Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Musk versus Twitter – A Timely Thriller

Early this year, Elon Musk took a detour from space and electric car adventures to dip his feet into Twitter waters.

At the end of January, he started steadily buying Twitter shares at the then prevailing price of about $36, ending in early April with a 9.1 percent stake in Twitter.

Expectedly, Musk’s purchase of Twitter shares created a buzz among investors causing the share price to hike along with a wave of excitement among libertarians and conservatives. But those most thrilled are average folk sickened by Twitter’s irrational and whimsical censorship policies, especially its permanent banishment of Trump from its platform.

Musk’s announcement of his stake was accompanied by a not entirely enthusiastic sounding Twitter CEO Agarwal announcing that Musk would be joining its Board of Directors. Within days, Musk reconsidered and formally declined the Board seat.

Not joining the Board had advantages in that it allowed Musk to increase his stake in Twitter beyond the 14.9 percent cap as a board member. Also, being on the Board would have imposed other restrictions on his freedom of expression and action, a restraint Musk seems organically opposed to.

In the past, Twitter has not been exactly coveted by investors, and buyers have not thronged to purchase it. In that lukewarm setting, Musk’s offer to buy Twitter at a per-share price of $52 did not seem negligible or non-serious. Along with its social media peers, Twitter has gradually deteriorated to become the wasteland where free speech is being slowly dried out.

Starting with Trump’s debut in politics, social media giants have made coordinated efforts to exclude him from their platforms or minimalize his interface with users. After being stunned by his election victory over Clinton, they immediately resorted to every possible way to blackball him. Twitter took the extreme arbitrary step of permanently banishing Trump from its site.

The digital mandarins continue to tighten the noose around anyone who cares or dares to express opinions that go against their own leanings or are unfavorable to the ruling party and president.

Algorithms, calculatedly designed and operated by ‘hypersensitive’ coders, mechanically suspend or evict views and accounts they do not favor, with no recourse for those impacted to litigate their termination. Moreover, bans are whimsically imposed with an unjust inconsistency that permits Putin, Iran, and other brutal dictators and extremists to tweet freely but not Trump, who they fear threatens American democracy.

Muzzling of speech is anathema to democracy. Our founding fathers certainly championed free speech, and our Constitution guarantees it.
Elon Musk appreciates that, and it is refreshing that he supports free speech and has the guts to express that support openly, unafraid of the canceling-out culture’s clout. In a recent podcast interview, he stated that free speech is when we allow someone whom we dislike to express the views that we don’t like.

More a libertarian than a narrowly defined conservative or Republican, Musk understands a large chunk of the public’s frustration at the ability of social media giants to suppress whatever irks them. He wishes to ease their stranglehold on dissidents. Therefore, his recent comments on free and uncensored speech as indispensable to the future of civilization are manna from heaven.

Perhaps his convictions, not just a passing whim, have led him to try and shake up Twitter.

Mainstream liberal media and corporate market players have been quick to run down Musk’s Twitter capture. They dread what Musk’s control over Twitter will do to its content management policy and ability and fear that ‘free’ speech will overtake responsible and ‘true’ speech.

Angry anchors on various channels have warned how Musk will bring back free speech and even revive Trump, with some even suggesting that global security and survival will be at Musk’s mercy.

Critics fear that civilization’s civility and survival are at stake if the richest man in the world takes over Twitter. Never mind that earlier, another similarly rich man – Amazon’s Bezos – had coolly acquired the print media giant Washington Post, turning it into his own and the liberals’ megaphone.

It is not money that stinks to these partisan critics and reporters but whose stinking money it is.

The Musk-Twitter affair has kicked a predictable maelstrom, causing litigants to step in to punish and prevent him from acquiring Twitter. Some erstwhile shareholders have charged that by not disclosing his Twitter stake on time, Musk saved $143 million, while the shareholders suffered immense losses by selling their shares at a price lower than what they would have received.

While the lawsuit will be challenging, Musk is known to have weathered previous storms arising from his own, at times, careless or erratic behavior.

True to his style, Musk made it difficult for Twitter’s echelons to cheer his Godfather-style “one that you cannot refuse” purchase offer. By offering to buy Twitter at a considerably higher than the prevailing share price, he put its Board members in a difficult spot, reminding them of their fiduciary duty to protect the shareholders’ interests and accept his offer.

Elsewhere, he suggested how by cutting Board fees, Twitter could save several million dollars! His stick and carrot approach possibly enabled Twitter to fall into his lap.

Twitter’s workers are naturally rattled and sweating over their own personal future and the future of Twitter as a self-appointed guardian of responsible and politically correct speech. Their CEO Agarwal, who is on video casually dismissing the American free speech guarantee, has been walking on coals since Musk began his power play. Twitter management actually declared a workday a holiday to help its workers to calm down and brace themselves to face the uncertainty they are experiencing from the new owner’s up and down messaging.

While the Board had floated the possibility of a poison pill, a traditional corporate way to prevent a hostile takeover by diluting the share price, making it unattractive to buyers, Musk managed to thwart that move.

Whether the storm brewing over the Musk acquisition gets worse or blows over, and whether or not he succeeds in making Twitter profitable while simultaneously protecting user data from misuse, Musk will have succeeded in highlighting the problem of unwarranted and unjust speech censorship, and that too, by unelected corporate managers acting on the behest of, or in synergy with, their political partners and patrons.

Author profile
Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is a published author and opinion writer. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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