In his opening remarks at Twitter's annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, CEO Parag Agrawal said he wouldn't discuss the pending acquisition bid from Elon Musk, which wasn't on the agenda. That didn’t matter much: Musk’s fingerprints were all over the event, even overshadowing the expected if still-emotional news that Jack Dorsey would step away from Twitter’s board at the meeting's conclusion.
In their presentations to shareholders, Twitter executives spent a considerable amount of time addressing Musk’s pet peeves: They affirmed their support for free speech, downplayed content-moderation efforts, and said Twitter needed to take a “more measured” approach to hiring that focused on engineering and product.
“Silencing political commentary is antithetical to our commitment to free speech,” Agrawal said on the call. “Our tools and processes aim to enforce these rules without any bias and do so dispassionately and equally for all users, regardless of their background [or] political affiliation.”
In a 2020 interview that he gave when he was serving as Twitter's CTO, Agrawal set a much different tone, saying Twitter should focus “less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.”
“Twitter is obviously a public forum and we serve the public conversation,” General Counsel Sean Edgett said on the call, echoing Musk’s labeling of Twitter as the “de facto public town square.”
The “public forum” positioning could lend support to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s argument that social networks and other mass communications tools are "sufficiently akin" to common carriers, which in his view takes away their "right to exclude." By reclassifying social media firms as common carriers, the Supreme Court could find a rationale to strip protections inherent in Sec. 230, an outcome Texas’s HB 20 social media law is also trying to advance. Twitter has relied strongly on Sec. 230's protections for posting and moderating user-generated content throughout its existence.
Musk recently tweeted that Twitter under his ownership would be "hardcore" about hiring engineering talent. Twitter CFO Ned Segal said at the meeting that Twitter had “focused our hiring more on engineering and product than on other areas to ensure that we continue to develop scalable technology solutions to the opportunities that we see.”
Musk was also seemingly unfazed by a potential mass exodus of Twitter employees following his acquisition. At this year’s Met Gala, he said that any Twitter employee who doesn’t feel comfortable with his vision “will on their own accord go somewhere else — that's fine.”
Some disgruntled shareholders even directly addressed Musk, who has no formal role at Twitter and did not speak on the call.
“Mr. Musk, if you’re listening, we hope that you’ll join us in voting for this proposal,” Ethan Peck, an associate at the National Center for Public Policy Research, said on the call. Peck unsuccessfully tried to rally shareholders on Proposal 7, which requested an audit to determine whether Twitter’s DEI initiatives resulted in “discrimination against employees deemed ‘non-diverse.’”
“You once called wokeness a ‘mind virus’ — we agree,” Peck said, continuing to address Musk. “Fellow shareholders, it’s on our dime that Twitter is implementing these immoral and blatantly discriminatory policies, and in doing so, the company is stealing from us in plain sight.”
Shareholders did not approve that proposal, nor a near-opposite measure from Arjuna Capital that said Twitter’s board needed “human and/or civil rights expertise.”
Those two proposals illustrate just one of the dimensions on which the competing visions for Twitter’s future diverge. In the virtual shareholder meeting, Twitter executives tried to pay lip service to both sides. It’s less clear, however, what they hope to gain from doing so: Musk has strongly suggested he'll clean house if he takes over Twitter.
Musk's commitment to the deal, which seemed to waver recently, may be more certain now. In a new filing, he revealed that he had raised his equity commitment to the deal to $33.5 billion, making it less reliant on debt financing or outside investment.