Like media moguls before him, the world’s wealthiest person now owns a personal mouthpiece with Twitter. It may prove more potent at influencing public opinion than traditional news outlets.
As long as there has been mass media, wealthy people have tried to use it to shape public opinion to their own interests. In the era of pamphleteering, Thomas Jefferson secretly funded scores of writers who excoriated the likes of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. In the age of newspapers, William Randolph Hearst boasted that he was responsible for the Spanish-American War. In the cable news era, Rupert Murdoch used Fox to reshape conservative politics around the globe. And with his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter, Elon Musk might soon join these ranks.
Musk has been a Twitter power user for over a decade, using the platform to tout Tesla electric vehicles and SpaceX rockets and slam critics or even a president, building a massive echo chamber of a fanbase along the way. Now that he owns it, the world’s wealthiest person has a tool that may prove more powerful at influencing public opinion than other billionaire media barons get from traditional news outlets.
Shaping public views “is his core competence. It’s his magic,” says long-time analyst (and Tesla owner) Michael Dunne, whose ZoZo Go consultancy works with auto- and parts-makers. “He may be thinking, ‘I’ve always been good at this. Now if own my own platform where can I take things?’”
Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is, in some ways, the logical extension of the billionaire’s desire to take control of his image and combat his critics. But analysts and experts warn that control of a powerful communications medium in one person’s hands could have significant and unintended repercussions.
In the early days of Tesla and SpaceX, Musk eagerly courted media attention and was rewarded with numerous magazine and newspaper profiles, television interviews and books that helped build his persona as a larger-than-life cleantech and aerospace entrepreneur. However, he’s grown frustrated with news coverage in recent years, particularly of Tesla, that he’s called out as biased or inaccurate. “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact,” has become “The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them.”
But as time went on, Musk realized that Twitter could be a free way to advertise Teslas just by talking about them, raise millions of dollars for his Boring Co. with sales of hats and flamethrowers, or promoting SpaceX with mesmerizing videos of double rocket landings. He’s also routinely used the site to lash out at news stories about Tesla he dislikes, block reporters from major media outlets and try his hand at freelance foreign policy. All of this has grown his fanbase over the years—he now has over 113 million followers. He’s long tapped Twitter to promote colonizing Mars (with SpaceX rockets) and owning the platform may give his vision of making humanity an interplanetary species a further boost.
Twitter can be “a significant threat to democratic values if you have a private actor that has the power to decide which ideas get heard and which people get to speak and which ideas get traction.”
Already, Elon Musk’s Twitter feed has become Tesla’s de facto public relations department–he apparently liquidated the company’s communications team in early 2020–and spokespersons for SpaceX routinely refer journalists to Musk’s tweets rather than making statements directly. Owning Twitter will certainly amplify the billionaire’s self-promotional instincts. But the concern among free press and free speech advocates is less about whether Musk will turn Twitter into the communications arm of his electric car, battery, rocket, tunneling and brain implant businesses and more about whether he’ll use it to silence critical voices or views on the platform he disagrees with and amplify those he favors.
Twitter can be “a significant threat to democratic values if you have a private actor that has the power to decide which ideas get heard and which people get to speak and which ideas get traction,” says Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “That’s a lot of power for a private company to have.”
That echoes concerns the American Civil Liberties Union voiced in April when Musk initially struck a deal to buy Twitter and take it private. “We should be worried about any powerful central actor, whether it’s a government or any wealthy individual — even if it’s an ACLU member — having so much control over the boundaries of our political speech online,” said Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s executive director.
Twitter’s user base, with fewer than 250 million active accounts, is less than half that of Instagram’s 700 million or Facebook’s more than 2 billion users, and only about a quarter of Americans use it, according to a Pew Research Center survey. But that audience includes politicians, the global news media and prominent opinion leaders and celebrities, which have turned it into a pre-eminent source of information and public discourse.
“It’s really hard to actually extract from that any kind of coherent theory of what trust and safety or what content moderation will look like under his running of Twitter.”
Both Jaffer and Emma Llanso, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, say they’re eager to see how Musk ultimately alters Twitter’s content moderation system, how he handles harassment and how he enforces the new rules. Their well-founded worry is that the site will become more tolerant of extremist viewpoints, disinformation, racism, broadly offensive content and incivility.
“Before he bought the company, Twitter algorithms seemed to give a lot of distribution to what he had to say and maybe he’ll be able to use it to raise his own profile even further,” said Llanso. “I’m more conscious of the potential systemic effect that a service like Twitter can have. That can really shape more broadly what are the conversations that are even possible on the service. Who feels like their voice and their perspectives are welcomed?”
Musk’s immediate dismissal of top executives was a troubling sign as the site had been making efforts to improve how it deals with abuse, disinformation and election interference, she said. “He’s talked about wanting the service to be more free and open, but then also tells advertisers ‘don’t worry, it won’t be a hellscape.’”
“It’s really hard to actually extract from that any kind of coherent theory of what trust and safety or what content moderation will look like under his running of Twitter,” Llanso said.
Another concern for defenders of free speech and democracy is the influence anti-democratic and anti-free speech foreign governments now hold over Musk’s Twitter. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, hardly a bastion of liberal democratic values, backed Musk’s purchase with a $1.9 billion and is now Twitter’s second-largest investor. The Qatar Investment Fund also put in $375 million. Investments by those Middle Eastern interests sparked national security concerns for government officials, including Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), who called for a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or CFIUS.
Musk, who needs vast amounts of raw materials for Tesla batteries, including Russian nickel, was slammed last month for proposing a peace plan on Twitter to end Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine that had a noticeably Kremlin-friendly tone.
Many observers also wonder whether China, which currently bans Twitter, will be able to exert its control over the site by seeking to minimize criticism over its policies, including the treatment of the Uyghurs, or suppressing pro-Taiwan content. That’s because it’s the biggest source of profit for Tesla, the only foreign automaker in the country that’s been allowed to fully own and operate its plant there without being forced to work with a domestic Chinese partner.
“Musk wants to sell millions of Teslas all around the world, in China, Russia, Brazil, Turkey, India, and all these governments have strong opinions about what kind of speech should or shouldn’t be on Twitter, strong opinions about what counts as misinformation,” Jaffer told Forbes. “They’re going to come to Musk and say, ‘this speech that you haven’t taken down is a problem for us’ or ‘these anonymous users who are criticizing our policies are a problem for us.’”
“Musk is going to understand because this will be made clear to him: there will be consequences if he doesn’t act on those demands,” he said.
There are also questions about domestic U.S. politics. While Musk has expressed no personal political ambition, he has recently said he identifies more as a Republican now, intends to vote Republican and favors conservative Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as a potential 2024 candidate for president. In June he also said he’s willing to spend up to $25 million to back campaigns of “centrist” political candidates.
Musk’s decision to tweet, and then delete, an unfounded conspiracy theory about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week, or his bizarre tweet in February comparing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Adolf Hitler, which he also quickly removed, don’t suggest he favors restraint when it comes to political dialogue.
Another potentially troubling move as Musk’s Twitter takes shape is his plan to change how the site awards a coveted “blue checkmark” for verified users. It’s often provided to celebrities and politicians, creating what Musk calls a “lords & peasants system” on the site. But it’s also frequently assigned to journalists who’ve been registered directly with Twitter through the media outlets they work for as an indication that the person tweeting news stories is, at the very least, who they claim to be. Musk plans to end that practice and provide the mark to users for an $8 monthly fee. Doing so will also ensure “priority in replies, mentions & search,” he tweeted.
“So anyone who wants that checkmark can have one if they’re willing to pay, including users who post disinformation,” says Llanso. “The risk is you create confusion for people who come to (Twitter) for news and information and see content that seems valid because someone has paid for that mark.”
Musk’s chaotic management style is only exacerbating the confusion, both for users and for employees. A week before the U.S. midterm elections, he’s reportedly planning to cut half of Twitter’s workforce at the same time that he seeks to monetize its user base by charging for verification badges.
But for Musk, these consequences may all be irrelevant compared to simply the status he has from owning Twitter. Controlling a powerful delivery system for news, political coverage and commentary clearly appeals to Musk, says Dunne. Twitter, he said, borrowing a phrase from Henry Kissinger, is “the ultimate aphrodisiac for him.”