Elon Musk puts his money where his mouth is

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer. On Monday April 25, Twitter accepted Musk’s $44 billion takeover offer

On April 4, Elon Musk filed a notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission stating that he had acquired enough shares in Twitter to give him a 9.2 percent stake in the company (“Oh hi lol,” he tweeted.) What followed was a somewhat bewildering series of announcements. Musk’s initial filing implied that he likely wouldn’t be an activist investor or push to join the company’s board, but that filing was later amended, at which point Twitter said he was joining the board (Musk also filed his documents late, which some said enabled him to acquire shares more cheaply). Then, just as suddenly, Twitter said Musk wouldn’t be joining the board after all. This led to rumors that he might be planning to acquire the company, and on April 14, Musk sent a letter to Twitter and filed a statement with the SEC detailing his plans to do exactly that.

The hostile nature of Musk’s bid soon became obvious, when Twitter filed a shareholders’ rights plan, often called a “poison pill.” Under the terms of the plan, if anyone acquires more than 15 percent of Twitter’s shares without the approval of the board, other shareholders will be allowed to purchase more shares at a discount. Musk responded by taking to the platform itself in an attempt to win support for his bid, asking users whether shareholders should decide on his takeover offer rather than the board (close to three million people voted, with almost 84 percent agreeing that shareholders should be able to choose.) Yesterday, Musk put even more money where his mouth is, by telling the SEC he has $46.5 billion in financing lined up for his bid, and that he is considering a tender offer that would be open to all Twitter shareholders.

In classic Musk fashion, all of these machinations have been accompanied by a series of joking tweets, in what appears to be an attempt to troll either the board or all of Twitter, or both. On the same day he filed a statement that he owned nine percent of the company, Musk polled his followers to see if anyone wanted Twitter to add an edit button; almost 4.5 million people answered, with about 74 percent of them saying they did (Twitter said it was already working on an edit function). On April 7, when it still appeared that he might join Twitter’s board, Musk posted a photo of himself smoking marijuana during an interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast, with the caption: “Twitter’s next board meeting is going to be lit.” On April 9, he posted a list of celebrity users he said hadn’t posted any tweets in months, and asked: “Is Twitter dying?”

Underneath the jokes and trolling, Musk’s desire to buy Twitter seems to be driven by genuine concern that the company is somehow stifling speech. In March, he said “free speech is essential to a functioning democracy,” and asked his followers whether they believe Twitter “rigorously adheres to this principle” (more than two million people voted, and about 70 percent said no.) In a TED interview April 14, Musk said that Twitter has become “kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely.” Musk said his interest in Twitter is driven by a sense that “having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important.” In his letter to the board announcing his bid, Musk said Twitter can’t achieve this “societal imperative” in its current form and “needs to be transformed as a private company.”

What Musk hasn’t said a lot about is why he thinks Twitter as a platform is stifling free speech. Some have speculated that his concern stems from the service’s banning of president Donald Trump and other right-wing commentators such as Alex Jones last year, which could explain why Musk’s potential takeover brought cheers from a number of conservatives. Others brought up the Hunter Biden story, which saw both Twitter and Facebook remove links to a New York Post report that Biden’s laptop contained emails related to an extortion attempt involving Ukrainian politicians (Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s former CEO, later apologized for the way that incident was handled). But so far, Musk hasn’t mentioned—at least in public—any specific incidents that might have triggered his concern for free speech on the platform.

Some free speech advocates argue that even if Musk does take the company private, it’s unclear whether this would be good or bad for speech. Nadine Strossen, former head of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she is in favor of a free speech advocate taking over Twitter, but added that she was skeptical of Musk’s ability to resist demands to censor content. “Human nature throughout history and around the world suggests that it’s extremely unlikely, if not impossible,” she told the CBC. Scott Wilkins, from Columbia’s Knight First Amendment Institute, said he was not in favor of a huge social platform like Twitter being owned or controlled by a single individual, even if that person says they are committed to freedom of speech.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, noted that Musk himself has a “mixed record” when it comes to speech. “At Tesla Inc. and SpaceX, Musk has a long track record of silencing or punishing anyone who goes public with criticism of a project or practice,” Dana Hull, Sarah Frier, and Maxwell Adler wrote. “Workers must sign nondisclosure agreements and arbitration clauses that prevent them from taking their employer to court.” Musk also went after one of the employees at a Tesla plant in Nevada when the staffer raised concerns about the workplace. “Musk viewed him as a dangerous foe who engaged in sabotage and shared data with the press and ‘unknown third parties,'” Bloomberg said. Musk has also blocked journalists on Twitter who cover his companies. Does that sound like someone who has described himself as a “free speech absolutist?”

Here’s more on Musk and Twitter:

Algorithms: In addition to freedom of speech in general, Musk has suggested he is worried about the amount of control Twitter’s recommendation algorithms have over what people see. In March, he asked whether the algorithm should be open source, and 82 percent of the more than a million users who responded said it should be. Jack Dorsey, former CEO of Twitter, agreed, saying “the choice of which algorithm to use (or not) should be open to everyone.” Researchers, however, say this would be almost impossible to achieve.

Disappointed: Renee DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory, writes in the Atlantic that while Musk may call Twitter a “public square,” it has never been anything close to that, nor is he likely to make it so. “Musk is correct that social-media companies have incredible power and no accountability,” she writes. “Opaque moderation decisions and reactive ad hoc policies have undermined the public trust. But if you think that, by taking the ‘public square’ private and consolidating control even further, Musk will somehow uphold free expression and protect democracy, you will be disappointed.”

Fizzle: In the Wall Street Journal, Holman Jenkins wrote that Musk’s bid to reshape Twitter is likely to “fizzle out.” Although he jokes on Twitter a lot, Jenkins said, “Musk is not the naif he finds it useful to play. He knows, for business reasons as well as political reasons, that Twitter has crossed the river of no return in moderating the content that appears on its service—it can’t allow untrammeled free expression. Advertisers can’t stomach it [and] the public, acting through politicians and mau-mau groups, won’t accept it.”

Excluded: Musk seems to be focused on “the idea that free speech means not taking down anything,” Emma Llansó, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Free Expression Project, told Bloomberg. But the side effects of this approach could actually result in more speech being stifled, Llansó argued. If people stop speaking out of fear of bullying or harassment, “that can actually really end up excluding large groups of people and communities from participation in online discourse,” he said.

Other notable stories:

Warner Brothers Discovery confirmed Thursday that it is shutting down CNN+, the streaming service it launched just three weeks ago with much fanfare. The New York Times called the move a “stunning and ignominious end to an operation into which CNN had sunk tens of millions of dollars, from an aggressive nationwide marketing campaign to hiring hundreds of new employees to recruiting big, high-priced media stars.” In a memo to staff, Chris Licht, the incoming president of CNN, said: “While today’s decision is incredibly difficult, it is the right one for the long-term success of CNN.” Jon Allsop wrote for CJR about CNN+ and its chances for success last month.

Sherly Sanberg, the chief operating officer of Meta, the parent company of Facebook, is facing internal scrutiny over two occasions in which she pressured a UK tabloid newspaper to shelve a potential article about her then-boyfriend, Bobby Kotick, the CEO of Activision Blizzard, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. “In 2016 and 2019, Ms. Sandberg contacted the digital edition of the Daily Mail, which was reporting on a story that would have revealed the existence of a temporary restraining order against Mr. Kotick that had been obtained by a former girlfriend in 2014.”

Maria Repnikova, a professor in communication at Georgia State University, argues in the Atlantic that the restrictions Russia has placed on the media in the past year are unlikely to be removed even if the war in Ukraine ends. The crackdown “is significant not only because of its practical implications—most Russians cannot now access independent news and analysis of a war being waged in their name—but for a deeper reason,” she writes. “It symbolizes Russia’s further estrangement from the West on a more subtle, ideological level: Putin’s regime has now dropped even the appearance of democracy and, by extension, its treatment of the West as a marker of political legitimacy.”

“The Killing of a Journalist,” a documentary produced by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and Final Cut for Real, will have its premiere at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto in May, the organization announced Thursday. The film is about the murders of Ján Kuciak, who worked with the OCCRP, and Martina Kušnírová, his fiancee, in Slovakia in 2018. “The film shows how the killings spurred mass protests and investigations that eventually brought down judges, police, and even a government,” the OCCRP said in a news release.

James Fallows, the author and journalist, writes about several things he thinks Joseph Kahn, the new executive editor of the New York Times, should do, including reinstating the position of public editor, which the paper shut down in 2017, and re-examining its coverage in 2016. “The lack of a public editor is a real problem,” Fallows argues. “From the outside, it makes the Times seem even more aloof and unaccountable than it inescapably will, given its power and the range of people with an axe to grind about it.”

Mark Hertsgaard, executive director of Covering Climate Now, and Kyle Pope, publisher of CJR, write about how the media has covered the concept of “Earth Day” since it was invented in 1970. “By all scientific accounts, the environmental crisis that activists highlighted more than half a century ago is much more dire today, and the need for far-reaching action more urgent,” they write. “And yet those network news anchors from 1970, dismissed as anachronisms in our digital era, were in many ways ahead of where journalists are now.”

Luke Winkie writes at the Nieman Journalism Lab about the cuts at BuzzFeed in the wake of the company going public, and the lessons other media companies should learn. “If the last 20 years of layoffs, pivots, and foreclosures have taught us anything, it’s that running a sustainable, conscientious news organization without the presence of heavyweight shareholders is already exceedingly difficult,” he writes. “Boardrooms need to start asking themselves some difficult questions. Do the desires of the Wall Street class align with the priorities of good news reporting? Do they even know what good news reporting is?”

Press Gazette reports that many local news sites in the UK get most of their traffic from outside their local regions. “An analysis of traffic data to 50 leading local news sites reveals that many (of these leading sites at least) derive a significant amount of their traffic from outside their local region,” the site reported. “Of the 50 sites we looked at, only eight drew at least half of their UK audience from the region in which they are based. Twenty brands received less than a third of their UK digital audience from their area.”

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