DANIEL VAUGHAN: Musk frees Twitter and challenges other social media companies

Elon Musk has closed his deal to buy Twitter. In a single tweet, Elon Musk announced it, saying, “the bird is freed.” In terms of the social media landscape, Musk’s purchase is the biggest shakeup since the arrival of TikTok and one of the first BigTech purchases aimed at free speech preservation. It’s too early to know if Musk will be successful in his plans for Twitter, but the shakeup is real.

Musk moves quickly to take over Twitter.

The new “Chief Twit,” as Musk calls himself now, entered Twitter HQ on Wednesday carrying a sink. According to Bloomberg, Musk had Tesla software engineers look over Twitter’s code and prevent unauthorized changes. 

Bloomberg further reported that Musk plans on taking over a CEO role for the company and reversing policies like “lifetime bans” from the platform. Presumably, that could mean we’ll see a return of people like Donald Trump or sites like the Babylon Bee. Trump, for his part, has said he won’t return to the platform, but that remains to be seen.

The Wall Street Journal reported that one of Musk’s first actions after closing the deal was firing top executives: “Mr. Musk fired Chief Executive Parag Agrawal and Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal after the deal closed, the people said. Mr. Musk also fired Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s top legal and policy executive, and Sean Edgett, general counsel.”

The firing of Vijaya Gadde is notable because she was the chief attorney architect of all the content moderation. She was also the leading figure within Twitter that pushed for Donald Trump’s lifetime ban. Musk isn’t just reversing policies; he’s firing the people responsible for driving the content moderation decisions.

Democrats angered, but powerless.

Early reports indicated Musk planned on firing up to 75% of the Twitter workforce. But Bloomberg countered that reporting by telling Twitter staff he had no plans to lay off 75% of Twitter’s team. With the deal only finalized and top executives getting the boot, future plans remain in the air.

Musk’s move to purchase Twitter greatly angered Democrats of all stripes. The Biden administration had the FTC look into antitrust claims against Musk’s Twitter deal. After that idea fell apart, they looked into using the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to see if national security concerns could block the deal. As the deal closed, the SEC and DOJ launched a new investigation into Tesla’s self-driving car claims.

As of now, nothing launched could block the deal from finalizing. With the deal done, the time for review has passed, money has exchanged hands, and Twitter is now a private company owned solely by Elon Musk. But we should probably expect Democrats to target Musk’s other companies for any reason.

Musk purchase is the great shake-up in social media.

Twitter changing ownership less than two weeks before the 2022 midterms will keep everyone on their toes. While it’s unlikely to change the course of the midterms, the 2024 Presidential election looms. Twitter’s censorship of stories like the Hunter Biden laptop story during the 2020 election was extreme. It showed the left’s attempt to control the narrative by any means necessary.

If that kind of content moderation gets halted, the room for October surprise stories will grow exponentially. In effect, Twitter could return us to a pre-2016 style site. In that setting, things were much looser, and people posted freely. Misinformation existed, but people debated and dealt with it.

Perhaps the most significant impact Musk’s purchase could have will be on other companies. When the most prominent social media companies like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and more take a stand on an issue, they tend to like moving together. For instance, when Trump got banned from Twitter, other companies did the same thing at the same time. That move was coordinated.

Is that kind of coordination possible anymore?

Other companies will have to answer Musk’s challenge.

Suppose Twitter puts Trump back on its platform, whether he uses it or not. That move would pressure other social media companies to follow suit. Musk could prove to be a sore thumb in an industry that prefers herd action. Twitter’s lack of content moderation will make dissimilar choices by other companies stand out even more.

Does that mean we’ll see other companies push toward a looser stance on moderation? Perhaps, but it could cause some companies to double down too. We’ll have to watch and see this play out. Regardless, Musk has a chance to provide a real choice in content moderation by making Twitter different than the other players in this space. When you’re talking about a free market, that’s all you can ask for in a company – someone providing genuine choice.

In the longer term, it would be nice if Twitter’s content moderation encourages a movement back towards a free speech environment with social media acting like a public square. That action alone will discourage governments from stepping in to regulate social media companies. We’ve existed with Twitter and Facebook playing this role in the past, and we can do so again.