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How Elon Musk played Twitter

Heads, he wins. Tails, Twitter loses.

SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who attempted a hostile takeover of Twitter on Thursday. (Britta Pedersen/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

The world’s richest man can’t lose.

If Twitter’s board accepts Elon Musk’s bid to buy the company for $43 billion, Musk wins full control over one of the world’s more influential public information platforms for a fraction of his own net worth. And if it rejects his bid, he walks away with more money, leverage and attention than ever before.

In some ways, a successful takeover might be the more onerous outcome for Musk.

For one thing, he’d have to figure out exactly how to come up with the cash. But raising money has always been a strong suit for a skilled showman who promises investors the moon — or Mars, in the case of his rocket company, SpaceX.

More vexingly, he’d face the task of actually running Twitter, which might turn out to include a lot of responsibilities less fun than firing off tweets polling his followers about whether it needs an edit button or should turn its headquarters into a homeless shelter.

He’d be taking over a company in which many employees are already against him, and whose years-long mission to engineer “healthy conversations” runs counter to his advocacy of unfettered “free speech.” And he’d become the flash point for ugly, high-stakes political battles, such as the one over the status of Donald Trump’s account, for which he has shown little appetite.

That’s a lot to add to the plate of a man who is already supposed to be running the world’s largest electric vehicle company, a leading aerospace company and a company that’s trying to figure out how to implant computers into people’s brains. A multibillion-dollar company here, a multibillion-dollar company there, and pretty soon you’re talking real responsibility.

Elon Musk attempts hostile takeover of Twitter, calling path ‘painful’

Still, Musk would probably accept the headaches as the price of turning the site that has become his favorite hobby into his personal plaything. Perhaps he really would try, as some of his supporters believe, to reinvent Twitter as an open, “decentralized” standard for social networking, a vision he shares with Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey. With Musk as owner, the company might actually have the resources and the runway to attempt that sort of radical reinvention, which seems unlikely as long as its board is pressuring the CEO to post dramatic growth in the short run.

Or maybe after an initial burst of activity, Musk would grow bored with the project and move on to the next shiny object — retaining, of course, the freedom to intervene at any time and override any decision he doesn’t like. And anytime he tweeted about Twitter, the whole company would have no choice but to listen.

If the board rejects Musk’s bid, he gets what might be an even sweeter deal.

Having commanded weeks of headlines, he can continue to cast himself as the platform’s would-be savior and a beacon for free speech without having to deal with the messy specifics or the fallout of relaxing its content moderation. (The history of “free-speech” social platforms so far is nasty, brutish and short.)

Musk has also mused in the past about starting a new social network to rival Twitter. That’s a tall task, as start-ups such Parler, Gab, Gettr and Truth Social could attest. But if he were serious about doing so, he could hardly have laid a better groundwork than captivating the business world and the public with his Twitter saga, thrilling investors, and sowing divides within the company and its board before exiting dramatically.

How much Musk truly cares about “free speech” for others is unclear: He has at times threatened critics with lawsuits and has been accused of firing employees for speaking out.

But one thing we know he values is his own freedom to say whatever he wants. His gleefully trollish Twitter persona has attracted 81 million followers who hang on his every juvenile thought. His tweets about his electric car company, Tesla, got him in so much trouble with federal regulators that he was assigned a “Twitter sitter” — a constraint that he is fighting in court.

Facing a choice between a seat on Twitter’s board and carte blanche to continue firing off outlandish tweets about the company, he opted for the latter. Now, he either takes over entirely or returns to the role of outside agitator.

Elon Musk says he has backup plan to buy Twitter in TED interview

What Musk will do with his stock if the board rebuffs his takeover only Musk knows. One obvious option would be to dump it, perhaps reaping a profit on at least some of the stock he quietly bought at a lower price in March before his disclosure of the ownership stake sent it soaring. That would have the added bonus, for Musk, of lightening the purses of those still holding their shares, including the board members who spurned him.

Of course, Musk isn’t known for choosing the obvious option. And he doesn’t really need the extra money.

In an interview at the TED 2022 conference on Thursday, Musk insisted he didn’t “care about the economics at all.” Rather, his interest in Twitter had to do with “the future of civilization,” namely the importance of “having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive.”

When a businessperson tells you making money isn’t their goal, that’s usually a good time to hang onto your wallet. But Musk is so extraordinarily, historically wealthy that in his case it might be true.

Asked by TED head Chris Anderson whether there’s a “plan B” in case the board rejects his offer, Musk said simply, “there is.”