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Elon Musk, notorious Twitter troll, is now trolling Twitter itself

The stock price is plummeting, and executives are heading for the doors. Can the social media company withstand Musk’s takeover bid?

(Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images)

Billionaire Elon Musk fired off yet another tweet Tuesday potentially sabotaging his $44 billion bid to buy Twitter. His scorched-earth campaign may also be sabotaging Twitter itself.

For weeks, Musk has needled the social media company on its own platform, driving down its stock price and alarming employees who live in fear of being attacked by Musk’s legions of online followers. Rank-and-file workers are polishing their résumés, saying they can’t get straight answers to basic questions, such as whether there would be layoffs, whether there would be a board of directors after the acquisition, and whether Musk would change the company’s content moderation policies. Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal’s firing of top executives and reduction in hiring have added to the sense of chaos.

Twitter has seen its share of disruption in 16 years, from absentee leaders to employee uprisings. But over the past six weeks, Musk has brought next-level dysfunction to the company’s San Francisco headquarters and beyond.

The impression among employees is that Musk is messing with Twitter “like a dog playing with a toy,” said a person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. “No matter what: The company is in play now. I don’t think it’s a situation where Elon walks away and things can go back to normal.”

After Elon Musk said he would allow former president Donald Trump on Twitter, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stressed efforts to combat misinformation. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

Twitter’s stock price has slumped 25 percent over the past two weeks, already far below the $54.20 a share Musk offered and way off its high of $77.06 in February 2021. Employees and Twitter investors fear that if Musk walks away, the company — long a coveted bauble for Silicon Valley’s billionaire class because it is the Internet’s town square — would be left battered and exposed. It would have a weakened CEO and board, vacancies in its executive ranks, and a low share price in a shaky market. But some employees also worry it would be easy prey for another buyer who could further damage its reputation.

Prominent conservatives — enthusiastic about Musk’s absolutist stance on free speech — are already gaining followers since Twitter accepted his offer, according to a Washington Post analysis, while some liberals are losing their audience. The trend suggests that if Musk or a future buyer bends the platform to his or her political will, it could drive Twitter into irrelevance by sapping its mass-market appeal.

Elon Musk says deal can’t ‘move forward’ until Twitter proves bot numbers

“I don’t see how you come out a winner either way, except to make Twitter unusable,” said Joan Donovan, research director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Twitter’s board issued a statement Tuesday indicating that it had no willingness to renegotiate with Musk.

“The Board and Mr. Musk agreed to a transaction at $54.20 per share. We believe this agreement is in the best interest of all shareholders. We intend to close the transaction and enforce the merger agreement,” the statement said.

Twitter declined to comment on the impact of Musk’s actions. A person familiar with negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe ongoing deliberations, said the board’s attitude was that Musk’s campaign could come back to bite him because it risked damaging an asset he would eventually own.

Elon Musk, the Twitter deal and his quest to save "all life on Earth"

Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Over the past 16 years, Twitter has emerged as one of the biggest and most influential social media platforms on the planet, with 229 million daily users. Moderators have gotten better at weeding out false information related to elections or the coronavirus and at protecting people from the worst types of harassment. But, like other big platforms, it is still used to amplify misinformation, and it can foster an atmosphere of bullying — one that Musk seems to enjoy participating in. It has also struggled to increase its revenue and user base.

Musk says he has grand plans to grow Twitter’s business. But his motives — especially as he also runs Tesla, a much bigger and more valuable company — remain opaque even as he tweets incessantly about the deal. On Friday, he pronounced it “temporarily on hold,” citing concerns about Twitter’s claim that less than 5 percent of its users are fake accounts, known as bots. Two hours later, he said he was still “committed to acquisition.”

But on Monday, Musk tweeted a poop emoji at Agrawal after the Twitter CEO penned a lengthy thread on the nature of bots and Twitter’s efforts to control them. Early Tuesday, Musk declared that the deal “cannot move forward” until Twitter shows “proof of <5%.”

Investors and other Silicon Valley observers speculate that Musk is undercutting Twitter to drive down its share price, and Musk said at a conference Monday that he might try to renegotiate the deal. To purchase Twitter, he plans to take out a multibillion-dollar loan against his assets such as Tesla stock, which has fallen in value recently. He also signaled that he might pull out entirely.

Analyst Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities said Musk has “cold feet” and is using “the bot issue as a scapegoat to get out of the Twitter deal.”

He said the board would be under significant pressure to renegotiate. “There is a zero percent chance the deal price will stay the same, based on where the stock is trading right now,” he said.

The gamesmanship has left Twitter executives on edge and divided about how to respond. Some are itching to fire back at Musk on Twitter, but others argue that “it’s not productive to engage publicly,” according to another person familiar with the discussions about the deal, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. The company’s usually prolific main account, @Twitter, hasn’t tweeted since April 1 — three days before Musk disclosed that he had acquired a sizable stake in the company.

Twitter lawyer long weighed safety, free speech. Then Musk called her out.

“It’s difficult to have a meaningful dialogue against a troll with 80 million baby trolls following him,” one of the people said. On Tuesday, Musk’s following — which has also grown by roughly 15 percent since he announced his interests in the company — stood at nearly 94 million.

Meanwhile, swaths of Twitter’s 7,500-person workforce are wavering between getting ready to leave the company and gearing up for battle, according to interviews with six current and former employees, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs or antagonizing their former employer. Some struggle simply to make it through to the next day.

On Monday, Twitter provided documentation to the Securities and Exchange Commission with more details about the deal, as well as a Q&A with commonly asked questions. But the answers said that Twitter employees were expected to carry on as if things were normal: The document used the phrase “business as usual” nine times.

Last week, Agrawal unexpectedly fired two long-standing senior executives, including one he had promoted as recently as December. In a companywide email obtained by The Post, Agrawal said the immediate departures of Kayvon Beykpour and Bruce Falck, who oversaw Twitter’s consumer and revenue products, were the result of the company needing to manage costs.

Three more senior executives — Vice Presidents Ilya Brown and Katrina Lane, and Max Schmeiser, head of data science — announced their departures on Tuesday, the company confirmed. Bloomberg News first reported the departures.

Elon Musk, the Twitter deal, and the quest to save ‘all life on Earth’

“Just when you think no more wheels can fall off!” one of the former Twitter employees told The Post in reaction to the latest news.

Musk’s trolling of Twitter has gone on for months. He has questioned the company’s free speech practices, tweeted a meme critical of a Twitter executive, Vijaya Gadde, and polled his followers on whether Twitter should introduce an edit button for tweets. He has told his followers that they are being “manipulated by [Twitter’s] algorithm in ways you don’t realize.”

His latest focus, on how many of its users are bots, is a sensitive subject for a social media company with a history of being manipulated by Russian trolls. The issue is a long-standing concern for Twitter, but the 5 percent number is standard across the industry. Twitter has been reporting the same figure for years — as has Facebook — despite Musk’s tweets suggesting that the issue was new to him.

After Musk’s Friday tweets about bots, he tweeted over the weekend that Twitter’s legal department had called him to complain. By Monday, Agrawal tried to tamp down the problem. “We suspend over half a million spam accounts every day, usually before any of you even see them on Twitter. We also lock millions of accounts each week that we suspect may be spam — if they can’t pass human verification challenges (captchas, phone verification, etc),” he tweeted.

But clearing out fake accounts is complicated, he wrote, because the most dangerous ones often look real. Meanwhile, “many accounts which look fake superficially — are actually real people” who don’t deserve to be suspended or deleted.

Musk says he would reverse Twitter ban on Donald Trump

His earnest and technocratic explanation of the company’s methods for handling fake accounts failed to satisfy Musk and his followers. In addition to the poop emoji, Musk tweeted: “Have you tried just calling them.” On Tuesday, he followed up by polling his users over whether their experience lined up with Twitter’s claims.

Some Twitter workers are cheering Musk on, and many say that if an employee exodus occurs, other engineers will want to join because they are enthralled with Musk’s reputation as an innovator. For now, the situation has gotten so tense that at least two senior executives have personal security details, according to one of the people familiar with the situation.

Other employees wonder what purpose Musk’s attacks serve. Even though he appears destructive, they ask why he would want to destroy a service that he relies on as his main marketing tool and that he would be responsible for if the deal continues.

Harvard’s Donovan said she believes that Musk’s strong ideological views, including his opposition to mainstream media and his stated disagreement over Twitter’s decision to ban former president Donald Trump, motivate him as much as his financial interests. The more he tweets, the more he can push people who disagree with him out of the company — before he becomes a formal owner. The blanker the canvas, the easier it becomes for Musk and his co-investors to mold the platform to suit their agendas and interests, she said.

“I don’t see a viable business model where anyone makes back $44 billion,” she said. “But in terms of politics, culture and the economy, Twitter is an incredible influential space — and the value of that may be priceless.”

Musk’s question about bots is nothing new for Twitter

Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.