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Elon Musk, Twitter and the future of human civilization

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Elon Musk said the reason he acquired Twitter is “because it’s important to the future of civilization.”

Musk was already one of the world’s richest and most powerful men before he bought and took over Twitter, the social media platform. The South African-born engineer was the head of the groundbreaking electric vehicle company, Tesla, and the founder of SpaceX, which revolutionized private space travel. He was a Twitter super-user and used his dedicated fanbase to promote his businesses and his political views.

Musk began buying shares of Twitter in January 2022, and by April, he had become the company's largest shareholder with a 9.1 percent ownership stake. Twitter invited Musk to join its board of directors, an offer he initially accepted before declining. On April 14, Musk made an unsolicited offer to purchase the company for $43 billion, or $54.20 per share.

But it can easily be argued that Musk paid far too much money for Twitter. While it was a popular social media platform, Twitter had been struggling to grow its revenue and user base in recent years. In 2021, the company lost $221 million. Twitter faces stiff competition from other social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. These platforms have more users and generate more revenue than Twitter.

Twitter is no longer a publicly traded company, so its market capitalization is not publicly known. However, according to some estimates, Twitter is currently worth around $15 billion. This is a significant decline from its market capitalization of $44 billion when Elon Musk acquired the company in October 2022.

Since then, Musk has changed the name of the platform to “X” abandoning the well-established brand name.

Musk's purchase of Twitter has been controversial. Some people argue that it will lead to an increase in hate speech and misinformation on the platform. Others argue that it is necessary to protect free speech and to prevent social media platforms from censoring conservative viewpoints.

There were flimsy claims that the Obama Administration, including Vice President Joe Biden, was active in trying to interfere in the operations of Twitter and suppress conservative voices on the platform as the Democrats sought a political advantage. After an investigation, there was no evidence of this in the so-called “Twitter Files” but there was evidence that Donald Trump did try to order the removal of certain tweets that insulted him.

In the name of free speech, there has been a removal of safeguards against hate, racism, and the promotion of political violence on Twitter. Studies have shown that under Musk's ownership Twitter has become more tolerant of political disinformation and medical disinformation with the spreading of anti-vax propaganda.

Musk reinstated the accounts of several high-profile users who were previously banned for violating Twitter's policies, including former President Donald Trump.

From the same award-winning film team behind The Facebook Dilemma and Amazon Empire, "Elon Musk's Twitter Takeover" is the latest installment in a series of FRONTLINE documentaries examining the powerful billionaires who create and shape American tech and culture. Director and correspondent James Jacoby examines Musk’s long and often troubled relationship with Twitter, following his journey as one of the platform’s most provocative users to its sole proprietor — exploring the acquisition, free speech, and the company’s uncertain future.

James Jacoby is a director, producer, and correspondent for FRONTLINE. His films have investigated a range of topics from police reform in urban America to the lives of former prisoners at Guantanamo to the rollback of environmental protections to the tech giants.

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call 833-877-8255, email thesource@tpr.org.

*This interview will be recorded on Tuesday, October 10, 2023.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi