The Industry

Why I Don’t Think Elon Musk Is Going to Open the Nazi Floodgates on Twitter

Breaking the platform he just bought could be very expensive, and he only likes to score political points when they’re cheap.

Elon Musk with Twitter bird eyes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Twitter is Elon Musk’s. The world’s richest person reportedly closed Thursday on his deal to buy the social-networking giant for $54.20 per share, an inflated price he offered in April before taking the company on a ride whose destination didn’t even start to become clear until a few days ago. Anyone could be forgiven for skepticism that the ordeal has really ended, given Musk’s penchant for changing his mind. But it is actually over now, according to the Washington Post, which said Musk wrapped up the deal and then fired CEO Parag Agrawal and several other top executives as he took control of the company. (The New York Times counted four.) The Wall Street Journal also reported that the takeover was complete.

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It marks the apparent, merciful end of an eight-month saga between the Tesla billionaire and the company he tried to buy, then didn’t, then did again, then maybe didn’t, and finally did. Musk and Twitter were slated to duke things out in the Delaware Court of Chancery earlier in October, a battle that looked to favor Twitter. Now there will be no trial, Musk will not have to submit to sworn testimony in which he can’t lie, and his texts will stop becoming part of a public record. He will be on the hook for a $44 billion purchase—mostly his own money, plus $13 billion from banks that he’ll owe back with heavy interest, and some unknown amount from equity investors he recruited, some of whom backed out at some point during the several months Musk spent trying to tank his own transaction.

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For months, the imminent questions around Musk and Twitter were how he would try to get out of the deal and whether he could find a path that would let him do it. He tried a lot of flimsy answers to the first question—first bots, then a whistle-blower, then maybe his lenders—but could never quite get to “yes” on the second question. Even the richest person with the most expensive lawyers, it turns out, cannot get out of a tight contract drawn up by similarly expensive lawyers who wrote up the document with a specific fear in mind: that their buyer might not be trustworthy. Now, finally, the world can move on to a different set of Musk-Twitter questions, like “What does he really want with this company?” and “What will he do to it?”

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This time, the first will go a long way toward answering the second. When Musk first flirted with and then struck up an agreement to buy Twitter, what he wanted with it seemed clear enough. Musk wanted to make Twitter a bastion for (air quotes very much required) “free speech.” He hoped to roll back Twitter’s “left-wing bias,” a goal that made him more popular with the extremely online political right. Tweeting about content moderation, Musk said that “going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.” He sounded like a man who wanted to let Twitter be a playground for neo-Nazis and far-right trolls, not to mention anyone else who might have dogshit opinions of the abusive-yet-legal variety.

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A lot has happened since the spring, though. First, Musk tried hard not to buy Twitter, because it’s expensive and a market downturn meant he was suddenly paying tens of billions of dollars over sticker price. He also may have realized what an epic pain it would be to run a platform with hundreds of millions of pushy, opinionated, and sometimes extremely powerful users. But it was likelier than not that he’d get stuck with it, and he seemed to come to grips with that in recent weeks. Musk started to talk more like a man concerned with the actual business of owning Twitter, noting in mid-October that he’s “overpaying” now but believes “the-long term potential” is “an order of magnitude greater than its current value.” He said Twitter was part of a play for something he calls “an everything app,” which is likely dumb, not without precedent, and at least a business idea. He said in public, in an open letter to advertisers, that Twitter “obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape.” He is reportedly telling his bankers that he’ll help them sell the deal to debt investors. Musk always paid lip service to the business potential of the move, but it animates his commentary and actions around it now, much more than it did at first.

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Musk’s mind changes all the time. He has flipped back and forth on every element of this deal, starting with his waffling (or lying) in March about whether he intended to be a passive or active shareholder. Nobody else knows if the libertarian or capitalist part of Musk’s brain will win out in his decisionmaking about Twitter’s future. Even Musk might have no idea. But that is the big question that gets closest to answering all the little ones about what will happen to so many people’s least favorite yet actually for-real favorite app. Does Musk think he’s a free-speech crusader leveling the online playing field for conservatives, or does he think he’s a business titan riding to the rescue of a distressed asset? If it is the former, Twitter’s worst qualities are about to be accentuated. If it is the latter, you may barely notice the man in charge. Right now, more evidence points toward the latter.

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Some time around the beginning of March, Musk became fixated on “free speech.” He had tweeted about it just once before then, on Jan. 11, 2021, right after Twitter banned Donald Trump for using the platform in his attempt to overthrow the American government. “A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech,” he tweeted to the satirical right-wing rag the Babylon Bee, of all accounts. On March 5, 2022, he called himself a “free speech absolutist.” He tweeted about it a few more times on his journey toward buying Twitter, then started to explicitly frame himself as a warrior for the cause, selflessly throwing himself into the fire to protect our public discourse: “The attacks against me should be viewed through a political lens – this is their standard (despicable) playbook – but nothing will deter me from fighting for a good future and your right to free speech,” he tweeted on May 19. A sexual misconduct claim against him had just come to public light.

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Musk’s conservative-tinted pursuit of “free speech” (air quotes as heavy as a Falcon 9 rocket) made him a hero on the internet right, which often nowadays is just “the right.” For someone with a history of looking to make himself the main character, having this cheering section might be appealing. You don’t spend as much time on Twitter as someone as rich as Musk spends there without a strong desire for validation, and Musk has gotten plenty of it from edgelording types who believe he’s a savior from Big Tech censorship. If Musk were to loosen up Twitter’s moderation policies—say, to allow hate speech as long as it doesn’t threaten physical violence, because free speech demands it—this group might delight in that and clap for him. One of the executives Musk reportedly fired on Thursday was Twitter’s head of legal policy, trust, and safety, an area that includes content moderation. Musk will probably make some changes, and there’s a good chance that they do not make the user experience better for most people.

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It might even be a lucrative approach. Many people have made many dollars catering their businesses to the right. If Musk were to let Twitter be overrun by neo-Nazis, he might find that there are enough repressed conservative souls in the world to make Twitter quite a bit of money. It’s not a great bet, though. More likely, it would chase away users who prefer Twitter with less abuse and racism (the company has exerted a heavier hand in recent years), and Twitter would lose advertising dollars that make its business viable. The “truth-telling social media for conservatives” lane is already kind of busy and doesn’t seem to be working out great for the people trying to profit off it. If it were a good money move to go in that direction, then Twitter probably would have entertained it more as a public company. Most people are not maximalists who think anyone should be allowed to say whatever they want wherever they want to whomever they want. Who could have guessed?

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Of course, Musk could pursue that strategy anyway. He has enough money that he could turn Twitter into a haven for the political speech he likes, watch its business slide into a ditch, and go on being unimaginably wealthy. Yet that feels like a reach. $44 billion is a big chunk even for a guy worth over $200 billion. There are different tiers of rich dude, and it’s reasonable to surmise that Musk enjoys being in the tippy-top tier. The complete mangling of Twitter’s business could at least dislodge him from that standing. He’d probably like to avoid such a thing, and that means doing enough to prevent a bad deal from becoming an albatross.

To that point, the business of any Musk company is really the business of Musk himself. Tesla’s stock price is high because electrical vehicles are growing in popularity, but it’s also high because Musk has built a cult of personality around his purported business genius and his abilities as a salesman. A business academic once told me Tesla was “the mother of all meme stocks,” because its value proposition is so tied to Musk’s cultivation of a fandom. Most of Musk’s net worth is in Tesla stock, and the Twitter deal has been bad for that stock, even in the time since Musk ditched a plan to secure Twitter loan money with Tesla stock. (If he had to sell his Tesla stock because Twitter’s business wasn’t doing well, that would depress Tesla’s stock price.) Tesla got at least 48 questions about Twitter on its most recent shareholder call with Musk and other top executives, and at least one got an answer from the big man.

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The easiest way for Musk to have a bad time financially would be for something bad to happen to Tesla’s stock. Twitter turning into a smoldering alt-right crater would not help. It would puncture the idea of Musk as a business visionary, and if things were bad enough, it could lead him to sell Tesla shares, pushing the price of the stock down, to get money for Twitter. (Just the annual interest on the loans Musk is taking out for Twitter could soon be worth well over half of what Twitter brings in every year.) Maybe Musk has an aces plan to quickly ramp up Twitter’s business and pay that interest with fresh profit. Maybe he doesn’t, and perhaps he’ll need to dip into his own pocket at some point. Musk is used to operating multiple businesses at once. But unlike his rocket company, SpaceX, he just paid way too much money to buy Twitter, a company that is already famous for having a hard time converting its users into cash like, say, Facebook. Musk would like to protect his purchase of a $44 billion company, because $44 billion on its own is a significant consideration even for him. But Twitter is also inextricable from his more lucrative ventures, because Musk is Musk and his management will be under an intense spotlight at all times. On that point, he’s taking over a company that underperformed in its last reported quarter (and blamed him for it) and has a hopping-mad workforce. To not lose tons of money, he has work ahead of him.

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Musk seems to enjoy Twitter. He seems to enjoy being a legend among conservative posters. So, sure, he may be inclined to throw them bones even in a reality where he is mostly focused on Twitter’s dollars and cents. He has said he thinks Trump should be allowed back on the platform, and that could set up an interesting quandary for the former president: Return to a platform he needs like he needs air to breathe, or avoid it in hopes of drawing traffic to Truth Social, his own much tinier corner of the internet. None of this will make Twitter more enjoyable for most people, or for many advertisers, but it also won’t kill the company. On the other hand, moves that hinder user growth or scare advertisers en masse won’t appetize Musk.

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For his many faults, Musk did not reach his perch in life by doing bad business to win political points. He makes those points when they’re cheap, and when they make him feel good, like when he didn’t actually own Twitter but could talk about what he’d do if he did. Now, Twitter’s gains and losses are his own. He could be rich enough to not mind lighting a many-billion-dollar investment on fire. That would be a change of pace, though. Something much more normal would be if Twitter remained a lot like it has always been, just with one narcissist dictating how it changes policy instead of a more varied board of directors with diffuse power. Maybe, after years of striving, Twitter can be more like Facebook after all.

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