100 million. SEC action on that front could still be coming. Twitter employees are seemingly also angry over his attempt to take over the company, and given that Twitter’s share price fell after Musk’s acquisition offer was made public, investors don’t seem to be taking it seriously.
For one, Musk doesn’t have the $43 billion on hand for the purchase. He’d either need to sell a significant chunk of Tesla shares — which could sink its inflated valuation — or borrow even more against them. Further, while Musk’s offer of $54.20 a share is above Twitter’s current price, it was much higher than that last year, and investors feel Musk’s offer is too low to be taken seriously. But in his offer letter, Musk claims it’s his “best and final” offer, “a high price and your shareholders will love it,” and if it’s not taken, “I would need to reconsider my position as a shareholder.”
It’s impossible to get inside Musk’s head to know what he’s thinking — I’m not sure I’d even want a peek at what goes on in there. There’s certainly a possibility this is serious, and that his offer letter is a display of hubris by a man with virtually limitless wealth and few people around to contradict him. But there’s also a chance this has already gone wrong and he’s getting tired of it, so he’s presented an offer he knows the board will reject that will allow him to say he was turned down. And in the meantime, he can keep railing against the platform, instead of backing off with his tail between his legs.
The Myth of Musk
Whatever the outcome, this whole news cycle has further illustrated the unhealthy relationship between the media and the world’s richest man. Elon Musk didn’t emerge out of nowhere. The myth of the man and the idea that he is a visionary leading us into the future was constructed by the media, creating a mutually beneficial relationship where Musk got glowing coverage, allowing him to do virtually anything he wanted, and the media got an inspiring figure that sold magazines and attracted readers.
But as Musk has taken the turn from liberal darling solving the climate crisis to billionaire oligarch doing whatever he wants — whether slamming calls for higher taxes on the uber-rich to calling for the end of subsidies that were essential to his own companies’ success — the media’s continued obsession with him has become unhealthy to the point of being corrosive to democracy.
If we think about the ideal means of governing a platform like Twitter, it wouldn’t be rule by the world’s richest man. Certainly, having some regulations by representative governments could help, but in a truly democratic society, it would be governed by users, workers, and other stakeholders.
Yet the media’s endless headlines about Musk’s every action leave us constantly centering his vision for how our society should be run. That leaves us precious little time to ponder whether a figure like Elon Musk should be able to exist — and own a social media platform — at all.
Paris Marx is the host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast and author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, coming in July from Verso Books.