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What does Elon Musk want with Twitter?

October 28, 2022

The world's richest man now controls one of the most influential social media platforms. What's his plan? And how will he use that power?

A profile image of Elon Musk and the Twitter logo
Image: Adrien Fillon/ZUMA/picture alliance

The richest man in the world became even more powerful this week.

Late Thursday evening, billionaire Elon Musk completed his $44 billion takeover of social media giant Twitter. "The bird is freed," he tweeted, a reference to the firm's logo.

The acquisition gives Musk control over one of the world's most influential online platforms. It turns him into the gatekeeper of what can and cannot be said on the world's "digital town square." And it supercharges his political power, as the 51-year-old is increasingly weighing in on geopolitical conflicts from Ukraine to Taiwan.

Who is this self-declared "free speech absolutist"? What's his plan for Twitter? And how could the platform change under his ownership?

Elon Musk completes takeover of Twitter

Like no tech mogul before

Born in South Africa in 1971, Musk moved to Silicon Valley in the mid-1990s and co-founded the online software company Zip2. Just a few years later, the firm was sold for over $300 million.

In the two decades since, Musk has made a fortune by founding numerous businesses, in fields ranging from online payment to neurotechnology. This year, Forbes magazine named him the world's wealthiest person.

At the same time, Musk emerged as a public figure like no tech mogul before him.

Nowhere is that more apparent than on Twitter, the social media giant he now calls his own. Musk regularly takes to the platform to tweet to his over 110 million followers, whether to broadcast his political views, weigh in on public debates, or just post memes.

And more than once, he has clashed with what is okay to say on the platform.

In 2018, in what appeared to be a reference to a number used to celebrate the use of marijuana, Musk tweeted that he was mulling taking his car company Tesla private at a price of $420 a share.

The tweets prompted chaos on the markets and led to an investigation by US regulators. After finding that the tweets had no basis in fact, they charged both the company and Musk with fines of $20 million each.

A year later, Musk was sued by a British cave expert after labeling him as a "pedo guy" on Twitter. A US court later found Musk not liable for defamation.

Will Twitter now have fewer rules?

That communication style stands in stark contrast to other tech executives, including Twitter's discreet former CEO Jack Dorsey.

It isn't the only difference between the two: Under Dorsey's leadership, the platform introduced measures to moderate content, such as labeling false information or banning the misgendering of transgender people.

Musk, on the other hand, has pledged to restore "free speech" on Twitter. This has led many to believe that he could plan to loosen some of Twitter's community guidelines.

What does Musk's takeover mean for Twitter?

As one of his first moves, Musk this week reportedly fired some of Twitter's top executives, including officials in charge of the firm's policies on harmful speech.

But observers say that his efforts to scale down content moderation could be slowed down by concerns over advertisers withdrawing from the platform. And policymakers have already signaled they will keep a close eye on whether Twitter continues to enforce existing laws.

"In Europe, the bird will fly by our … rules," tweeted Thierry Breton, the European Union's Internal Market Commissioner, in response to Musk's "freed bird" post. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, India's Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, struck a similar tone when he tweeted that his country's "rules and laws for intermediaries remain the same regardless of who owns the platform."

Whether that will impact Musk's plan to scale back content moderation is unclear — just like what he will do about the account of former US President Donald Trump. His account was permanently suspended following the January 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol over concerns that he would use it to incite more violence.

Vis-à-vis governments

To understand Elon Musk's ever-growing power, it is important to understand that over the last few years, some technology manufactured by his firms has become vital for running entire societies.

No other company within Musk's business empire illustrates that better than spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX. In late February, after Russian tanks began rolling into Ukraine, Musk activated the company's satellite network Starlink to help reinstall internet access in the besieged country. Military experts say this has been a crucial tool for Ukraine's forces to coordinate their fight.

As the provider of such critical digital infrastructure, Musk has become an important partner for governments. He makes no secret that he is in contact with countries around the world. And Musk is also increasingly weighing in on geopolitics.

This month alone, he caused turmoil by suggesting that some control of Taiwan should be handed over to China; by pitching a plan for how to end the war in Ukraine; and by tweeting about how to circumvent internet censorship in Iran that exposed some protesters to hacking attempts.

As the acquisition of Twitter allows Musk to take ownership of yet another powerful sphere of influence, many expect him to become even more vocal.

It is still unclear what Musk wants to do with the platform in the long run. Some believe that he plans to turn the platform into an "everyday app" — similar to China's popular WeChat app, where users can communicate, pay for things, get news, and more.

The coming months will show where Twitter under Elon Musk is headed. And the plans of the mercurial businessman could, of course, change anytime.

Janosch Delcker
Janosch Delcker Janosch Delcker is based in Berlin and covers the intersection of politics and technology.@JanoschDelcker