How messy might Twitter get under Musk?

Engadget's editorial staff predict how the $44 billion social media sale could shake out.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS APRIL 25: Tweets by Elon Musk are shown on a computer April 25, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. It was announced today that Twitter has accepted a $44 billion bid from Musk to acquire the company. (Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images) (Scott Olson via Getty Images)

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk added Twitter to his stable of companies on Monday, purchasing the social media platform for $44 billion dollars. Whether he made this purchase to finally realize his aspirations as a "free speech absolutist" or just did it to put an end to his nemesis, @ElonJet, once and for all remains to be seen, but changes are abound for the internet's third-favorite hellsite. Engadget's reporters have some thoughts on what those might be.

There are only two predictions I feel confident making: Twitter will get an edit button, and employees are going to head for the door. Even under the best of circumstances, big acquisitions tend to result in a fair amount of employee turnover and executive shakeup. And for many tweeps, Musk taking over is very far from the best of circumstances. Musk rankled the Twitter rank and file before the deal was even official, with tweets about whether Twitter was “dying” and whether the company's HQ should be converted into a homeless shelter.

But now they have much more to worry about than his usual trolling. Musk’s bid has already negatively impacted recruiting efforts, according to The New York Times. And current employees still don’t have clear answers on how Musk’s acquisition will affect their stock packages, a significant portion of their total compensation. There are also real, existential questions about how Musk’s questionable views on content moderation will affect the company and the direction of the service. As CEO Parag Agrawal reportedly told employees following the news, "once the deal closes, we don't know what direction the platform will go."

- Karissa Bell, Senior Reporter

It can't get much worse, right?

While I'm sure Twitter's moderation policy will get watered down, it's hard to imagine the doomsday scenarios where it turns into some kind of 4Chan/Stormfront cesspool.

Twitter is an international company, with international advertisers and international users. It's broadly bound to ensure its content is in line with the laws of the countries in which it operates, which severely limits the ability to create the "free speech" oasis of Musk's dreams, at least if he also would like it to be a functional, broadly breakeven company at the same time. The company's moderation of its platform is already terrible, and people either make do by going private/blocking people, or (hi) give up on the whole tweeting thing altogether. So I'm expecting more of the same, which is to say, I'm expecting it to be mostly awful.

- Aaron Souppouris, Executive Editor

I’ve covered Elon Musk in his roles as both head of Tesla and SpaceX for a few years now, witnessing his sneering contempt for journalism, transparency, basic ethics and accountability up close and in person. I’ve sat through his easily-disproved boasts, his myriad empty promises and publicity stunts. This is a man who belittles society’s most vulnerable members to gain the panting adoration of 4Chan trolls, who demonizes the helpers to boost his own fragile ego, a man who would declare himself God-Emperor of Mars before paying his income taxes. Is this your king?

I dread the effects this sale will have, not just for Twitter itself, but the internet writ large. The destabilizing effects social media amplification has on societal and democratic norms have been well studied since the 2016 elections. What is not yet fully understood is what happens when we hand control over that mechanism to the world's wealthiest contrarian. As such, my advice to you are the same wise words Samuel L Jackson had for us in Jurassic Park: Hold onto your butts.

- Andrew Tarantola, Senior Reporter

I think the biggest challenge about trying to predict an Elon Musk-led Twitter is separating the guy's online persona from his business practices. Musk catches a lot of flak (often deservedly) for dumb or insensitive tweets, something most other CEOs know or have been trained to avoid. But at the same time, Elon is a rather shrewd businessman, separately helming what has become the world's biggest EV carmaker alongside the most successful private space aerospace company.

With Tesla and SpaceX there's a clear pattern of high-risk, high-reward behavior, which, due to a combination of luck and smarts, has worked out so far. Musk gives the impression of being a move fast and break stuff type, and his latest disruption looks to be bringing free speech (or his version of it) to Twitter, regardless of how that might impact others. This potentially greenlights every tweet that's not explicitly inciting violence or distributing sensitive info (like the plans for a nuclear bomb or whatever).

In the short term, Must will look to help boost Twitter's bottom line, which the company desperately needs after losing more than $200 million in 2021. Engagement (both good and bad) sells, and turning Twitter into an even bigger battleground would almost certainly result in a quick spike in users. Musk might even do something silly like raise the limit on tweets to 420 characters. Down the line, Musk’s plan to authenticate all humans sounds a lot like a different flavor of Sam Altman’s troubled Worldcoin endeavor, and I‘d bet there’s way more crypto integration coming to the platform in general.

The big concern is that some of Twitter's issues regarding harassment and abuse will continue to go unaddressed. Though that actually might be a feature. Moderation costs money, and by pushing Twitter down the free speech path, Elon conveniently might be able to absolve the company of having to protect its users while simultaneously reducing operating costs. Sure, there’s a chance that eliminating anonymity and linking every tweet to a specific person could stop people from spouting nonsense they wouldn’t dare say in real life. But I wouldn’t count on it. So unless better safeguards are coming too, Twitter could devolve into the most chaotic social media platform around.

- Sam Rutherford, Senior Reporter

Yes, Musk is divisive, a puerile troll that at age 50 seems to have finished his emotional growth decades prior; a loudmouth who is almost constantly spouting off easily disprovable nonsense. His ideas on a "free speech" haven are an echo of the wrong-headed thinking that was a north star for social media founders a decade or more ago, and which they have spent the time since regretfully paddling away from. Musk is also, by accounts, a capricious and vindictive boss whose alleged love of free speech is forever subservient to his hatred of dissent.

And all of this is, more than some outward-facing exodus of users, likely to lead Twitter employees to rethink if it's all worth the agita. Who wants to develop for product categories (moderation in particular) that have effectively been marked for death? Who wants to go to a job that feels more like the What Did My Boss Fuck Up Today sitcom?

But that this sale went through at all is indication enough that, whether led by Musk or literally anyone else, Twitter probably is headed for the great dustbin of history. The people whose job it is to do nothing but turn money into more money ran the numbers and determined no one was or would ever bring a better offer, nor was the company — which almost always posts a loss— was ever going to stabilize into a recurring source of profit.

Musk, the PT Barnum of techno-magic bullshit solutions, would probably gleefully categorize himself as an accelerationist: Accelerating the accumulation of space junk; the eventual drowning of pedestrians in underground tunnels; the mass adoption of combusting non-combustion cars. And in this instance my sense is he will accelerate the demise of Twitter by a few degrees too, but don't give him too much credit, it was headed that way anyhow.

Avery Ellis, Senior News Editor

Reality often sits in between our greatest hopes and worst fears, and I'd expect the same for Twitter under Elon Musk. It's easy to see his laissez-faire content moderation leading to the revival of some hate speech and harassment that Twitter previously removed. At the same time, I don't think a Musk-era Twitter will be a full-fledged calamity. Not everyone who was banned will be eager to come back, and Musk may have to rethink his stance if there are any truly toxic elements that resurface.

I say there's a one-in-three chance that Twitter goes sideways within two years of the deal closing — that is, the content moderation and the company's overall direction lead to serious trouble. Those are very distinct possibilities, but they aren't guaranteed and may take years to unfold. They may hinge as much on users' desires as they do on Musk's decisions. I'd expect many of Twitter's anti-toxicity tools to survive, such as downvoting replies.

With that said, I'm fully prepared to be wrong. Musk is legendary for heading in unexpected directions. This is the man who launched a tunnel company after complaining about LA traffic, after all. I just don't see Twitter facing imminent disaster, and it won't be surprising if the company reins in some of Musk's impulses.

- Jon Fingas, Reporter

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