After spending months attempting to get out of his deal to buy Twitter, Elon Musk officially owns the hugely influential platform. Now the question is: What will he actually do with it?
Musk’s takeover — which was finalized Thursday night, a source familiar with the matter told CNN — not only has the potential to create upheaval for Twitter (TWTR) employees but also for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who use the platform daily. It could also impact the upcoming US midterm elections, if Musk makes good on his promise to restore the accounts of users who were previously banned from the platform, most notably former US President Donald Trump, and limit the company’s content restrictions.
In the first weeks after agreeing to buy the company in April, and before his initial move to bail on the deal, Musk repeatedly stressed that his goal was to bolster “free speech” on the platform and work to “unlock” Twitter’s “extraordinary potential.” The Tesla CEO suggested he would rethink Twitter’s approach to content moderation and permanent bans, with potential impacts on civil discourse and the political landscape. He also talked about his desire to rid the platform of bots, even as he later made the number of bots central to his argument to abandon the deal.
During Tesla (TSLA)’s earnings call last week, Musk acknowledged that although finalizing the $44 billion deal meant “overpaying” for the social media firm, “the long-term potential for Twitter, in my view, is an order of magnitude greater than its current value.” He added that he believes Twitter has “languished for a long time, but has an incredible potential.”
Musk’s plans for boosting Twitter’s value could involve cutting down its workforce, something he’s hinted at before. Previous reporting suggested that he’d planned to cut 75% of staff, although he is said to have told Twitter staff this week that’s not the case. Either way, anxieties are running high. Musk immediately fired CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal and policy head Vijaya Gadde.
In private and public statements over the past six months, Musk has tossed out a wide range of other possible changes for the platform, from enabling end-to-end encryption for Twitter’s direct messaging feature to suggesting this week that Twitter become part of an “everything” app called X, possibly in the style of popular Chinese app WeChat.
There have been more far-fetched suggestions, too. In one text exchange with his brother Kimbal Musk, revealed last week in court documents, the two appeared to discuss the possibility of asking users to pay for each tweet they post with small amounts of the cryptocurrency DogeCoin.
Now that Musk has completed the deal, some of those theoretical changes could soon become reality. Here’s what users should know:
A big shift for content moderation
For years under former CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey, Twitter emphasized its work to bolster “healthy conversations.” The company banned many accounts promoting abuse and spam, added labels for false or misleading information, and banned the misgendering of transgender people.
Under Musk’s ownership, Twitter could unwind steps taken to make the platform more palatable for its most vulnerable users, typically women, members of the LGBTQ community and people of color, according to safety experts.
Musk has said Twitter, under his leadership, would have more lenient content moderation policies. “If in doubt, let the speech exist,” Musk said in one on-stage interview in April. “If it’s a gray area, I would say, let the tweet exist. But obviously in the case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you would not necessarily want to promote that tweet.”
Musk on Thursday sought to reassure advertisers that he doesn’t plan to turn the platform into a “free-for-all hellscape” despite his promises to reduce content moderation. The remarks follow questions about whether advertisers might leave the platform for fear of their paid posts ending up alongside potentially objectionable content.
“In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all, where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences,” he said in an open letter posted to Twitter. Allowing all legal speech may not be so straight forward — content rules vary across the world and, in Europe, the new Digital Services Act imposes high moderation standards.
Musk has also said he wants to make Twitter’s algorithm open source and make it more transparent to users when, for example, a tweet has been emphasized or demoted in their feed. (Leaders at Twitter have previously expressed support for moving in that direction, and the company often makes clear when it is demoting certain tweets or types of content.)
Unbanning Trump and other accounts
But the most striking early change could come from who is and is not allowed on a Musk-owned Twitter.
Musk has said he thinks Twitter should be more “reluctant to delete things” and “very cautious with permanent bans.” That could mean a long list of controversial far right figures and conspiracy theorists, among others, soon find their way back on the platform.
Musk, for his part, has focused on bringing back one of Twitter’s most prominent former users: Trump.
“I do think it was not correct to ban Donald Trump, I think that was a mistake,” Musk said in May. “I would reverse the perma-ban. … But my opinion, and Jack Dorsey, I want to be clear, shares this opinion, is that we should not have perma-bans.”
Dorsey tweeted following Musk’s May remarks that he does “agree” there shouldn’t be permanent bans on Twitter users. “There are exceptions … but generally permanent bans are a failure of ours and don’t work,” he said.
Trump has said he does not want to rejoin Twitter and will instead remain on his own social media platform, Truth Social.
But if Trump were to accept a Musk offer to return to Twitter, it could restore a significant following he hasn’t had since being banned from the platform in January 2021, just as the 2024 US Presidential race ramps up. On Truth Social, Trump has only 4 million followers; on Twitter, he reached an audience of more than 88 million followers.
An owner with an erratic and controversial history on the platform
Another notable change is simply who may be making these sensitive decisions.
Musk has a mixed reputation in the tech industry. He is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and successful innovators and entrepreneurs of this era. But he has also courted controversy, often from his own Twitter profile, where he has more than 100 million followers.
Over the years, Musk has used Twitter to make misleading claims about the Covid-19 pandemic, to make a baseless accusation that a man who helped rescue children from a cave in Thailand was a sexual predator, to mock people who display their gender pronouns on the platform, and to make countless jokes involving the numbers 420 and 69. He has also tweeted a (since deleted) photo comparing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Adolf Hitler and has compared the now-ousted Agrawal to Joseph Stalin.
Musk also previously sought to remove a Twitter account dedicated to tracking the movements of his private jet by offering to pay off the college freshman running the account (the account owner declined).
The same day he sent his letter to Twitter attempting to revive the deal, Musk was widely panned for comments he made on the platform about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He suggested making Crimea, a region Russia invaded and annexed from Ukraine in 2014, “formally part of Russia.” Most followers responded “no” to his poll and Ukraine’s Ambassador to Germany Andrij Melnyk replied in a tweet: “F— off is my very diplomatic reply to you.” In a followup tweet, an apparently frustrated Musk seemed to blame the results of his poll on a “bot attack.”
Until now, Twitter has, at least to some extent, been accountable for its policy decisions to advertisers, shareholders and its board. But those guardrails won’t necessarily exist under Musk’s leadership.