Well, that didn’t take long.
Just the other day and seemingly out of nowhere, the world’s richest man gobbled up stock in Twitter and became the social media company’s largest shareholder, collecting about a 9% stake.
Actually, that news broke only a couple of weeks ago. At the time, The Verge’s Andrew J. Hawkins wrote, “So strap in — it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Indeed it has been.
In what felt like the time it takes to type up 140 characters, Musk went from looking like he was going to join the Twitter board to hinting he had lost interest to wanting to buy the whole company. Through it all, social media observers rubbed their temples and raised their brows, dreading the thought of Musk taking over. Meanwhile, far-right types cheered on Musk to buy the company and dismantle it and build it back to a place where they could spread their politics, even those that dipped into conspiracy theories and propaganda, under the banner of “free speech.”
Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but this much is true: In seemingly a flash, Elon Musk has bought Twitter for roughly $44 billion.
So what happens now?
Well, for starters, nothing is likely to happen immediately. While an agreement is in place, this is still a complicated deal that, to repeat, is worth $44 billion — with a B. That doesn’t get wrapped up on the back of a napkin in an afternoon. It will take weeks, maybe longer, before all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed.
But during that time, there certainly will be plenty of conjecture. And concern.
The New York Times’ Melina Delkic wrote there are “Four ways Twitter could change under Elon Musk.”
The biggest question many have is what Musk means when he advocates for “free speech.” While it’s an admirable sentiment, what does that look like on social media? Does that mean anything goes?
Can people spread misinformation and disinformation? Can they lie? Can they make threats?
Musk believes content moderators go too far in limiting what is allowed. He has said, “Well, I think we would want to err on the, if in doubt, let the speech, let it exist. But if it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist. But obviously in a case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you’re not necessarily going to promote that tweet. I’m not saying I have all the answers here.”
That’s the scary part: He needs to have all the answers now that he is taking over Twitter.
On Monday, Musk tweeted, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”
Again, sounds admirable on the surface, but we’ve seen what happens when Twitter users have unfettered access to say whatever they want: widespread belief in misinformation that threatens our democracy and public health.
Next up: What about Donald Trump? The former president was kicked off Twitter because of his role and comments regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection. While Musk has not publicly commented on whether he would allow Trump back on to Twitter, Musk’s “free speech” beliefs might lead him to allow Trump back on.
Trump, however, is trying to get his own social media platform, Truth Social, off the ground. On Monday, Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo asked Trump Media and Technology Group CEO Devin Nunes what would happen if Trump was allowed to rejoin Twitter.
Nunes said, “Well, I can only report what he said and he said he really doesn’t have an interest in going on Twitter. And my guess is that it will continue to be the same.” Nunes added, “Twitter right now is nothing but a PR wire. It’s got a global footprint, but there’s just nobody there. I mean, how do you explain how we have more engagement in Truth Social than they have on Twitter.”
OK, it’s simply ridiculous to suggest Truth Social is a bigger deal than Twitter, and it’s hard to imagine Trump will stay off Twitter if he’s allowed back on. Then again, Trump himself told Fox News on Monday, “I am not going on Twitter, I am going to stay on Truth. I hope Elon buys Twitter because he’ll make improvements to it and he is a good man, but I am going to be staying on Truth.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Rachel Lerman wrote, “Musk has said he wants to make Twitter’s algorithm more transparent, including letting people see if their tweets were promoted or demoted. He said he wants to make the algorithm that recommends whether a tweet gets promoted or demoted ‘open source,’ or available for the public to view and improve upon. He said he believes that will help prevent ‘behind the scenes manipulation.’”
Musk also wants to rid the social media site of bots, tweeting just last week, “If our twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!”
So is there anything that might be good about Musk taking over?
Well, one potential change that could be extremely popular among users is an edit button. It would allow users to go back into tweets and fix typos and grammatical errors — something that you cannot do now and something that most users would like. Although, that too could present a whole other set of problems, such as the message of tweets being changed after they’ve already been posted.
But now we all wait to see what’s next.
In a release on Monday, Musk wrote, “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
But, as Axios’ Dan Primack wrote, “This is an earthquake in global media and politics, where Twitter hosts the discourse.” Primack added, “It’s sure to be criticized by those who disagree with Musk’s laissez-faire views on content moderation and cheered by those who believe Twitter has been too heavy-handed with its block button.”
Looks like the ride is only going to get bumpier.
This story, which is still developing, has been updated with quotes from Donald Trump.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.