What does Elon Musk want to achieve with Twitter?

The billionaire has secured 9.2 per cent of the social media platform

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If you were tasked with predicting what the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, might do next, you’d have a difficult job on your hands.

Few public figures would post an image on Twitter comparing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Adolf Hitler, but Musk did. No one would have put money on him naming his son X Æ A-12, but that’s what happened. When he made unguarded public pronouncements about the status of his company, Tesla, which caused big shifts in stock prices, investors and regulators were flabbergasted.

The reasons for his capricious behaviour are often dismissed as mere eccentricities. However, the news this week that he spent close to $3 billion on a 9.2 per cent stake in social media platform Twitter, and that he has been appointed to its board of directors, has prompted a bucketload of analysis.

For all his peculiarities, Musk can at least claim to be a successful businessman, with an estimated net worth of $267bn. Twitter, by contrast, reported an operating loss of $493 million in the past financial year and has consistently struggled to prove the viability of its business model.

Why would he become the largest shareholder of a service he openly criticises, and yet also seems addicted to?

He could seek to exert influence over aspects of the service that he has loudly criticised in recent months.

One of those is the status of Twitter’s current chief executive, Parag Agrawal. While Musk has had jovial, even friendly public exchanges with Twitter’s founder and previous chief executive Jack Dorsey, he made his view of Agrawal clear. In December, he tweeted a meme equating Agrawal to Joseph Stalin, implying that Dorsey should beware of his successor’s intent. But by far the most pressing issue on Musk’s mind in relation to Twitter would appear to be that of free speech — or rather what Musk believes constitutes free speech, which aren’t necessarily the same thing.

He has repeatedly stated his belief that social media platforms such as Twitter have no place in regulating the content it hosts, and described himself last month as a “free speech absolutist”. He illustrated his credentials by dismissing the suggestion of blocking Russian news sources from his satellite broadband company Starlink, over the war in Ukraine. (“Unless at gunpoint,” he said.)

Then, on March 25 he tweeted a poll. “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy,” he said. “Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” He added below: “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.” Respondents to the poll wouldn’t have known why Musk was telling them their vote would matter, but now we know: he’d purchased his stake in the platform 11 days previously.

The results of the rather unscientific poll went the way Musk wanted: 70 per cent expressed the opinion that Twitter has been playing fast and loose with free speech. But as many observers noted, Musk’s commitment to free speech appears to stop when it doesn’t serve his own interests.

Last month, Tesla fired an employee for posting a YouTube video that was critical of the company, while Musk’s annoyance at the automated Twitter account that posts the publiclyavailable movements of his private plane is well documented.

His views on free speech on social media, say critics, ignore the right of companies to have rules and policies in place, while noting that the social networks set up in support of free speech also have a record of banning people whose tone and politics they find unacceptable.

The notion that Musk’s “free speech” poll might influence Twitter’s policy has been openly mocked by Agarwal. On Tuesday, Musk posted another poll, with the simple question “Do you want an edit button?”

This issue has received disproportionate attention from Twitter users for many years, with one side arguing for the right to be able to correct spelling mistakes or other errors, and the other pointing out that the ability to substantially edit a tweet after it has gained traction could lead to misinformation and abuse of the platform.

Again, unsurprisingly, the poll went Musk’s way, with 72 per cent voting “yes”. Agarwal reposted the poll on his own account, repeating Musk’s stern pronouncement from last month with ironic relish: “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.”

Predictions of how Musk’s purchase will play out veer between the nonchalant — ie it’s just a rich man playing games — to the fatalistic prediction that this will ultimately lead to the downfall of western democracy. One thing we do know, however, is that Musk likes attention, and it’s perfectly possible that he’s done this because he wants us to wonder why he’s done it. In that regard, he’s been spectacularly successful.

Updated: April 11, 2022, 11:30 AM