What is Elon Musks’ endgame with Twitter? At first, it seemed that his purchase of 9.2% of Twitter was a way to catapult him onto Twitter’s Board of Directors, and from there wield some influence over company policy, including their content moderation policies, of which Musk has been an outspoken critic. But in an unexpected turn of events, at the last minute Musk has just turned down an invitation to join the board. This may seem a little bizarre at first, but when you look at the fine print, there may be a perfectly logical explanation. Let’s rehearse the sequence of events that led to his decision to decline membership on Twitter’s board of directors.
Musk ran a Twitter survey a few weeks ago to see how many people believed Twitter “rigorously adhered” to “free speech principles.” 70% of the 2 million plus respondents said, “No.” Musk then ran a follow-up open-ended poll, retweeted over 33,000 times, which ran as follows: “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?”
Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.
What should be done? https://t.co/aPS9ycji37
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 26, 2022
One of the recurring suggestions in response to Musks’ tweet was to buy out Twitter and force a major change in their content moderation policies from the top. And that may very well be a part of Musk’s plan. For just a few days after Mr Musk’s musings about “what should be done” to fix free speech at Twitter, he put his money where his mouth was, and purchased a hefty 9.2% of Twitter, to the tune of $2.89 billion.
Twitter invited him to join their Board of Directors, on condition that he not acquire more than 14.9% of company shares while he remained on the board. Initially, he accepted the invitation. Then, out of the blue, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal announced that Elon Musk had declined their invitation to join the board (see this CNN report for the details).
Elon has decided not to join our board. I sent a brief note to the company, sharing with you all here. pic.twitter.com/lfrXACavvk
— Parag Agrawal (@paraga) April 11, 2022
Given that Elon Musk is rated by some (including the Bloomberg Billionaires Index and the Forbes real-time billionaires list) as the wealthiest man in the world, I very much doubt he just stumbled into Twitter without an endgame in mind. He has publicly nailed his colours to the free speech mast, and publicly criticised Twitter’s existing content moderation policies as inconsistent with free speech principles. Positioning himself publicly in this way in advance of a major investment in Twitter seems to send a clear signal that he wants to tie his name and reputation to the cause of free speech.
It is theoretically possible, of course, that he could have a change of heart, or that he is just blowing “hot air” when he sings the praises of free speech. But a businessman of his stature would normally care a lot about his public reputation, and it would look pretty bad if he went on and on about Twitter’s failure to honour free speech, then bought up a large part of Twitter, and then just went about his business as if free speech was not a problem at Twitter.
So if I was a gambling man, I would venture that an important part of Elon Musk’s business interest in Twitter is related to the liberalisation of their content moderation policies.
As someone who has suffered the brunt of those policies firsthand, with the suspension of my @davidjthunder Twitter account (for daring to report a well-known fact, namely that Ivermectin was being used in many parts of the world to treat Covid-19), and someone who believes fervently in the importance of free speech in a free and open society, I am very much hoping that Elon Musk will significantly expand his share of Twitter ownership and throw the full weight of his newly acquired shares behind a radical overhaul of Twitter’s content moderation policies.
Mr Musk’s decision to decline a position on the board of Twitter liberates him from his agreement to cap future investments in Twitter at 14.9% of the company. Does this mean that Elon Musk is poised to buy up an even greater share of Twitter, as a part of a strategy to reshape company policies? Or is he simply averse to interminable board meetings?
Only time will tell.