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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Musk has a fresh chance to make up for self-goals
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Musk has a fresh chance to make up for self-goals

Flawed as it was, Musk’s poll among Twitter users that asked him to step down as CEO also spelt a chance he should grab to reset this platform. It may even serve his own agenda better

Should Musk step aside, he does have lieutenants who could take charge?Premium
Should Musk step aside, he does have lieutenants who could take charge?

It was dramatic, even for a businessman as given to spectacle as Elon Musk. He held a poll among Twitter users on whether he should resign as the platform’s chief. As a referendum, it was also deeply flawed. The electorate was composed of those he asked directly if he should step down “as head" of the online ‘public square’ he bought almost eight weeks ago for $44 billion. “I will abide by the results of this poll," Musk promised his 122.3 million followers. Despite a glaring bias of self-selection inherent in this format, his result tweet on Monday displayed a ‘yes’ from 57.5% of the 17.5 million plus users who voted. Last month, a similarly biased poll held by Musk on whether former US President Donald Trump’s account should be restored got 52% ayes. This was duly dismissed by critics as a pale attempt to pardon its none-too-subtle role in the mob attack of 6 January 2021 on Washington’s Capitol Hill, a symbolic beacon of democracy, in the guise of defending free speech. Both these dubious bows to public opinion may seem whimsical, like Musk’s ‘chief twit’ tomfoolery, but also speak of an agenda that extends well beyond making money—into the risky zone of wielding influence. If so, it offers Twitter’s owner a splendid chance to drop that plot, hit the reset button, and let it evolve by a laid-down set of rules, not someone’s whim.

Musk runs two other private businesses that depend on state funds in some form or another. His EV company Tesla has been a big beneficiary of clean-energy subsidies in the US, while SpaceX has got juicy contracts from America’s national space agency and air force. Not only is Musk’s success less of a market outcome than his advocacy of laissez faire may suggest, whiffs of global geopolitics have been sniffed in Twitter stakes reportedly held—perhaps to arched eyebrows in Riyadh—by Saudi Arabia’s Alwaleed bin Talal and Qatar’s sovereign fund. In this maze of interests, the word ‘agency’ in place of ‘platform’ proposes itself for Twitter. Although Musk’s weekend poll was apparently prompted by another bout of platform policy confusion, this time over links to rival platforms being tweeted, it followed his Doha visit for Sunday’s football World Cup final so closely that West Asian investor feedback could plausibly also claim some credit. There have been reports that he is scouting for fresh investment in what’s turning out to be a cash burner, with many valuable advertisers and content generators having fled. This requires platform stability as a basic condition, even if only to regain its broad potential as an opinion swinger of sorts, which itself calls for appeal across both sides of the political aisle, a game that would take a fresh start to play, now that Twitter has taken such an openly rightist tilt. Given the value of real engagement, real neutrality would be better for business too.

Should Musk step aside, he does have lieutenants who could take charge: Steve Davis, for example, or David Sacks, both of whom go back with him a long way. But then, if a handover of reins doesn’t deliver normalcy, then the exercise would be a waste. Rather than an asset, Musk’s controversial buyout has been looking like a liability for his wider empire. Even as his debt burden made him liquidate some Tesla stock, which couldn’t escape this year’s tech slump, his rightist politics has been losing admirers and his SpaceX ride, its thrust. Has Musk got in his own way? He would need to step aside fully before he gets a statistically reliable answer to that one.

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Updated: 20 Dec 2022, 11:01 PM IST
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