What will freedom of speech on Elon Musk’s Twitter look like?

By acquiring a 9% stake in Twitter, Elon Musk is not just diversifying his investment portfolio. The Tesla CEO is also deepening his ties to one of America’s leading public comment forums, potentially hinting at future ambitions for the platform’s impact on free speech, content moderation, and digital censorship.

The ultimate goal of Musk’s purchase of 73.5 million shares worth $3 billion, based on Friday’s closing price, remains unclear. But tweets he posted just days after buying the stake indicate that Twitter’s status as a debate arena may have heavily influenced his decision to buy.

“Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public square, failure to uphold the principles of free speech fundamentally undermines democracy,” Musk said. the richest man in the world and an active Twitter user with 80 million followers, published on March 26. Regulatory documents indicate that Musk bought his shares on March 14.

“What must be done?” he added, before continuing in a follow-up tweet: “Is a new platform needed?”

The latter question has come up again and again in the past few years as social media play an increasingly important role in America’s public discourse and, accordingly, spark debate about whether and when platforms should remove, hide, or verify user posts.

Arguments like this have plagued the internet for decades, but gained national prominence in 2016 and 2020 amid fears of electoral misinformation; during the COVID-19 pandemic, when medical misinformation went viral; and after Jan. 6 Uprising at the US Capitol when people discussed the risk social media poses to public safety.

Indeed, it was in the aftermath of the uprising that Twitter, Facebook and other platforms took unprecedented steps in move to ban former President Trump from their websites for his role in the events of the day. When the notoriously social media-savvy “master twitter” was cut off from its favorite soapboxes, plenty of young social media saw a chance to get their hands on one of the biggest posters on the planet, or at least grab some of its followers. join.

However, these ambitions were largely unfulfilled. Instead of joining an already existing app like Parler or Gab, both of which sought To build a brand around the absolutism of free speech, Trump hinted that he could build his own platform from scratch.

However, these efforts have largely failed to catch on. Trump’s homebrew app Truth Social was bugged from the start due to technical difficulties and has since seen its user base stagnate; Trump published on the platform only once. The personal blog launched by Trump also failed to capture the dynamism of his brand on Twitter.

Gettr, another freedom-of-speech-focused app launched former Trump adviser Jason Miller, can’t even get Trump himself join.

Judging by Musk’s recent tweets, the billionaire tech mogul is pursuing the same goal, but from the opposite direction. Instead of trying to port his brand to a more niche platform or build his own, mostly unmoderated site from scratch, Musk’s 9% share of Twitter suggests he might instead try to change Twitter from within.

While Musk is now Twitter’s largest shareholder, his stake is a “passive investment,” meaning he is prohibited under US securities laws from seeking control of the company, but that doesn’t stop him from doing so in the future through active investments.

It also doesn’t mean Musk should remain passive about speaking his mind about Twitter publicly or internally, said Charles Elson, founding director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance.

“He can always speak his mind,” Elson said, which Musk is not shy about. “Fasten your seat belts.”

The ideological stance in America’s content moderation debate is not the only explanation for Musk’s move. Twitter also plays a practical role in his business empire, especially as a PR tool.

“No one got more out of the existence of Twitter than Elon Musk,” said David Kirsch, a professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland and co-author of the recently published book Bubbles and Crashes. “Donald Trump used Twitter to win the presidential election, but Elon Musk used it to keep the Tesla story going and prop up the stock when the company was in danger of collapse.”

Musk’s account is one of the most followed accounts on Twitter. He frequently tweets to promote Tesla technology and SpaceX launches, but is also often controversial. Perhaps the most infamous was Musk’s tweet, which implied A rescue diver turned out to be a pedophile after a man belittled Musk’s plan to rescue children stuck in a cave in Thailand with a miniature submarine. Musk is also currently involved in legal dispute with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over a tweet in which he claimed he could buy Tesla privately for $420 a share.

“No one has been more adept at using Twitter to drive the public narrative” than Musk, said Kirsch, who is currently studying the impact of Twitter bots on Tesla’s stock price and reputation. (Bots are automated Twitter accounts designed to resemble real people and are often used to populate an app with pre-programmed messages.)

Musk can invest “if he believes Twitter is adopting policies that limit his ability to use the platform,” Kirsch added.

However, Musk’s exact intentions are hard to discern. His only tweet since the news of the purchase went public was a cheeky “Oh hi lol”.

If Twitter turns to a more absolutist free speech policy, it will likely limit the market available to those smaller platforms that have pursued this strategy for years.

However, in statements to The Times, some such firms argued that an ideological victory is still a victory.

“We are grateful to Elon Musk for confirming our thesis and the explosion of interest in the market in which Gab has been operating for almost six years now,” Andrew Torba, founder of the far-right platform Gab, said in an email. “Anything that encourages more speech, not less, is a good thing in our book.”

Mark Weinstein, founder of the Facebook alternative MeWe, also stated that “Elon Musk becoming the largest shareholder of Twitter is great news.”

“I am excited that he will help return Twitter to its free speech roots,” Weinstein wrote in an email. Musk’s investment is likely to have a negative impact on emerging Twitter alternatives such as Gettr and Truth Social. Social media is one of the most difficult industries to compete in.”

Parler CEO George Farmer wrote that he was encouraged by Musk’s “general passion for the fundamental importance of free speech.”

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment as to whether the company expected any policy changes to the site as a result of Musk’s investment, nor did it clarify how it would moderate Musk’s personal account now that he is also the primary stakeholder.

Musk is described in regulations as a long-term investor who seeks to minimize the buying and selling of stocks. Industry analysts are skeptical that the fickle CEO will be left out.

“We expect this passive stake to be just the start of broader discussions with Twitter board/management that could eventually lead to an active stake and a potentially more aggressive Twitter ownership role,” Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities said in a note to a client. Monday.

Twitter shares rose more than 22% at Monday’s open.

SEC rules require buyers of significant stakes in companies to report their purchases to the agency within 10 days. On March 14, Musk bought the stake, according to his statement. He had filed nothing by March 25, when he posted a poll on Twitter asking if the platform adhered to free speech principles. He applied on April 4, 11 days late.

This could create additional problems for Musk. “A deadline is a deadline, and the SEC can impose penalties,” Elson, director of the Weinberg Center, said, though, he added, Musk has shown he’s willing to put up with it.

Indeed, the CEO has repeatedly clashed with financial regulators over his use of Twitter. His latest purchase came when he was stuck in a bitter dispute with US securities regulators over his ability to post on the site.

In October 2018, Musk and Tesla agreed to pay civil penalties of $40 million, and Musk must get his tweets approved by a corporate lawyer after he tweeted that he had the money to take Tesla private at a cost of $420 dollars per share.

Funding was far from secured and the electric car company remains public, but Tesla’s share price has jumped. The agreement specifies management changes, including Musk’s removal as chairman of the board of directors, as well as prior approval of his tweets. The SEC filed a securities fraud charge, alleging that Musk manipulated the share price with his posts.

Musk’s attorney is now asking a US District Court judge in Manhattan to overturn the agreement, alleging that the Securities and Exchange Commission is harassing him and violating his 1st Amendment rights.

Musk’s revelation about his Twitter share comes two days after Tesla released first-quarter shipment data. Although the company delivered 310,000 vehicles during this period, this figure was slightly lower than expected.

Shortly after he tweeted in November about selling some of his Tesla shares, Musk moved on and tweeted that the proceeds from the sale would be used to pay tax bonds on stock options. Analysts estimate his tax liability at between $10 billion and $15 billion. But some of the money could have been used to buy a stake in Twitter.

So far, he has sold over 15 million shares worth approximately $16.4 billion. With some sales at the end of December, Musk is close to selling 10%.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.