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Here's what Elon Musk will likely do with Twitter if he buys it

Billionaire Elon Musk's on-again, off-again bid to acquire Twitter advanced this week after he agreed to pay the $44 billion he had originally offered for the social media site.
Michael Gonzalez
Getty Images
Billionaire Elon Musk's on-again, off-again bid to acquire Twitter advanced this week after he agreed to pay the $44 billion he had originally offered for the social media site.

By the end of this month, Elon Musk may finally own Twitter, after the mercurial billionaire changed his mind yet again this week about buying the social network for $44 billion.

On Thursday, a judge gave Musk and Twitter until Oct. 28 to close their deal, end a bitter months-long legal fight and avoid a high-profile trial. While there's no certainty Musk may not have another change of heart, if he does assume control of Twitter, what would that look like? He has given hints but also left plenty of questions unanswered.

When it comes to speech, anything goes

When Musk agreed to buy Twitter back in April, he said he would "unlock" the company's potential by advancing free speech and "defeating the spam bots."

"Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated," he said in the official deal announcement.

It's a theme he reiterated both in public, telling Twitter employees at an all-staff meeting that the platform should allow all legal speech, and in private, texting investor Antonio Gracias that "Free speech matters most when it's someone you hate spouting what you think is bull****."

Musk has been loudly critical of Twitter's rules aimed at curbing harassment, hate speech, extremism and misinformation about elections and public health, arguing that the company's efforts to promote what it has long called "healthy conversations" are too restrictive.

His contacts and supporters egged on that view, according to text messages released in court filings last week.

"Are you going to liberate Twitter from the censorship happy mob?" podcast host Joe Rogan wrote to Musk the day Musk revealed his stake in Twitter. "I will provide advice, which they may or may not choose to follow," Musk replied.

Experts who study social networks warn that overhauling Twitter to allow all legal speech would open the floodgates to toxicity, from misogynist, racist and transphobic abuse to false claims about the security of voting and the effectiveness of vaccines.

For a "keyhole view of what Twitter under Musk will look like," just look at alternative platforms such as Parler, Gab and Truth Social that promise fewer restrictions on speech, said Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal nonprofit watchdog group Media Matters for America.

On those sites, he said, "the feature is the bug — where being able to say and do the kinds of things that are prohibited from more mainstream social media platforms is actually why everyone gravitates to them. And what we see there is that they are cauldrons of misinformation and abuse."

Trump and other banned figures are likely to return

On top of loosening content moderation rules, a Musk-owned Twitter would also likely usher in the return of former President Donald Trump. After the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Twitter permanently banned Trump for breaking its rules against inciting violence.

In May, Musk said that the ban "was a morally bad decision, to be clear, and foolish in the extreme" and pledged to reverse the ban.

But it's not just Trump — Musk has been vocally skeptical of the notion that anyone should be permanently banned from Twitter, with few exceptions.

"Would be great to unwind permanent bans, except for spam accounts and those that explicitly advocate violence," he texted Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal shortly after agreeing to join the company's board (a decision he soon backtracked).

That could mean lifting bans on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who was kicked off for abusive behavior in 2018; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., whose account was suspended in January for tweeting misleading and false claims about COVID-19 vaccines; and 2020 election deniers like Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell and Mike Lindell, who were all banned in early 2021.

One person who texted Musk in the days after his Twitter stake became public (whose name was redacted in court documents) advised the billionaire that "it will be a delicate game of letting right wingers back on Twitter and how to navigate that (especially the boss himself, if you're up for that)" — an apparent reference to Trump.

The person urged Musk to hire "someone who has a savvy cultural/political view" to lead enforcement, suggesting "a Blake Masters type." Masters is the Republican Senate candidate in Arizona who has been endorsed by Trump and has echoed his false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.

Allowing Trump and others to return could set a precedent for other social networks, including Meta-owned Facebook, which is considering whether to reinstate the former president when its own ban on him expires in January 2023.

"If Trump is replatformed on Twitter, it makes it easier for [Meta president of global affairs] Nick Clegg and [Meta CEO] Mark Zuckerberg to say, 'Well, he's already back on Twitter. We might as well let him back on Facebook,'" said Nicole Gill, executive director of Accountable Tech, a progressive advocacy group.

Musk says that if he buys Twitter, he'll make major changes to its business model, which currently depends on advertising.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Getty Images
Musk says that if he buys Twitter, he'll make major changes to its business model, which currently depends on advertising.

Management shake-up, staff departures

Musk is also expected to shake things up internally at Twitter. Agrawal, who succeeded Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey in the CEO role less than a year ago, will likely head for the exit, potentially with a $42 million payout.

Musk's texts reveal that an initially cautiously friendly relationship between the two men when Musk first invested quickly soured after Agrawal told Musk that his tweets criticizing the platform were "not helping me make Twitter better."

"What did you get done this week?" Musk snapped, before telling Agrawal that he was not joining the board and would make an offer to buy Twitter instead.

After a video meeting a few weeks later with Agrawal and Musk, Dorsey tersely summed up the situation in a text to Musk: "At least it became clear that you can't work together. That was clarifying."

It's unclear whom Musk might install in Twitter's management ranks. His contacts floated various ideas in text messages, including a former Uber executive who once suggested spying on critical journalists, and investor Jason Calacanis, who volunteered himself for CEO, but Musk didn't bite on any of the suggestions.

This has fueled speculation that Musk, who already runs multiple companies, could take the reins himself.

"Please send me anyone who actually writes good software," Musk wrote to one investor. "I will oversee software development."

Whoever is in charge of day-to-day operations will likely be faced with a smaller workforce. Hundreds of employees have reportedly left in the months since the Musk saga began, with many inside Twitter disheartened by Musk's plans to overhaul the company.

That is likely welcome news to the billionaire, who has complained that Twitter's costs outstrip revenues and has implied the company is overstaffed for its size.

An "everything" app?

Costs and staff cuts are only two pieces of the equation. In the spring, Musk pitched investors that he would quintuple Twitter's annual revenue to $26.4 billion by 2028 and attract 931 million users by that same year, up from 217 million at the end of 2021, according to an investor presentation obtained by The New York Times.

Today, Twitter makes nearly all its money from advertising, but Musk wants to shift away from that business model to making money from charging users subscription fees, licensing data and building out a payments business, according to the presentation.

He may have little choice other than to find alternate sources of revenue besides advertising, given the weak state of the digital ad market and the changes he wants to make to content moderation.

"Advertisers want to know that their ads are not going to appear alongside extremists, that they're not going to be subsidizing or associating with the types of things that would turn off potential customers," Carusone said.

This week, after Musk said he wanted to go ahead with the deal after all, he tweeted, "Buying Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app."

What exactly he meant is, as always, anyone's guess. But this summer, Musk told Twitter staff that the company should emulate WeChat, the Chinese "super-app" that combines social media, messaging, payments, shopping, ride-hailing — basically, anything you might use your phone to do.

"You basically live on WeChat in China," Musk said in June. "If we can re-create that with Twitter, we'll be a great success."

Other American tech companies, including Facebook and Uber, have tried this strategy, but so far Chinese-style super-apps haven't caught on in the United States.

But Musk is optimistic. "Twitter probably accelerates X by 3 to 5 years," he tweeted, "but I could be wrong."

Editor's note: Facebook parent Meta pays NPR to license NPR content.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.