Home / Opinion / Columns /  Elon Musk may have overplayed his hand on Twitter

In an essay over a decade ago, Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist, provocatively argued that the technology industry had let people down. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters," he said in a takedown of the world’s obsession with Twitter. In the past couple of decades, Elon Musk has become an emblem of a visionary tech titan, a living four-letter rebuttal to the Thiel critique. Musk has built an array of innovative businesses. First he helped create PayPal, which he sold to eBay in 2002, making $100 million. Then, with Tesla, in which he started as a first-round investor in 2004, he made going green sexy by combining seductive automobile styling with long-lasting batteries to revolutionize electric cars. He built the rocket company Space X, which was valued at $100 billion last year. At both Tesla and Space X, he has given manufacturing a futuristic edge. The Tesla factory in Fremont, California, sits on the site of a former General Motors-Toyota plant but is leagues ahead.

Musk is thus more an industrialist in the mould of Henry Ford with shades of Steve Jobs than a typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur. But Musk’s successful bid for Twitter now casts him as a kind of Henry Luce as well. Almost 100 years ago, Luce founded Time magazine and then Fortune a few years later and built a media empire that acquainted people with the minds of political leaders and chief executives, just as Twitter does even better today. The question now is whether Musk’s effort to combine running his car and rocket companies with operating a financially-faltering platform under heavy scrutiny (given its 200-million-plus global user base) represents a kind of imperial overreach. This challenge might overwhelm even the world’s richest man. The stock market reaction was swift: Tesla’s shares fell by 12% on Tuesday, though that was likely driven by the fact that Musk may have to sell billions of dollars of Tesla shares to fund his $44 billion purchase.

Unusually for someone in the midst of a takeover battle, Musk went on the very public stage of a TED event in Vancouver two weeks ago and outlined his plans for Twitter. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the spotlight brought on by his Twitter bid, this was not the thoughtful Musk who had appeared at a TED talk five years earlier. Instead, he sounded like a jargon-spouting McKinsey consultant fused with the humanism of Mother Teresa. Statements such as “Civilizational risk is decreased… the more we can increase the trust of Twitter as a public platform" and the equally grandiose “Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated" flowed like a flood of treacle from the stage. To be fair, as his biographer Ashlee Vance observed, Musk often sounds as if he’s been coining mission statements since he was 14 because he has spoken in such grand tones all along. Still, there was little evidence of Musk’s irreverent wit and sparky intelligence that earned him 80 million plus followers on Twitter.

Musk did say that he would make Twitter’s algorithms ‘open source’ so that decisions of what to highlight and what to take down are more transparent, and promised to expunge spam bots. He said he would introduce an edit button, which Twitter has been working on. There was no sense of how he would turn around Twitter, which has lost about $850 million in nine years as a public company. In a rare degree of unanimity not seen on the platform, almost everyone agrees Twitter should be making much more money through avenues such as a subscription model, but also through more focused advertising. It lags behind Facebook, Instagram and YouTube in monetizing the eyeballs it attracts, but Musk has had almost nothing to say about this challenge.

John Thornhill, innovation editor at The Financial Times, pointed to a central paradox since Musk made his bid for Twitter: “The worrisome impression is that Musk appears largely uninterested in the area in which he could most help Twitter (rethinking its business model) and primarily interested in an area where he might do harm (scrapping content moderation)."

The risk is not just that a billionaire who calls himself a “free speech absolutist" could control such an important media platform in a world poisoned by hate speech and polarization. After former Facebook employee Frances Haugen’s allegations last year that Facebook’s own research has shown how the platform heightens hate, misinformation and political upheavals, it is hard to see how Musk could outdo Mark Zuckerberg’s stone-walling on the responsibility that social media platforms must take (but routinely shirk) in our ever more dysfunctional and dystopian world. Arguably, Twitter is more of a rich-world problem. In India, it has far fewer users than WhatsApp. But what gets tweeted still has vast potential reach, as it is available to everyone with internet access.

It is much harder to stop disinformation from spreading on WhatsApp, given that it hosts closed-door chats with encrypted messages. There is also the problem that ‘free-speech absolutist’ Musk has been dubbed President Xi Jinping’s “favourite capitalist" and has large investments in China. This has already come under the microscope, with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wondering aloud and publicly whether Beijing might have “gained leverage" over Twitter.

By seizing control of Twitter without a clearly delineated strategy, Elon Musk stands to be distracted from selling excellent cars and launching innovative rockets. This could tarnish his reputation as one of the greatest business visionaries of the 21st century.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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