Elon Musk is a lot smarter than I am. Let’s get that out of the way right up front. The serial entrepreneur has launched or reinvented multiple companies, taking bigger gambles each time, and somehow, he keeps winding up on top. So, when it comes to Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, I should probably just stand aside and assume he knows what he’s doing. Musk does know what he’s doing, right? Right? I have to admit I have…qualms.
First off, I’m glad he’s buying the company. At least I hope he’s buying the company. Musk is keeping everyone guessing with his last-minute announcement that he’s put the deal “temporarily on hold” while he looks into the prevalence of “spam/fake accounts.” The profusion of annoying fake accounts was one of the problems many Twitter users hoped Musk might solve. The bigger problem of course is Twitter’s lopsided approach to free expression. Although the company was founded to make it easier for people to share their thoughts, Twitter executives today seem more focused on shutting down the voices they don’t approve of. For our own protection, of course.
Musk says his main goal in buying Twitter is to turn it back into the politics-agnostic platform it was at the start. Even if he succeeds only partially, that would be a big win for the spirit of free speech. But is Musk ready to take on the new generation of woke activists who are manning the barricades inside the company he just purchased? For me, that’s qualm number one.
Musk is a child of the Internet’s free-wheeling, techno-utopian days, the late 1990s and early Aughts. His first start-ups were pure digital plays, including a groundbreaking online bank that eventually evolved into the payment giant PayPal. The Internet was a very different place back then, populated by quirky individualists and infused with a vaguely libertarian ethos. Silicon Valley culture prized helping people bypass ossified institutions and gatekeepers (like, say, banks!). Not coincidentally, this was also a time when non-elite outsiders—whether anime fans, teenage gamers, or, gasp, the kinds of conservatives not usually featured in the Wall Street Journal—suddenly discovered their voices. A thousand blogs bloomed. And bloggers started picking—and winning—fights with the New York Times, CBS News, and the rest of what quickly became known as the “mainstream media.” Musk was no conservative back then, mind you. He recently tweeted a meme suggesting he might be considered one today only because progressives have raced so far to the left that all the old live-and-let-live liberals suddenly find themselves lumped in with the right.
But Musk didn’t stay in the world of apps and digital platforms for long. When PayPal was purchased by eBay in 2002, he made a cool $180 million. He could have retired right then and spent his next few decades dating models and pop singers. (Actually, he does do that. But not only that.) Instead, Musk did something almost unheard of for a digital executive: He pivoted to the world of nuts and bolts. He launched—and I mean launched—the rocket-building company SpaceX. And he took over the tiny electric car maker Tesla, which wouldn’t stay tiny for long.
Let’s be clear about something: $180 million is a lot of money. But it’s not NASA money. It’s not GM or Toyota money. One of the left’s favorite putdowns of Musk is to say he’s the product of “inherited wealth.” It’s a version of the old “you didn’t build that” meme denigrating the accomplishments of entrepreneurs. In fact, Musk built his companies on a shoestring, even as he took on the global giants in aerospace and the automotive industry. Both his main businesses danced on the edge of the abyss for years. “I gave SpaceX and Tesla both a probability of probably less than 10 percent likely to succeed,” he once told a South by Southwest audience.
As the editor of Popular Mechanics, I met and interviewed Musk a couple of times during the days when Tesla and SpaceX were still considered upstarts. He didn’t strike me as an arrogant entrepreneur, but rather as someone painfully aware that his life’s work could go up in a flash. “I have this sort of feeling that something terrible could happen, like all our flights could fail and Tesla could fail and SpaceX could fail,” he told me. “So I feel fear quite strongly; I just proceed nonetheless.” The public doesn’t see that side of Musk. He makes revolutionary innovations look so easy that people don’t always grasp just how risky and improbable they are. But if building SpaceX was the only thing Musk accomplished in his life, he would still go down in history as a world-changing visionary—a Henry Ford or Gordon Moore or Akio Morita of spaceflight. His accomplishments at Tesla aren’t far behind.
If his Twitter acquisition goes through, Musk will be back in the world of purely digital businesses. But times have changed. The old techno-optimism has faded, at least among the kind of people who want to work at social-media companies. At SpaceX and Tesla, Musk employs hard-driving, goal-oriented engineers. Those aren’t easy companies to work for, but almost everyone in them shares a sense of mission. They all know that if they screw up, rockets explode or cars crash. But what is the mission shared by Twitter employees? Outsiders have long suspected that Twitter’s internal culture must be akin to that of a Goucher College critical-studies seminar—with Slack channels full of chatter about intersectionality, white supremacy, and demands to “Free Palestine!” A look at what sorts of speech Twitter amplifies or suppresses suggests as much. Calls to murder Jews; no problem! Doubts about Covid policies? Ban that account! And don’t get me started on Hunter Biden’s cocaine-encrusted laptop.
It turns out that things inside Twitter were even worse than we thought. When Musk’s acquisition was announced, the place melted down. “I feel like im going to throw up,” one employee texted a New York Times reporter. “I rly don’t wanna work for a company that is owned by Elon Musk.” Reactions from political and media big shots were no less unhinged. “This deal is dangerous for our democracy,” wrote Elizabeth Warren (on Twitter, naturally). “We are headed to hell,” said a CNN media analyst, who also wondered (out loud!) “how we are going to control the channels of communications in this country.” Saturday Night Live decided Musk’s purchase proved “how badly white guys want to use the N-word.” MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan worried that “a petulant and not-so-bright billionaire casually bought one of the most influential messaging machines and just handed it to the far right.”
I’d been lukewarm about Musk’s buying Twitter. Doesn’t he have more important things to do, like building cool cars and saving NASA? But when I saw how our progressive elites responded to the news, I realized he must be doing something right. It’s not that Twitter is so crucial in itself. Only about a quarter of Americans have accounts, and many of those aren’t very active. But more than any other media platform, Twitter allows ordinary people to challenge the supposed experts and to make fun of their leaders. Progressives used to love talking about “speaking truth to power.” But when they are in power, they don’t like it one bit. Progressive policy wonks, media figures, academics, and the like think it’s only natural that they should be the gatekeepers of the institutions they dominate. And they assumed—rightly—that Twitter was on their side. Now they’re terrified they are losing control of the “messaging machine”; Musk will make Twitter take its thumb off the scale.
But can he? It won’t be easy. At SpaceX and Tesla, Musk works with handpicked employees who chose to work for him and who share his vision. Now he might be acquiring a company where, apparently, all 7,500 workers think he’s a Nazi. (OK, probably not all. But the ones who don’t hate Musk are keeping their heads down—as moderates often do when progressives kick up a ruckus.) Changing a deeply rooted corporate culture is always hard. As Megan McArdle notes, sometimes a CEO trying to overhaul a company must simply “nuke it from orbit,” firing almost everyone and starting over. But that’s not possible with a corporation this big. Musk will need to fire many, but he’ll have to win over the rest. That requires countless hours of face time with employees at all levels. Musk is known for many talents, but that kind of quiet patience isn’t one of them.
Some Twitter staffers have already announced their intention to leave; that’s good for Twitter and bad for the companies where they wind up. (“Please do not come work here,” the resolutely free-speech publishing platform Substack told them.) But it’s not the angrily departing employees who should worry Musk; it’s the quietly resentful ones who stay. It’s hard to run a business when your employees are throwing sand in the gears. At his other companies, Musk has his pick of top engineering and business talent. But he’ll have a harder time filling vital roles at his new acquisition. Progressives and their media allies won’t let up in their effort to declare Twitter beyond the pale. They’ll scrutinize Musk’s every move and try to prove every prominent hire is a crypto fascist. Many potential employees will opt to avoid that. Who wants to be the digital Brett Kavanaugh?
To some outsiders, fixing Twitter sounds simple: Just turn off those unfair algorithms! That’s not as easy as it sounds. A social-media platform without any moderation quickly turns nasty. Trolls take over and normal people tune out. So some algorithmic monitoring is needed to filter out violent threats, porn, spam, and the like. And then there are gray areas where human judgment is required. Musk will need moderators who share his techno-optimist tolerance for divergent opinions but who can sift out the truly abusive stuff. At a time when college students are being trained to see all viewpoints they don’t like as “literal violence,” those people will be hard to find.
Musk has floated a number of ideas that could make Twitter a nicer, more diverse place—and perhaps help the bottom line, too. When he announced the deal, Musk suggested he wants to “authenticate all humans.” Right now, some of the ugliest content comes from anonymous accounts and automated bots. Twitter could instead require every account to be tied to a confirmed email address or phone number. That step would reduce abuse even if users are not required to tweet under their own names.
He also wants to make the algorithms that control which tweets you see “open source.” Right now, Twitter—like Facebook, TikTok, and others—uses algorithms to boost the content it thinks will keep you most “engaged.” Critics say these algorithms tend to favor tweets that provoke the most outrage, which corrals users into angry ideological tribes. Giving users the chance to see how the algorithms work—or even to choose from a range of algorithm options—would do a lot to build trust. (And it might help keep Twitter engineers honest as well.) Musk has also suggested that Twitter could charge a subscription fee, at least for accounts with large numbers of followers. That would give the company a different kind of business model—one less dependent on the artificially goosed traffic numbers demanded by advertisers and more geared toward the conversations that users actually value.
This all sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? And that’s my final qualm. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, Musk can be a bit manic: He brings enormous intensity to his companies, but he also gets easily distracted. Every so often he’ll drop everything to work on some new brainstorm—the “Hyperloop” tube-train, a rescue sub for the kids trapped in that Thailand cave, digging tunnels to bypass L.A. traffic. Those might be cool or important projects, but he can’t do everything. Musk is also prone to flaky behavior. After he famously smoked a blunt on The Joe Rogan Experience, NASA ordered SpaceX to go through a mandatory review of its “workplace culture.” The incident could have cost the company its NASA contracts.
Musk’s sardonic Twitter exchanges with the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are fun for his followers. But tweaking political leaders isn’t a good habit for an executive who has to fend off government interference not just in the U.S. but around the world. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have big ideas about how to regulate social media. (Those ideas are almost all terrible.) The EU, Britain, India, and others are also cooking up restrictive new tech laws. Does Musk have the diplomatic skills—or the attention span—to talk them out of it?
Let’s hope so. At a time when our own government is launching a “Disinformation Governance Board,” we need media leaders who can’t be intimidated. Musk is certainly the man for that job. But we also need media executives who don’t accidentally empower the enemies of free speech. Fingers crossed that he can avoid that. So I’m hoping this deal isn’t one of Musk’s passing distractions. Someone needs to rein in Woke Tech, and I don’t see anyone else volunteering for the job. So please, Elon: Don’t screw this up.
Editor’s note: The issue in which this article appears went to press before Musk announced that his effort to buy Twitter was “on hold.” The online version was updated to reflect this development.
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