Elon Musk Takeover: For Twitter Titans: Why Cut Chief Tweet?
During the one-month drama, Elon Musk Discovered a fundamental truth: free speech is not free. Now, even those of us other than the $44 billion are figuring out the high price we must pay. Awami Chowk has been turned into a public spectacle. Soon after moving into the headquarters of Twitter — the company he vowed to buy, then regretted buying and eventually bought for $44 billion — with the kitchen sink in hand, Musk took a much softer tone with advertisers. adopted Musk’s guarantee was that he wouldn’t let Twitter turn into a free-flowing hell.
And since then, it’s been a hellish scene.
Maniacs want to climb again. Musk himself has been plagued by calls from American right-wing politicians for Russian media owners to lift the ban on lunatics. Donald Trump, the king of the crazy, released a note saying he was “thrilled” to have Musk in the building. Racists, neo-Nazis and far-right conspiracy theorists with access to the platform are having a field day. Ahead of highly polarized midterm elections next week, misinformation is rife in the country and tensions are high.
To allay everyone’s worst fears, Musk announced that he would be appointing a “Content Moderation Council” on Twitter that would be tasked with sifting through trash and weeding out toxic content. Sadly, the council is not yet established. If this were his first act, Musk would have to kill himself. After a sinister nut invaded the home of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, intending to break the 82-year-old’s knees, tie her up with zip ties and kidnap her, conspiracy theories and lies exploded on Twitter. Musk helped spread the word to his 113 million followers by commenting, “There’s a lot more to this story.” Now we all know Musk likes to goof around on Twitter, but the attack had serious consequences. The would-be kidnapper didn’t discover her digs, which were on the other side of the country, but managed to hit her 82-year-old husband in the head with a hammer. Musk deleted his dirty content but the damage was done. His retweet was retweeted by his devotees. It couldn’t have been a worse time for a fox to buy a hen house.
Not that a fellow as smart as Musk ever needs to take a break, but he’s moving at a fast pace. He was already working on a bold new business model for the company. He plans to charge a fee to customers who receive blue checks marked with a “verified” status. The project even turned into a horror show with Musk feuding with master horror storyteller Stephen King over fees.
With all this chaos within days of Musk taking over, you’d think #QuitTwitter would be trending, and users and advertisers would be out. We are still waiting for the stampede. Former US President Barack Obama’s number of followers on Twitter is still there. You can forgive him now that he’s busy campaigning for Democrats before the election and megaphone issues. But what are the excuses of Katy Perry (No. 2 behind Obama and Elon Musk in Twitter followers) and Justin Bieber (No. 3)? Among India’s Twitter titans, Narendra Modi, Amitabh Bachchan and Virat Kohli all range from “celebrating the vibrant cultural traditions of the Northeast” to exploring “warm, floral and spicy notes” with Flamboyance White. Conveying necessary information comfortably. Celebrating “character and conviction.”
Certainly, some celebrities have given it up. In India, Karan Johar left Twitter before Musk entered the building, “to make room for more positive energies”. In America, the TV screenwriter, Shonda Rhimes, hinted more: “No hanging around for whatever Alvin has planned. Goodbye.”
As for advertisers, a major player bolted almost immediately. Specifically, it was General Motors – one of Musk’s other acquisitions, a competitor to his car company, Tesla. As Muskin plunges deeper into the chaos, advertising giant IPG has recommended that its clients “temporarily pause” advertising on Twitter — and it’s possible that some are following the advice. But as long as Twitter’s powerful users hang on, so will advertisers.
This makes me wonder: Should we just accept that a mega-rich narcissist can buy the world’s biggest free-speech megaphone and goof off without consequence? While Twitter shareholders got a good deal, it’s amazing that no one bothered to think about how the 240 million Twitter users felt about the takeover. In fact, my research team, Digital Planet, along with our analytics partner, Ripple Research, studied how Twitter users were reacting to the Musk takeover drama – from February to late October. We analyzed over 16 million tweets from the US, India, UK, South Africa and Nigeria and ranked them by sentiment. Negative sentiment easily beat positive sentiment, and negative sentiment outnumbered positive by nearly 5 times the day Musk walked in the door.
So, here’s an idea. Twitter’s early claim to fame was that it raised the voice of the voiceless. It brought large numbers of peaceful protesters to Cairo’s Tahrir Square and helped overthrow a brutal government. It fueled the Me-Too movement and brought down many predatory predators. It was an essential information warfare weapon in the fight against a nefarious attacker in Ukraine. It helped many people across India find an empty hospital bed or a vital oxygen tank during the dreaded second wave of the dreaded pandemic. Once again, Twitter must be sounding dumb. They say that three-quarters of all Twitter users make only three percent of all tweets. For the most part you don’t have much to lose if you just switch off for a while. For Twitter titans, why bother with Chief Tweet? Take leave until guarantees of good governance, decency and fairness are restored.
The collective silence will be the most viral tweet in the world. Advertisers will pay attention and Elon Musk will pay even more to exercise his right to a personal version of free speech.
The author is Dean of Global Business at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.