Elon Musk: a new kind of media baron charges into Twitter

Tech billionaires have used their wealth to make their mark in the news business before. That includes Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, who acquired with his wife Time in 2018.

However, nobody does it like Elon Musk. The CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, long one of the loudest voices on Twitter, emerged as the social media site’s voice this week largest shareholder and latest board member, catapulted him into an influential position at one of the most watched news sources in the world.

Though Twitter is more of a technology platform than a single editorial product, Musk’s unique position will likely leave him with some of the influence associated with traditional “press barons — whether in ink or bits,” said Jeff Jarvis, an associate journalism professor at the City University of New York.

Musk’s incursion into new media comes with an added twist. With 80.6 million followers, he’s become an important part of the mechanism driving engagement on Twitter, which is critical to how Wall Street views the company. In turn, he has used his position as the site’s leading business rock star to pursue personal vendettas, promote his businesses and technology ideas, and — as his business interests have spread — pursue an increasingly political agenda.

For Twitter and Musk, this has led to a close alignment of interest in engagement. According to financial analysts and social media experts who have accompanied the company, it is unclear whether this is healthy in the long run for the quality of the discourse or for the wealth of the shareholders. “Honestly, it could go either way,” said Youssef Squali, an analyst at Truist Securities, issuing a general warning.

The 30 percent rise in Twitter’s stock price since Musk’s 9.2 percent investment was announced on Monday suggested a knee-jerk hope that his arrival will bring a breakthrough in some of the perennial problems plaguing the social media site have withheld. These include the slow pace of product development and an inability to appeal to a far larger global audience.

Musk’s technological prowess and strong “sense” of products — coupled with the sheer dynamism that is a hallmark of his own companies — could make him a catalyst for change, said Brent Thill, an analyst at Jefferies.

In a sign that Musk may already be making an impact, Twitter announced late Tuesday that it would soon begin testing an “edit” button that would allow users to modify their tweets — something Musk has argued for, though the company said the idea has been in development for a while.

Years of heated internal debates have failed to resolve the issue, which was deeply controversial on both technical and ethical grounds, according to former Twitter employees. Musk “figuratively walked right into the middle of the office and said, ‘Here’s the thing that’s going to piss you off the most,'” said a former employee.

Musk’s intrusive presence may pose an additional challenge for Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s recently appointed boss. He’s already working under the close scrutiny of an activist investor in the form of Elliott Management. Another powerful investor, Silver Lake’s Egon Durban, joined the board after investing $1 billion two years ago.

Personal contacts could help pave the way. Musk worked closely with Silver Lake’s Durban when he tried to arrange a takeover of Tesla and was a director of Endeavor, another Durban-backed company, until three weeks ago. He left that company’s board of directors to free himself for other, unspecified commitments – a sign that his discussions about signing as Twitter director may have been ongoing.

Still, Musk has always made a virtue of having a highly disruptive presence in any company he’s involved with. And he brings with him a strong set of technocratic views that have garnered him many critics. In the words of a humble Twitter worker, expressing the strong reaction the billionaire evokes: “He’s a madman. We don’t want him here.”

The CEO of Tesla and SpaceX has had a long list of Twitter-centric controversies. “He’s used [Twitter] In a way that got him into trouble with the government, he used it to target journalists,” Jarvis said.

Among the results of Musk’s most ill-considered tweets: a settlement with regulators that resulted in his stepping down as Tesla chairman and a high-profile libel case over whether he had accused anyone of pedophilia (Musk won a jury verdict in the case).

He has also used the service to advance a political agenda. This included criticism of regulators and governments, particularly the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. When California insisted that Tesla close a car plant because of Covid-19, Musk took to Twitter to denounce the move as “fascist” – but then remained particularly silent when the automaker’s Shanghai plant was shut down in similar circumstances late last month .

Traditional news organizations have long had clear rules on how to maintain editorial independence, said Anupam Chander, professor of global internet regulation at Georgetown University. In contrast, there’s no way of knowing if “Elon Musk or any other billionaire is unfairly attempting to assert control of the major voice platforms of the day.”

Musk has urged Twitter to relax its content moderation policies and ditch restrictions on what people can say about its service, in a bid to return it to a “free speech” ethos that was prevalent in its early days. That could put him on a collision course with the company’s CEO, who said the key issue for the social media group is creating “a healthier public conversation” that governs “who can be heard” rather than itself to focus on free speech.

Musk’s position as a board member, largest shareholder, and loudest voice on Twitter could help push the company to relax its content policies, many observers say.

According to Chander, that could include lifting Twitter’s lifetime ban against Donald Trump — something that has “certainly become a possibility” as “the libertarian ethos that’s ever-pervasive online” gains an advocate on the Twitter board.

Such policy changes could create the kind of controversy that spurs engagement in the short term, at the risk of undoing progress on tackling harassment and misinformation and ultimately hurting the service, Jarvis said.

Imposing a more “absolute” approach to free speech on the company could also be bad for the bottom line, according to analysts like Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence at advertising group GroupM. “Big advertisers don’t like toxic environments.”

Additional reporting by Cristina Criddle

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