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So, Elon Musk bought social media giant Twitter. Now what?

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

And then Elon Musk bought Twitter. Adding to his titles of richest person in the world, owner of an electric car company that revolutionised the reluctant motoring industry and owner of a rocket company trying to send people to Mars, he is now the owner of a social media network.

The “front page of news” has a new owner, after Musk’s outrageous $44-billion buyout “best and final” offer was first refused by Twitter’s board last week, then agreed on 25 April. It has been a frantic three weeks, since Musk’s announcement that he’d bought 9.2% for $2.9-billion on 4 April.

“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. “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 chair Bret Taylor, whose day job is co-CEO of Salesforce, said this was “the best path forward”. It didn’t seem like the board would have a choice after Musk secured the funding, through a loan against his Tesla shares and from other bank financing.

Read in Daily Maverick: Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter could make its misinformation problems worse

At the heart of the deal is the price Musk offered per share – $54.20 – which is a joke itself, referencing the 420 marijuana meme that 4.20pm is a good time to smoke a joint. It’s the same joke that Musk used when he controversially tweeted he had “secured funding” to take Tesla private – for which Tesla and Musk were fined $20-million each by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

But does Musk know what he is getting himself into?

Twitter has many, many problems that aren’t the easiest of problems to solve. These aren’t giant engineering problems like the ones he solved for electric vehicles (EVs) and rockets. Nor are they like finding short circuits for payments in the early days of the internet, like PayPal.

Twitter’s biggest problems are misinformation, racism, bullying, misogyny and other issues that content moderation hasn’t solved yet. There is justifiably a lot of scepticism that Musk can tackle these problems, let alone fix them.

Another Twitter problem was its part-time CEO Jack Dorsey’s lack of focus and hands-off leadership. His stepping down in favour of Parag Agrawal was seen as a very positive move. Musk is CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and is surely going to have a handson role at Twitter. Will Agrawal stay on? Can Musk juggle all three massive companies, any of which demands its own CEO.

He might be right that advertising is part of the problem at Twitter, but how else can it make money? Expecting people to start paying for something that has previously been free has never worked in other circumstances, and is unlikely to work as a new business model for Twitter.

“I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy,” Musk wrote in his purchase offer. “I now realise the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”

Musk has called himself a “free speech absolutist”, which has rattled commentators who fear he might open up Twitter’s policies to allow an “anything goes” strategy. But bringing back Donald Trump isn’t in anyone’s best interest – if solving misinformation and lying is on the agenda.

Musk will get a rude awakening, I suspect, when he discovers how toxic and problematic content moderation is.

Perhaps this is what he meant with “Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.” Maybe he knows how to solve the spewing of vitriol and misinformation (although he is often accused of the latter), potentially using AI. If he does, a grateful world will be, well, grateful. But cleaning up misogyny, hate speech and disinformation is not as easy as building space rockets.

Taking the company private will solve some of the listing headaches, but it’s unclear how a change of ownership can change the bad side of humanity that comes out in Twitter trolling (of which Musk himself is accused). It is a new, more digital form of plain old bullying. Let’s hope Musk can see that and deal with it.

The US government and its regulation agencies have vowed to rein in Big Tech. Moves are afoot to remove Section 230 protection web publishers currently have against liability for what their users say. Musk just took on liability for what 217 million people do on Twitter. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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