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Opinion Let’s hope Elon Musk doesn’t win his bid for Twitter

Elon Musk in Boca Chica, Tex., on Feb. 10. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
3 min

If you can’t join them, buy them. This is the philosophy billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk appears to have adopted as he launches a hostile takeover bid for the social media platform Twitter. Let’s hope he doesn’t succeed.

The Tesla chief executive announced on Thursday an offer to buy Twitter for $54.20 per share in cash, after declining a seat on the social media company’s board. His proposed price has embedded in it an apparent reference to marijuana (the number 420 often refers to cannabis) — just like the last time he messed with markets and allegedly misled investors by declaring he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private at $420 a share. The juvenile display says all anyone needs to know about Mr. Musk’s general attitude toward this acquisition: It is an opportunity for him to get attention, even if he doesn’t end up getting his way. The substance of his ideas for the future of Twitter are worth some wariness on their own.

Mr. Musk has promised to make Twitter a “platform for free speech around the globe.” This vision is more or less the same one now-departed CEO Jack Dorsey championed throughout his tenure, and especially in the platform’s early days. But like its industry peers, Twitter has moved over time toward stricter rules. That isn’t because executives have changed their views, but rather because they have learned some lessons after observing how their products can be abused to manipulate elections, or spread health misinformation, or harass people en masse.

Certainly, moderators sometimes make mistakes, and more transparency surrounding enforcement decisions is in order. But a broader backtracking would be an error. To protect speech at all costs and keep Twitter free of bots and spam, as Mr. Musk has said he would like to do, is almost impossible.

As objectionable as Mr. Musk’s flippant attitude toward the challenges of balancing expression and safety has been his approach to the financial regulations that are supposed to govern his behavior. Mr. Musk could emerge richer from this spectacle even if his bid fails. But already, he might have made $156 million by gaming the legal requirements: The wealthiest man in the world was 11 days late in publicly declaring the acquisition of a large stake in Twitter and instead went on buying shares. This is only the latest episode in which Mr. Musk has shown disregard for the Securities and Exchange Commission; apparently, the investigation and resulting consent decree following his bluff about taking Tesla private were insufficient to tame him. By failing to discipline him this time, the agency will only further lose credibility.

All in all, amid his endless provocations and billionaire bluster, the most encouraging thing Mr. Musk has said about his Twitter ambitions is this: “I am not sure that I will actually be able to acquire it.”

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