Why Elon Musk might be bad for Twitter's business

Twitter's no longer just a place for him to tweet outlandish things.

Elon Musk

The Tesla CEO calls himself a “free speech absolutist” who wants Twitter to open-source its algorithm.

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal announced Tuesday that Elon Musk would be joining the platform's board of directors a day after it was revealed that Musk is now Twitter’s largest shareholder. As a long-time Twitter user with a following of more than 80 million, Musk has become a favorite among the company’s higher-ups: Former CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted Tuesday morning that he’s wanted Musk on the board “for a long time.”

Musk has complained that Twitter limits free speech, even teasing that he was giving “serious thought” to starting his own social media platform. Instead, he could be bringing these ideas to Twitter. Agrawal seemingly sees Musk’s problems with Twitter as a plus, calling him both a “passionate believer and intense critic of the service.”

Twitter may no longer be just a place for Elon Musk to make outlandish promises and Tesla announcements. Now, it could be a place for him to make changes — potentially problematic ones, at that.

Musk’s ideas might be bad for business. The Tesla CEO calls himself a “free speech absolutist” who wants Twitter to open-source its algorithm. Both of those concepts would destabilize Twitter’s existence as a money-making enterprise.

  • If Musk pushes Twitter to adopt a laissez-faire policy toward content moderation, trolls would run free on the platform. That would be bad for both average users and advertisers.
  • “Few large brands would want their message adjacent to a tweet accusing a cave rescuer of pedophilia or objectively violating securities laws,” Brian Wieser, digital media agency GroupM’s global president of business intelligence, told Protocol, referencing two things Musk actually did on Twitter. “Large brands generally don't want to be associated with the extremes of what some call free speech in the same way that advertisers wouldn’t want their message to be associated with someone yelling fire in a crowded theater.”
  • The open-source Twitter algorithm Musk wants could also be a business risk — and potentially a security one. It would also give spammers a road map to manipulating the feed.

Musk’s status as Twitter’s troll-in-chief could open the floodgates. Critics of Musk’s appointment to the board are concerned that Musk’s influence will revert the platform back to a darker time, before the company got serious about content moderation and abuse prevention. Folks still face harassment on Twitter, and rolling back those efforts would make the user experience worse.

  • “I hope the team at Twitter is figuring out how to limit Musk's influence. They've been making progress on harassment, and now they're a target. He wants to take them back to a free-for-all, and most users don't want that at all,” tweeted former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao.
  • “Wish they would have taken any of the many other suggestions of active users who could have been added to the board over the years,” tweeted Glitch CEO Anil Dash. “Including those who are developers or experienced creators of healthy communities.”
  • But not everyone thinks Musk will take free speech to the extreme. Respondology President Erik Swain, whose company moderates social media comments on brands’ posts, told Protocol that Musk is “not trying to say people should be able to be absolutely brutal and toxic on Twitter or any other platform in my opinion.” Swain added: “He's trying to make sure that open discussions and discourse continue to happen from people of different political parties or viewpoints or philosophies.” That’s certainly an optimistic viewpoint.

But Twitter does have some safeguards in place. The company’s corporate governance for its board of directors states that certain topics are “unrelated to (their) duties and responsibilities.”

  • These include product complaints and inquiries, as well as new product suggestions. The restrictions may keep Musk from turning Twitter into a free-speech playground.
  • Twitter spokesperson Adrian Zamora also told The Verge that the company wouldn’t let any special treatment fly, and is “committed to impartiality” in developing and enforcing its rules. Despite Musk’s new seat of power, he still has to follow the same rule book as every other Twitter user.

This is Elon Musk we’re talking about, though. He’s notorious for not playing by the rules — not even the federal regulations that his companies are required to follow by law. Will he take over Twitter, start his own social network (as he tweeted about in March) or tire of being a social media star and go back to shooting rockets into space? Knowing Musk, all of the above.

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Photo illustration: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images; Protocol

Elon Musk’s text inbox is a rarefied space. It’s a place where tech’s wealthiest casually commit to spending billions of dollars with little more than a thumbs-up emoji and trade tips on how to rewrite the rules for how hundreds of millions of people around the world communicate.

Now, Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter is giving the rest of us a fleeting glimpse into that world. The collection of Musk’s private texts that was made public this week is chock-full of tech power brokers. While the messages are meant to reveal something about Musk’s motivations — and they do — they also say a lot about how things get done and deals get made among some of the most powerful people in the world.

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Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

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