Elon Musk does not have anyone in his life who is willing to tell him “no”—or if he does, they don’t appear to have his cellphone number.
On Thursday, the Delaware Court of Chancery released an astonishing trove of text messages that Musk sent and received this year as he contemplated, and then went ahead with, making an offer to buy Twitter for $43 billion. Not long after Twitter accepted the offer and Musk signed some paperwork—apparently without bothering to do due diligence—he changed his mind and attempted to terminate the deal, something Twitter is now suing to force through. Unless he gets away scot-free (far-fetched but possible), he will either pay a small number of billions of dollars or many billions of dollars, and also maybe own a company he does not want.
All of this was a colossally bad idea! But as I read through the 40 pages of text messages, which span from January to June of this year, one thing that struck me was that no one chatting with the Tesla and SpaceX CEO was willing to counsel him against the deal. If there was anyone in his life doing so on some other platform, they weren’t heeded, because Musk made the offer, assembled the financing, announced it to the world, and—most importantly—signed the contract that now weighs approximately as much as a Cybertruck and is hanging from his neck.
As the year went on and Musk’s interest in Twitter grew from buying up stock in the company to becoming its largest shareholder to accepting a board seat to rejecting a board seat to trying to take Twitter private, a chorus of Silicon Valley heavyweights, anti-“woke” crusaders, and various other discourse shapers cheered him on and tried to get in on the action. As Alex Kantrowitz notes in his very helpful rundown of the texts, the result is a rare and often quite entertaining window into Silicon Valley dealmaking. But it’s also a glimpse into the worrying information ecosystem inhabited by the world’s richest man. One would imagine that the smart money that makes up his social circle would have predicted that when the Federal Reserve raised interest rates to combat inflation—as everyone knew it would—tech stocks could well plummet as the era of very cheap money ended, transforming Musk’s offer of $54.20 per share from a generous offer into a totally bonkers one. Or they might have stressed that the structure of Musk’s deal financing might dog his real money-maker, Tesla. Or perhaps they could have noted that under no circumstances would operating the planet’s messiest public square ever be easy or fun. (You can’t say Slate didn’t warn him!)
This is not the advice Musk received.
As far as the text messages can tell us, the egging on began in late March, around the time when Musk had reached a 5 percent stake in Twitter, though it hadn’t yet been publicly disclosed. Someone labeled “TJ”—readers, tell me your best guess—texted Musk, “Can you buy Twitter and then delete it, please!? xx … America is going INSANE. The Babylon Bee got suspension is crazy. Raiyah and I were talking about it today. It was a fucking joke. Why has everyone become so puritanical?” The Babylon Bee is a right-wing satirical news site that has frequently confused readers who assumed its stories were real; Twitter suspended it for making an anti-trans joke about a Biden administration official. Musk replied: “Maybe buy it and change it to properly support free speech xx.” Around the same time, the venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, a co-founder of Palantir and a right-leaning tech-industry gadfly, complimented a Musk tweet about why the Twitter algorithm should be open-source and said he would share the idea with GOP congressmembers who are interested in “reigning in crazy big tech. … Our public squares need to not have arbitrary sketchy censorship.”
One theory of Musk’s Twitter interest is that he simply would like to tweet whatever he wants all the time—something that the Securities and Exchange Commission, for one, would like him not to do—and chafes against social-media platforms curbing the access of anyone who is not a bot (which he despises because of all the Musk-impersonating Bitcoin scams). While Musk has called himself a moderate who has voted for Democrats and Republicans, his antipathy toward content moderation chimes with a fixation of extremely online right-wingers who believe the major tech firms are biased against them and want to curb their speech. These figures seem to largely still thrive on social media, and appear to also have a home in Musk’s inbox. On March 27, for example, Larry Ellison, the Oracle co-founder who was one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent Trump supporters, texted, “Elon, I’d like to chat with you in the next day or so. … I do think we need another Twitter.” He ended the message with a thumbs-up emoji.
Other figures made their cases. Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of the German media group Axel Springer, repeatedly texted Musk, for perhaps ideological and business reasons. “Why don’t you buy Twitter?” he wrote on March 30. “We run it for you. And establish a true platform of free speech. Would be a real contribution to democracy.” Within a few days Musk would go public with his buying up of more than 9 percent of Twitter’s shares.
The huzzahs rolled in. Someone labeled Kyle wrote, “So can you bust us out of twitter jail now lol.” (“I do not have that ability,” Musk replied.) Joe Rogan, the massively popular podcaster who frequently rails against social media’s content moderation, texted, “Are you going to liberate Twitter from the censorship happy mob?” (Musk: “I will provide advice, which they may or may not choose to follow.”)
The most frequent voice was that of Jack Dorsey, the then-recently departed Twitter CEO who has apparently come to believe that Twitter needs some kind of wholesale reform that removes the profit motive. In March he texted Musk, “Yes, a new platform is needed. It can’t be a company. This is why I left.” Eventually he came to see the virtue in a Musk-owned Twitter, without the meddling of its board and shareholders. He counseled Musk to work with Parag Agrawal, his successor as Twitter’s CEO, and later, when it became clear Musk could not stand Twitter’s current leadership, urged on his take-private effort.
Other people in Musk’s messages brought their own agendas. Will MacAskill, the Oxford philosopher who is the intellectual face of the longtermism movement, tried to play matchmaker and connect Musk with Sam Bankman-Fried, the CEO of the crypto exchange FTX who, MacAskill wrote, “has for a while been potentially interested in purchasing [Twitter] and then making it better for the world.” MacAskill floated a possible “joint effort” between the two CEOs.
The most entertaining content comes from Jason Calacanis, the prominent Silicon Valley angel investor, who urged Musk to clean up Twitter’s bots and spam and spiff up its business. “Day zero,” he texted after Musk bids to buy the company. “Sharpen your blades boys.” Later, on April 23, after Musk offered to bring him in as a strategic adviser to Twitter, Calacanis wrote, “Board member, advisor, whatever … you have my sword.” On May 10, after Musk learned Calacanis was offering Twitter investment opportunities to his “angel syndicate,” the Tesla CEO wrote, “This makes it seem like I’m desperate. Please stop.”
Then there are the entreaties from media—which, in the interest of getting Musk to agree to an interview, flattered his ambitions. CBS News’ Gayle King wrote to Musk after his Twitter stake became public: “Gayle here! Have you missed me (smile) Are you ready to do a proper sit down with me so much to discuss! Especially with your Twitter play … what do I need to do ????” Later, when he offered to buy Twitter outright, she wrote, “ELON! You buying twitter or offering to buy twitter Wow! Now don’t you think we should sit down together face to face this is as the kids say a ‘gangsta move.’ ” Tim Urban of the explanatory tech site Wait But Why wrote: “I haven’t officially started my podcast yet but if you think it would be helpful, I’d be happy to record a conversation with you about twitter to ask some of the most common questions and let you expand upon your thoughts … but only if it would be helpful to you.” Hard-hitting stuff.
Even Musk’s own brother Kimbal was receptive to the Twitter project, as well as to an apparent backup plan in which Musk described a blockchain-based social-media platform he would build. And Steve Davis, a former SpaceX engineer who runs Musk’s tunneling startup, The Boring Company, wrote, “Amazing! Not sure which plan to root for. If Plan B wins, let me know if blockchain engineers would be helpful.” Other figures who appear: investor David Sacks. Exiled Fox News scion James Murdoch. Marc Andreessen of the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. (Hoffman appeared to pass on investing: “It’s way beyond my resources.”) Memorably, investor Steve Jurvetson proposed that Musk hire his son, a Reddit engineer. Numerous people offered themselves or their associates as CEO.
Nowhere, among any of this, was a note of caution. The main bulk of the messages end before Musk attempted to sow doubt about Twitter’s motives and then nuke the deal. (Something to look forward to, Delaware Court of Chancery?) But back in the spring, Musk had the biggest wallet, and the itchiest tweeting finger, and the widest eyes. It was in everyone’s interest for Musk to go all-in. Until, finally, it was no longer in Musk’s.