opinion |  Elon Musk decides to set $44 billion investment in Twitter on fire

opinion | Elon Musk decides to set $44 billion investment in Twitter on fire

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As Twitter advertisers run for the exits, the world’s richest man has apparently decided to set his $44 billion investment on fire.

Some might say Elon Musk, who last week became Twitter’s official new owner, has buyer’s remorse. But that implies he had actually wanted the thing before he bought it. Back in April, the mercurial billionaire made an overpriced takeover bid, which he then tried to back out of.

Perhaps understandably: Twitter has been plagued by problems for years, of both the monetary and moral kinds. When Musk made his offer, tech stocks were already tanking, and it was clear he had neither a plan for fixing the company nor the inclination to fritter away a big chunk of his fortune figuring it out. After some legal back-and-forth, he reluctantly agreed to complete the $44 billion acquisition.

Now Musk, who’s also chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX (which don’t exactly seem as though they should be part-time jobs), is trying to figure out what to do with his new toy.

He has already begun pursuing a few controversial changes. They include charging users for their “blue check” verification badges, as well as developing a new paid-video feature, which will probably be used for “adult” material. But his most perplexing moves involve simultaneous plans to A) police content less, while B) increasing advertising revenue.

These objectives are somewhat at odds.

Musk has long complained about censorship at Twitter, including the suspension of high-profile accounts (such as that of former president Donald Trump) and other users accused of hate speech or baseless conspiracy theories (the latter being something Musk himself occasionally traffics in). For this reason, his takeover has been cheered by free-speech absolutists as well as racists, Holocaust deniers and other tinfoil-hat-wearers who claim they’ve been “shadow-banned” or otherwise muzzled for too long.

Look, I’m not going to pretend that finding the right degree of content moderation is an easy task. Humans cannot agree on what counts as “misinformation,” so it’s pretty hard to teach an algorithm to identify it. One man’s fake news is another man’s free speech. Allowing more hostile, off-color or otherwise dubious tweets will drive some users away, but banning them will infuriate other users (and some lawmakers), too.

Musk has made clear he’ll allow a lot more content that once would have been purged and punished by Twitter staff — which is perhaps an easier strategy to implement if you’re considering laying off half your workforce.

Even before any concrete new content policy appears to have been implemented, legions of trolls and bigots have already begun testing the guardrails. In the 12 hours following Musk’s finalized purchase, use of the n-word on Twitter jumped nearly 500 percent, according to the Princeton-based Network Contagion Research Institute.

Advertisers, Twitter’s primary revenue source, are nervous about these developments, and what the platform might look like in the Musk era. Adidas may not want its logo appearing alongside, say, antisemitic tweets. (If you don’t believe me, ask Kanye West, now known as Ye.) Family-friendly brands are probably not excited about appearing next to porn, either.

IPG and Havas Media, both multinational advertising companies, have advised clients to pause spending on Twitter for the time being, and a consulting firm owned by IPG reports that most clients surveyed plan to take the recommendation.

Some consumer brands have already done so, including General Motors (a Tesla competitor). The Financial Times, citing inside sources, reported Wednesday that L’Oréal had also suspended its advertising spending on the platform; the company subsequently released a statement saying it had not made “any decision” about Twitter ads.

But one can understand why the global cosmetics and hair-care giant might feel conflicted about the issue: Skinheads probably don’t buy much shampoo, but they might be in the market for new sunscreen.

Musk’s initial response to advertisers’ concerns was to assure brands that Twitter won’t devolve into a “free-for-all hellscape” (too late, methinks). When that strategy didn’t work, he tried to cyberbully them into sticking around. In a Twitter poll posted Wednesday, he asked his followers whether advertisers should support “freedom of speech” or “political ‘correctness.’ ”

It is hard to imagine that this strategy will be successful. Either Target and Pepsi and the like think it’s a good use of their ad dollars to share a platform with neo-Nazis and incels, or it isn’t. The whole thing reminds me a bit of progressives’ recent attempts to scold and punish companies into lowering their prices, rather than change the incentives those firms face.

Musk and the Democratic Party may not have much in common these days. But perhaps they can bond over this one shared experience: They’re both learning how hard it is to shame companies into doing something that isn’t in their financial interest to do.

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