Elon Musk - ask one person and he’s only a few steps removed from a “real life Bond villain” but ask somebody else and he’s basically the saviour of free speech. Indeed, according to market research platform Appinio, 2 in 5 Brits say they’re likely to stop using Twitter completely because of Elon Musk’s acquisition and 1 in 5 trust the platform less with him in charge.
The Tesla and Space X founder is a known “troll” and a supposed champion of right-wing ideologies but his playful nature is also partly what sets him apart from the other members of the billionaire boy’s club. Is buying Twitter just a game for him? He does believe, after all, that we’re all living in a simulation anyway.
If his tweets hold any truth, Musk has big changes in mind for the platform such as an edit button, long-form tweets and defeating the spambots. Which all sounds good. But will his purchase mean unchecked abuse for the remaining “snowflakes?” Could it become just another right-wing echo chamber?
Such a divisive figure is always going to set tongues wagging when they make a major move (particularly when they’re the richest person on the planet) but when it comes to Musk’s $44 billion purchase of Twitter, there’s so much to unpack that I couldn’t possibly do so alone.
So, I reached out to some of the most respected names in the creative industries to put together their thoughts on the purchase and what it could mean for the future of social media.
Mike Rhodes, CEO and Founder of ConsultMyApp
The news that the Twitter board plan to accept Elon Musk’s initial bid to buy the social media platform outright is an incredibly dangerous prospect. It would take what was, frankly, an absurd offer, to begin with, and push us into the day & age where a single person can own such a large global media network and control the narrative of the world they want to shape.
That said, I don't think a lot of people will stop advertising on Twitter unless Elon does somehow manage to ostracise himself and the app.
Furthermore, I can’t help but feel that a lot of people currently banned from the platform will have that ban lifted (including Donald Trump). The biggest issue Elon is going to face, however, is from governments trying to increase regulation of these sites, which comes at a great cost and of course, stops Musk from having a platform where you can “say anything you like”.
Katie Chodosh, Media Relations Director at Definition Agency, part of the Definition Group
Elon Musk’s purchase of the platform is a challenge for the platform’s communications team. Over the last couple of years, Twitter has gone to great lengths to communicate measures to tackle misinformation on the platform, including a warning about sharing links you haven’t read and guides on misinformation. It also went as far as banning Donald Trump off the platform, invoking arguments about free speech.
In contrast, Musk has been very forthright in his view on free speech, and what defines misinformation, and it is not in line with the company’s current approach. Communicating the new owner’s stance and vision will be difficult for the platform and will be a significant shift. It might also scare some brands off the platform, if the risk of being associated with it, and its new owner, is greater than the reward.
The company also seems to be struggling managing the comms around the acquisition internally, which has been made external by employees leaking the recording of the internal meetings. Even if there are many unknowns, ultimately, the company needs to have answers for staff and users alike about the company’s direction, especially in relation to misinformation and free speech.
Professor George Alexandridis from Henley Business School
Does Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter make sense? I can tell you that I think it most certainly does! On 11 March 2022, shortly after the company missed ad revenue and user growth estimate targets, Twitter traded at $33 a share. That’s less than in 2021, less than in 2018 and even relative to 2013 when the company went public.
Twitter’s board have simply failed to unlock and create value for shareholders since its IPO, a period during which tech has absolutely rocketed. Twitter has underperformed its peers and this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The platform hasn’t really changed much since its very beginning while Twitter’s userbase is only a fraction of Instagram’s.
So, even in a worst-case scenario, it is hard to imagine a significant downside here. All it will require is quite a radical overhaul and a longer-term investment in the business, which could only really be possible in private investors’ hands, such as Musk’s. And, taking it back from Wall Street can serve the purpose well.
Richard Exon, Founder at Joint
For better or worse private ownership gives any business - including social networks - the opportunity to develop a distinctive world view. At first glance this may seem at odds with Musk’s apparent determination to keep Twitter as a bastion of free speech and he’ll be extremely reluctant to stray into publisher territory.
But for years now Twitter has lacked any clear set of values that define the environment it wants users and advertisers to engage with. Fixing this will be no simple task, but under private ownership it becomes marginally easier.
Deirdre McGlashan chief media officer at Stagwell
So, he’s finally gone and done it. After months of speculation, Elon Musk has agreed to buy Twitter for $44bn. Given the billionaire’s track-record with the platform, its 217m users – including senator Elizabeth Warren who said the deal was “dangerous for our democracy” – have every right to be concerned.
After all, Musk’s tweets have seen him face legal action (two $20m fines from the SEC after misinforming investors over privatization plans) and public disgrace (after making loathsome claims about a diver who helped rescue a Thai football team stuck in a cave). Does the world really want somebody so errant to be a custodian of a media giant where misinformation and hate speech have both flourished in recent years?
Then again, perhaps Musk the Media Mogul is different. As he’s explained, his rationale for buying Twitter is to safeguard free speech and civil liberties. If the billionaire is successful with his pledge to authenticate all users, eliminate non-human bots within the system, plus share how its algorithm works (this needs to be explained in a way my grandmother would understand), then it might – just might – quell the negative forces that social media networks and regulators have been trying to supress.
But if Musk opposes moderation and human intervention, it could place Twitter on a fast-track to being a riotous playground hijacked by toxic-talking mobs where few brands will wish to operate.
David Balko, Chief Client Officer at Tribal Worldwide
Twitter presented itself as the champion for free speech when it launched – this rapidly changed when hatred spread across the channel and bled into other social media platforms. The banning of hate groups was a positive move.
Musk’s purchase might see a change of direction back to the original ethos. If so, it is likely to have a profound impact on how people use it and how brands advertise on all social platforms.
James Smith, Managing Director at The Kite Factory
The main debate today has been how far free speech will be censored. It won’t be to the degree it is now, but if it allows promotion of ‘fake’ news it could have damaging consequences.
For our clients, we take every precaution possible to ensure their advertising isn’t against content they wouldn’t want to be aligned or associated with, this will become increasingly difficult on the platform and may see advertisers seeking alternatives where we can assure brand safety. However, if Musk lessens the reliance on advertisers by pursuing a subscription model he’s already mitigating the risk.
Richard Robinson, Director at Econsultancy
Twitter is the digital town square (as Elon astutely observed), but today it’s a town square full of red tape, health & safety, opaque decision-making & people in the shadows making decisions that affect all of us. In parallel the platform, once famed for it’s innovation and agility, has become slow and cumbersome to the point of stalling in terms of numbers.
The likes of fresh new platforms like BeReal, with engagement triggers hardwired into the UX, are automatically more in step with what the sentiment of today’s social media needs.
Looking forward my big bet is on twitter inside the metaverse. Today the metaverse doesn’t have a digital town square, and the opportunity for twitter to step in and be the cohesive glue that sets the trends and holds the entire meta-community together feels like a huge, untapped reality just waiting to be realised.
Tom Jarvis, CEO of global social agency Wilderness
The world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Donald Trump was removed from Twitter, but it seems that Musk is aiming to emulate him as the “troll in-Chief”, only Musk wants to decide the direction of the platform all for himself. He has suggested, loosely, that his main goal is to allow more speech on the platform which in effect suggests less moderation on Twitter.
If managed properly Twitter sits as the most powerful mouthpiece to help elevate Musk’s own personal brand and other business interests. Let’s assume the acquisition goes through, Musk makes the platform private and removes much of the moderation on the platform. It could give Musk the sway with some of the most important political and celebrity figures from around the world who need the platform for their own PR needs.
One thing Musk has suggested he would do at a recent Ted conference is to make Twitter’s algorithm “open source”. However, a more open, less moderated platform would potentially be less attractive to centralist or left-wing and progressive voices, many of whom may look to other platforms to get their news and debate.
The platform has long standing issues with trolling, abuse, and a rampant number of bots, and with less focus on moderation and Musk’s want to be more “open”, these issues could easily get much worse.
Mimi Brown, Head of the Entrepreneurs and Business division at PR agency The PHA Group.
Most of the impact here is around free speech. A billionaire private individual controlling one of the world’s biggest news platforms doesn’t necessarily seem like a better option to safeguard free speech on Twitter nor does it appear to support the promotion of responsible ‘factual’ communication.
There have also recently been rumblings about Musk shutting down unions within Tesla, which isn’t a great advert for championing free speech as Musk has claimed he will.
Michael Baggs, Strategy Director at The Social Element
Elon Musk is not someone who comes in and invests because he trusts the current decision making and wants to support it - he wants to change Twitter. He's been very vocal about the fact, and he will. This means that the nature of how we use Twitter will also change (think brands having to pay for accounts – this will massively affect accessibility to the platform and skew the authenticity of messages being put out).
What Musk will do will most likely have major impacts on the other main platforms too, especially when many conservatives feel like big tech is oppressing conservative speech on the platform, turning the volume down on things some people believe should be louder voices - Musk has often echoed this.
There is also concern for the crypto community about regulation - Elon is a massive fan of crypto, and even Jack Dorsey’s payments company Block is heavily invested in a blockchain and cryptocurrency centric future. However, while Musk talks up free-speech and deregulation, which are cornerstones of the crypto community, he has also talked up wanting to authenticate every human user on Twitter, which many in those communities are concerned about.
Paul Thompson, UK Country Manager at Seedtag
If Elon Musk holds to the principles of "free speech", what this will mean in practice is that the world's town square will become a lot nosier, abusive and divisive. Twitter will be great for debate and airing public opinion, even better for people who deplore censorship in all forms, but I think it will become an increasingly difficult place for brands to navigate and to avoid unsafe content, misinformation and fake news.
Imagine how hard content moderation will become if there is essentially very little that falls foul of Twitter policies? Basically, in the new version of Twitter, under Elon Musk, it will be okay for Trump to call for the storming of the capital to "stop the steal"!
Also, Musk is a maverick figure who is rich enough that he doesn't have to consider the revenue from advertising. Ad money doesn’t pay Twitters bills so if they want to continue to monetise the platform, they will need to think of another business model eg creator fees, so they won’t have to charge for advertising.
As a platform I suspect this will damage Twitter's standing as a credible advertising platform. I am not saying "free speech" is a bad thing but when it is uncontrollable brands need to be careful.
Jonathan D’Souza-Rauto, Biddable Product Lead at Kepler EMEA
Twitter has always been seen as the conversational channel within the social media realm, with brands leveraging this capability to grow brand awareness both paid and organically. Looking at the initial views of where Elon Musk wants to take Twitter, some advertisers may be put off completely based on the fact that Twitter is arguably the least brand safe platform out of all the tier one social platforms.
Its advertising platform for paid ads has historically struggled to keep up with the competition based on its infrastructure. However, it has made huge strides over the past 12 months and the roadmap may completely disappear if a subscription-based approach appears, or this may actually be a catalyst for more innovation. Whatever happens, we can be sure that certain brands will ride the wave to grow brand equity whilst this remains a hot topic.
Rebecca Biestman, CMO of Reputation
Under Elon Musk’s leadership, there is a very real chance that Twitter becomes a paid subscription model. This would reduce the platform’s dependence on advertising revenue - in a bid to meet Musk’s ideals of a more unbiased and pure platform - making it more of the “town square” he has mentioned in his own posts on the channel.
If that happens, it will have major implications on marketers who use Twitter as a paid channel. Brands will need to retool their paid and organic social strategies, shifting digital advertising dollars to other platforms, while creating authentic, organic content for Twitter.