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On April 4, Elon Musk filed a notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission revealing that he had acquired a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter. (“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, prompting rumors that he might be planning to acquire the company. On April 14, Musk sent a letter to Twitter and filed a statement with the SEC detailing his plans to do exactly that, with an offer to buy all the outstanding shares for $43 billion.
Twitter quickly responded by filing a shareholder’s rights plan, often called a “poison pill.” Under the terms of the plan, if Musk or anyone else acquires more than 15 percent of Twitter’s shares without the approval of the board, then other shareholders will be allowed to purchase more shares at a significant discount. Musk responded by taking to the platform itself in an attempt to win popular 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, telling the SEC that he has $46.5 billion in financing lined up for his bid and is considering a tender offer that would be open to all Twitter shareholders.
In classic Musk fashion, all these machinations have been accompanied by a series of joking tweets, in what appears to be an attempt to troll the board or all of Twitter. On the same day we learned that Musk owned 9 percent of the company, he 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 a caption that read, “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?”
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Underneath the jokes and trolling, Musk’s desire to buy Twitter seems to be driven by a concern that the company is somehow stifling speech. “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy,” he posted in March, before asking his followers whether they believe Twitter “rigorously adheres to this principle.” (More than two million people voted, and about 70 percent said no.) In an April 14 ted interview, 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 talked 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 Donald Trump and other right-wing commentators such as Alex Jones last year. (That may also explain why Musk’s potential takeover brought cheers from a number of conservatives.) Others brought up the “Hunter Biden’s laptop” story, which saw both Twitter and Facebook remove links to a New York Post report that a computer left at a Delaware repair shop in 2019 contained emails to the president’s son 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 not clear that this would be good for free 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 is also 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 Wilkens, 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. Wilkens added that “we just don’t know what Elon Musk might do as far as free speech is concerned.”
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.” Previously, Bloomberg reported that Musk went after a staffer at a Tesla plant after 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 wrote.) And, of course, Musk has blocked a number of people on Twitter, including journalists on Twitter who cover his companies. A former SEC official told a blocked Yahoo! Finance journalist in 2018, “If he blocks anyone who says anything negative about Tesla…I do think that raises particular questions about whether he has turned that open channel back into a selective channel.”
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