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How Elon Musk Could Change Twitter

Musk struck a deal with the social media site to buy Twitter for roughly $44 billion.

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk is one of Twitter's largest shareholders.
Getty Images

Tesla CEO Elon Musk wants the world to know change is coming to Twitter.

In April, Twitter said it reached a deal with Musk, who will buy Twitter for $54.20 a share in cash, valuing the influential social media site at about $44 billion. The announcement came after Musk rejected a seat on Twitter's board. With a 9.2% stake in Twitter, Musk is one of the company's largest shareholders and will reportedly become temporary CEO once the deal closes, CNBC reported this month, citing anonymous sources.

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There are still questions lingering about whether Musk will back out of the deal. The billionaire said the deal is temporarily "on hold" because he wants more details about the number of spam bots and fake accounts on the social network. He's asked Twitter to provide proof that less than 5% of its users are actually fake or spam accounts. Twitter, on the other hand, says the deal isn't on hold and it doesn't plan to lower the sales price. This week, Musk revealed in a new filing that he's personally committing $33.5 billion to the deal, a sign that it could be moving forward. Twitter shareholders are expected to vote on the deal at a special meeting, though the company hasn't yet announced a date for that.

The deal with Musk has also fueled speculation about what this could mean for the social media site's future. The sale initially seemed unlikely, but Twitter's board then reportedly began to take the offer more seriously after Musk revealed more details about how he would finance the potential purchase.

"Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated," Musk said in a statement. "I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential -- I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it."

Like other Twitter users, Musk hasn't been shy about sharing thoughts on what needs to be fixed on the site, tweeting his frank remarks to his 95 million followers. (Musk has more social media clout, as measured by followers, than Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey combined.) Those tweets provide insight into his love-hate relationship with Twitter. 

Dorsey, a well-known figure in the tech industry, has expressed admiration for how Musk uses Twitter, noting that the mogul shares "his thinking openly" on the site. But Musk's candor has also landed him in hot water. In 2018, the US Securities and Exchange Commission sued Musk for allegedly violating securities law after he tweeted that he had "funding secured" to take Tesla private. The SEC and Musk reached a settlement that required some of his tweets be preapproved, though his lawyers are trying to end that agreement

Here are four changes Musk could push for at Twitter:

Tweak content moderation

What is and isn't allowed on Twitter is a subject Musk has been tweeting about since before he disclosed his stake in the company. At the end of March, for instance, Musk tweeted a poll inquiring whether users believed Twitter was protecting free speech. He said the poll results would be "very important." 

Musk tweeted, "Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?" About 70% of 2 million respondents responded no. 

The First Amendment doesn't apply to private companies, such as Twitter, which can create their own rules about what is allowed. In 2020, Agrawal, then Twitter's CTO, told MIT Technology Review the company's role is "not to be bound by the First Amendment" but to "serve a healthy public conversation."

In a follow-up tweet, Musk said, "Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?" He also asked whether a new platform was needed.

Musk isn't the first person to question whether Twitter is censoring some voices. Conservatives criticized the company for banning former US President Donald Trump after the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots, though Dorsey has defended the call, made because of the risk of inciting violence. Musk has said that he plans to reverse Trump's ban from Twitter even though the former US president said he doesn't plan on coming back. 

Musk has also tweeted that "a social media platform's policies are good if the most extreme 10% on left and right are equally unhappy." He didn't answer questions about how Twitter would measure this.

How much influence Musk can have on content moderation is an open question. Twitter says its policy decisions aren't determined by either the board or shareholders, and it has no plans to reverse any existing policies. 

For what it's worth, Musk's tweets haven't been free of controversy. Musk was accused of violating Twitter's rules against harmful coronavirus misinformation in 2020 when he falsely tweeted that "kids are essentially immune" from COVID-19. In reality, children can catch the virus. Twitter told Axios the tweet didn't violate its rules because it wasn't "definitive."

Combat cryptocurrency scams

Cryptocurrency scams have been a thorn in Twitter's side, and they're a problem that has personally impacted Musk.

Scammers have impersonated Musk using fake accounts on various social media sites in an effort to get people to give away cryptocurrency. In 2020, Musk's account was also among high-profile Twitter accounts that were hacked to push a bitcoin scam. 

In January, Musk complained that Twitter was spending time on products such as profile pictures that showcase nonfungible tokens, assets verified on a blockchain, rather than fighting crypto spam bots. 

"Twitter is spending engineering resources on this bs while crypto scammers are throwing a spambot block party in every thread!?" he tweeted.

He's also tweeted that bots are the "single most annoying problem" on Twitter. On April 21, Musk tweeted if a Twitter bid succeeds "we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!" and "authenticate all real humans."

Release an edit button

Twitter users have long asked for a way to edit their tweets for typos and other problems, but the highly requested feature hasn't been at the top of the company's priorities. Twitter did include a way to undo tweets as part of its Twitter Blue $3-a-month subscription plan. 

On April 4, Musk brought up the idea of an edit button again, tweeting another poll. "Do you want an edit button," he tweeted, misspelling the words yes and no. More than 4 million votes were cast, with almost three quarters supporting the idea. 

Musk hasn't offered his own view of whether he thinks an edit button is needed. On April 5, Twitter tweeted that it's been working on an edit feature since last year -- "no, we didn't get the idea from a poll," Twitter's communications team tweeted with a winky face emoji. The company said it will start testing the tool to learn what works and is possible.

Twitter has expressed concerns before that an edit tool could lead to issues such as people sharing tweets that are then altered to change their meaning. In 2020, Dorsey even told Wired that Twitter would probably never add an edit button. 

"We started as an SMS text messaging service. So, as you all know, when you send a text, you can't really take it back," Dorsey said in the interview. "We wanted to preserve that vibe and that feeling in the early days."

It seems like Twitter is putting the feature higher on its priority list. On April 4, Agrawal used familiar language to respond to Musk's edit button poll. 

"The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully," Agrawal tweeted.

Open up Twitter's algorithm

Social media users have complained that algorithms control their lives, enticing them to spend more time on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. Some Twitter users prefer to see tweets in chronological order. In March, Twitter rolled back a change that would show the algorithmic feed by default after user complaints. 

Musk has suggested Twitter could make the algorithm open-source. Musk didn't specify what that would entail, but open-source software is freely available and can be altered. He posed the idea in a March 24 poll. About 83% of 1 million respondents said yes.

Dorsey appeared to endorse the results, tweeting, "The choice of which algorithm to use (or not) should be open to everyone."

In a TED Talk in April, Musk said he thinks Twitter users should be able to see if a tweet has been demoted or promoted on the site so there's no "behind-the-scenes manipulation." Twitter's code should be on Github, he said, so people can look for errors and suggest changes.