In text messages released in legal documents last week, dozens of powerful people buzzed in Elon Musk’s ears about what he should do — and whom he should hire — when he takes over Twitter.
Which of his would-be advisers, if any, Musk would heed as Twitter’s new owner remains to be seen. But if Musk does take over the social network — an outcome that now looks likely, though not yet certain — one thing is clear: The platform for influencers, politicians and societal debate is in for a transformation.
Many employees would probably be fired, while others would jump ship. Musk has said he plans to relax the rules and content moderation that seek to limit harassment, misogyny and bigotry on the site, as well as falsehoods about elections or public health guidelines. He has also suggested he would reinstate former president Donald Trump’s account.
A Musk-owned Twitter drew closer to reality after his legal team offered to go through with the deal the parties signed in April — potentially ending a months-long legal drama that has captivated the business world and left Twitter battered and bruised.
Twitter has yet to sign off on Musk’s offer, which came in the form a two-sentence letter filed in Delaware Chancery Court on Monday. The company’s board intends to do so, provided that a judge oversees the process to ensure the capricious Musk is bound to his word, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. If Musk produces the financing, the deal could go through as soon as a week from now, the person said.
While fewer than 1 in 4 U.S. adults say they use Twitter, the service is a top platform for powerful figures in business and politics, as well as activists, giving it an outsize role in triggering social movements and influencing governments. More than rival social platforms, it has a design that encourages public debates and conversations from a broad spectrum of political viewpoints, shaping perceptions about news events in real time.
A transformed Twitter could alter the very nature of the platform in society, insiders and observers say, by tilting it in a rightward direction and making it less palatable for some of the figures who have made the site so influential in the first place. This could happen just weeks before the U.S. midterm elections and at a moment when Twitter is party to a Supreme Court case that could shape the future of online speech.
“If you want to know what Twitter will look like without moderation, look at Gab, Parler or Truth Social. Hate is rampant. Disinformation thrives. That’s the future of this platform,” said Brianna Wu, an advocate and former game developer who was targeted with misogynist threats on Twitter by the GamerGate movement.
Musk is perhaps the world’s most heralded entrepreneur, and his supporters both in Silicon Valley and within Twitter say he could help the company become more nimble and even more relevant. They point out that Twitter has struggled for years to earn revenue and achieve user numbers that approach those of its social media counterparts, such as Meta and YouTube. It has been slow to develop buzzy new products, while rivals like TikTok have pulled ahead.
Twitter lost $344 million in the second quarter this year, after making $30 million in profit in the same period last year, according to a recent financial statement.
Musk has more than 107 million Twitter followers, and his presence at the helm of the company could give it a marketing and directional boost.
Yet the gains won’t be evenly distributed: In a preview of how Twitter might evolve under Musk, conservative figures on the site saw their follower counts surge when his bid was first accepted in April, while liberals lost followers.
Twitter’s employees, meanwhile, could soon find themselves working for a man who balked at owning the company and has repeatedly disparaged their work. The firm has faced significant attrition in recent months amid legal uncertainty, a tumultuous stock price and a hiring freeze. And CEO Parag Agrawal has pushed out many senior executives, depleting the company’s upper ranks and leaving ample room for Musk to fill top roles with loyalists.
In the text exchanges, Musk discussed with a friend how Twitter’s revenue per employee was low when compared with other tech companies’, an indication that layoffs could be in store.
The friend, investor Jason Calacanis, wrote: “Back of the envelope. Twitter revenue per employee: $5B/8K employees,” or $625,000 per employee, and compared that number to Apple’s $2.37 million per employee and Google’s $1.9 million. Musk emphasized the text with exclamation points and then added, “Insane potential for improvement.”
On Monday, one Twitter employee summed up the mood in a company Slack message described to The Washington Post: “Congrats or I’m sorry y’all.”
Many employees think of Twitter as a higher calling as much as it is a job and have felt betrayed by executives who they believed prioritized shareholder earnings over what’s best for the service.
“There’s a difference between what the board wants and what employees think is best,” Brandon Borrman, the company’s former communications chief, said in an interview. “People forget that most people that work at Twitter do so because they believe in the company’s mission — and they want to protect it from anybody. Whether they can do that remains to be seen.”
Others said they couldn’t stand and didn’t trust Musk.
“It’s a win for leadership in Twitter getting fat payouts,” said one Twitter employee who opposed Musk’s ownership, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to discuss internal matters. “But the regular Twitter employee will now have a wholly unqualified CEO who suffers from crippling Dunning-Kruger and will use this to make the world a worse place.” (Dunning-Kruger is a cognitive bias in which people think they are smarter than they are.)
The texts from conservative advisers, investors and politicians also contrast with Musk’s public statements, in which he has presented himself as a moderate. “A social media platform’s policies are good if the most extreme 10% on left and right are equally unhappy,” he once tweeted.
The private conversations contain clues as to how Musk might run Twitter.
In dozens of exchanges, many acquaintances, friends, politicians and other elite and primarily male contacts encouraged the billionaire to bring back “the right-wingers” and “free speech.” A review of the conversations by The Post found that the vast majority of messages Musk received disparaged Twitter’s current direction or advocated against greater policing of the service in the name of protecting people.
Musk responded positively to some of the messages, including several that cheered the idea of making Twitter a free-speech zone. To others, he was cagier or outright dismissive.
Investor Joe Lonsdale told Musk he was passing on a message from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying the Republican was rooting for Musk and had ideas to shape Twitter. (Florida recently passed a law prohibiting social media companies from removing accounts with unwanted political viewpoints). Musk texted back: “Ha-ha cool.”
Another contact, whose name was redacted in the filing, told Musk that his leadership “will be a delicate game of letting right wingers back on Twitter and how to navigate that (especially the boss himself, if you’re up for that).” (“The boss” probably refers to Trump.) The person advocated that Musk “lay out the standards early” and hire someone who has “savvy cultural/political views,” such as Masters, to enforce them.
Musk either did not respond or moved the discussion to a different platform.
Another contact, whose name was also redacted, raged about Twitter’s suspension of the conservative parody site Babylon Bee and fumed that Musk should “buy Twitter and then delete it.”
Musk countered, “Maybe buy it and change to properly support free speech.”
In another set of texts, Calacanis outlined a strategic plan involving a full return to office for Twitter employees and a “hard reboot” of the company. Musk responded by asking whether Calacanis would like to join as a strategic adviser, should the deal go through.
Calacanis later added that becoming CEO of Twitter would be his “dream job,” saying, “Put me in the game coach!” Musk didn’t respond to that one.
Nor did he jump at the other CEO nominations. When the venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, another longtime friend, suggested Michael, the former Uber executive, Musk said he would be more interested in “anyone who writes good software.”
Musk reacted with a “dislike” to a pitch involving the crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried that called for putting Twitter on the blockchain technology. And he seemed to brush off an idea from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff to build a Twitter “conversational” operating system marketed as “the townsquare for your digital life,” replying, “Well I don’t own it yet.”
Musk’s ownership would also have ramifications far beyond the United States, as more than three-quarters of Twitter users reside elsewhere in the world. While he has said little about Twitter’s role in global affairs, one text exchange shows him criticizing the European Union’s ban of the Russian state media outlet RT. Musk said he found RT’s news “quite entertaining,” with “lots of bulls---, but some good points too.”
While Musk appears closer than ever to completing the deal, Twitter’s caution in responding to his offer — the same one it had previously approved — reveals how wary the company has grown of his penchant for springing surprises. And there will be more wild cards in store even if he completes the deal.
As news of his fresh offer ricocheted Tuesday, Musk tweeted that buying Twitter would be “an accelerant to creating X, the everything app.” He did not elaborate.
Joseph Menn in San Francisco contributed.