I try to avoid reading anything about Elon Musk, even though my news sources constantly bombard me with headlines about something he has said or done. I find people who constantly promote themselves, and Musk is a particularly extreme example of this, to be really annoying. For some reason, the media seem to think that his pronouncements on anything, even world affairs, are to be taken seriously enough as to be relayed to us. Such is the power of money to bestow credibility to people on topics on which they have no expertise whatsoever.
But I was vaguely interested in the saga of his on-again, off-again effort to buy Twitter and the deal was finally completed on Friday. Musk uses Twitter as his main vehicle for drawing attention to himself and may have thought that owning Twitter would enable him to get even more exposure by being his own personal platform. He has plans to take the company private by buying up all its shares.
The right-wing MAGA world, angered by Twitter’s removal of Donald Trump and other extremists from its platform, has cheered Musk’s purchase, seeing him as one of their own. But Jon Schwarz thinks that Musk may well rue the day that he made this move, because Twitter revenue almost entirely comes from advertising and that in turn depends on a large user base. But keeping both users and advertisers happy is no easy task which is why social media sites are constantly embroiled in content moderation battles. Advertisers like their products to be adjacent to warm, fuzzy topics while users tend to get the most followers by being controversial. That is the essential tension that arises because it is not clear if Twitter and Facebook and other social media sites are merely neutral platforms that allow information to travel (like the telephone wires) and thus are not responsible for the content and can allow anyone to say anything without repercussions, or are publishers and hence obliged to monitor the content since they can be held responsible.
Schwarz says that unless Musk is willing to take a financial bath by losing a lot of money on a steady basis, he has no choice but to get personally involved in those endless and tedious battles.
ELON MUSK (and his consortium of much smaller investors) now owns Twitter. We need to take seriously the possibility that this will end up being one of the funniest things that’s ever happened.
That’s because as of this moment, it looks like Musk dug a big hole in the forest, carefully filled it with punji sticks and crocodiles, and then jumped in.
It’s because Twitter needs to keep advertisers happy — and their top priority is a certain kind of environment for their ads.
This can take specific forms. Delta probably has it written into its contract that its ads won’t run near any tweets about plane crashes. But more generally, advertisers don’t want anything controversial that gets people out of the buying mood, or worse, mad at the brands themselves. Proctor & Gamble can’t allow its ads for Charmin, targeted at the Upscale Panera Mom micro-demographic, to appear below frothing diatribes about annihilating all Muslims.
Twitter is also, speaking just in financial terms, a crummy business. It’s only been profitable for two years of its existence, 2018 and 2019. In 2020 it lost over $1 billion, rebounding to lose a mere $222 million in 2021.
And that’s where the hilarity begins. Musk has engaged in endless paeans to the glory of free speech and the need to end Twitter’s invidious censorship. This clearly isn’t a subject he’s thought deeply about, since he said back in May that Twitter should delete “tweets that are wrong and bad.” Still, his vague pronouncements have given him a legion of right-wing acolytes who feel they’ve been ill-treated by Twitter.
But they are not Musk’s constituency now. Advertisers are. Even if Musk had some genuine commitment to free speech (which he absolutely does not), it would be essentially impossible for him not to continue significant content moderation.
And while Musk has announced a new “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints,” he will feel constantly compelled to either explain why he’s standing by his underlings’ moderation decisions, or reverse them. Then he will inevitably be drawn into personally making more and more content calls, perhaps giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to individual tweets.
It will be hell on earth for him. No matter what decisions he makes, he will infuriate large swaths of Twitter. The left will see its suspicions about him confirmed. The right will see him as a horrendous sellout, just another lying Big Tech swine. Joe Rogan will shake his head sadly about what happened to Elon. Eventually what used to give Musk the greatest pleasure, opening up Twitter on his phone, will be a source of excruciating pain.
So why did he buy Twitter? It does not look like a good business deal since it is not profitable. He already was able to use it to promote himself. Is his goal really to let in all those who had been banned for violating Twitter’s content policies? If so, Musk may well end up being a source of attention on Twitter not for the content he generates by his views on random topics but because of his increasing entanglement with other people’s content.
If things do turn out a Schwarz describes, Musk’s travails couldn’t happen to a more deserving person.