On the short list of Twitter troublemakers, Elon Musk has got to rank somewhere near the very top. Trump may have had him beat for a bit, but he’s already banned for life, so the title by default now goes to Musk, a grown man and billionaire whose tweets have at times been so reckless, they have their own federally mandated “Twitter sitter.”
So what happens when a tech company’s biggest shit-stirrer becomes its biggest shareholder — and a member of the board? We’re about to find out.
In some ways, the news Tuesday that Twitter had appointed Musk to the board could have been ripped from any corporate playbook. CEO Parag Agrawal discussed the “great value” Musk would bring to the company, while co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey noted Agrawal and Musk would “be an incredible team.” In an uncharacteristically formal response to Agrawal, Musk said he was “looking forward to working with Parag & Twitter board to make significant improvements to Twitter in coming months!”
But the announcement was also instantly politicized, with Republican lawmakers and pundits alike cheering their favorite shitposter’s ascension to the top of the big bad company that unapologetically axed Trump. “Elon Musk being named to Twitter’s Board of Directors is just the start,” tweeted Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, who was temporarily suspended from Twitter last year. “2022 is the year that we take back our country.”
Fox’s Tucker Carlson called it “a good day in America” when the news of Musk’s 9% stake was announced. Meanwhile, calls poured in from the right urging Musk to restore Trump’s account.
This response is no accident. Less than two weeks before his stake in Twitter went public — but well after he actually accumulated the shares — Musk teased that he was “giving serious thought” to building his own social network, in light of what he described as Twitter’s failure “to adhere to free speech principles.”
At the time, the tweet read like any of Musk’s other half-baked ideas — including, most recently, his attempt to challenge Vladimir Putin to hand-to-hand combat. In retrospect, it reads like a warning.
For all of the excitement from the right, rank-and-file tweeps were decidedly less enthused about — and even openly critical of — Musk’s new role. And who can blame them? Musk’s apparent interest in pushing Twitter to prioritize free expression seems at total odds with the company’s ongoing efforts to create what it refers to as a “healthy” environment on the platform. What happens to all that work when it runs up against the views of the new most powerful person at Twitter?
It’s too soon to tell. For now, Musk is taking to his newfound power like some kind of Silicon Valley Santa Claus, polling his followers on wish list items, like whether they want an edit button.
But it’s also important to remember that Musk can be serious when he wants to be. You don’t make hundreds of billions of dollars building electric cars and rockets by doing everything for the lulz. For all his bluster and promises, Musk has made lots of wild wishes actually come true. The question now is whether he’ll take Twitter seriously too, or treat it like a plaything to shape to the liking of his many devoted fanboys.
Agrawal for one shared Musk’s poll about the edit button with a good-natured jab parroting one of Musk’s own self-serious tweets from late last month. But as Twitter faces down the potential impact of its new troll king, it’s hard not to see the truth in it too. “The consequences of this poll will be important,” Agrawal wrote. “Please vote carefully.”