The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Musk at the helm, tweeting the boss may actually change Twitter

Elon Musk speaks during the unveiling of the new Tesla Model Y on March 14, 2019, in Hawthorne, Calif. Musk, the CEO of Tesla, recently purchased Twitter. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

When he purchased Twitter a week ago, Elon Musk turned a hobby into a career.

Musk has always been extremely engaged online, responding to Twitter users with followings big and small. But the billionaire is now in charge, and he’s listening.

The new Twitter owner has not slowed down tweeting since taking over the company last Thursday — the past week was his third-most active in the past six months, according to a Washington Post analysis. The analysis stretches from last Wednesday when he entered the company headquarters carrying a sink — a stunt encouraging employees to let his takeover “sink in” — to this Thursday, a day before he enacted massive layoffs.

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Experts say his tweets now send important signals: Who he is listening to, who and what is acceptable on his platform, and how he intends to run the company. His tweets and decisions have the ability to foster healthy debates online or give sanctuary to hate speech and misinformation, they say.

“When he says something on Twitter now, it’s much bigger news because it is seen as a bellwether of where he’s taking the entire platform, rather than just Elon Musk being outrageous or being responsive,” said Karen North, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Who and what has Musk been tweeting

The self-described “Twitter Complaint Hotline Operator” spent his first week on the job fielding complaints about individual account restrictions and responding to suggestions from users.

Roughly one-third of his tweets since he bought the company engaged with users about their suggestions on changes to the platform, per The Post analysis. He signaled support for ideas by responding with emoji and memes. They ranged from his plan to charge users $8 per month for a blue “verified” check mark and removing character limits on tweets to integrating a dogecoin payment system on Twitter.

In promoting his $8 verification plan, he tweeted a meme that compared the monthly charge to the cost of a single Starbucks drink and ridiculed critics’ willingness to pay for the latter, but not the former. The tweet had garnered 1.7 million likes as of Thursday evening.

Musk has also liked more than 130 tweets during the week. The topics of those tweets vary from free speech to calls to bring back the short-form video platform Vine and pay content creators.

“It’s almost comedic in how he is live tweeting, stumbling through his ideas and how he’s going to make this platform work,” said Brandie Nonnecke, founding director of the CITRIS Policy Lab at the University of California at Berkeley, which studies technology policy.

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But some experts say that transparency will score him big points with users, especially if he’s seen as shaking up the norm of how Twitter is run.

Casey Fiesler, an associate professor of information science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, compared it to someone replacing the rigorous scientific process of user-experience testing and instead walking into a crowded bar and saying: “Hey, what do you think?”

Tweeting at the boss

Getting the attention of Twitter’s owner used to involve tagging Jack Dorsey, a man who celebrated one birthday by staying silent for 10 days and being eaten up by mosquitoes in a cave.

Musk is a different kind of owner, who is likely discovering that his typical Twitter banter now has more consequences, evidenced by the backlash to his now-deleted tweet promoting a conspiracy theory about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

In addition to engaging with users around changes, about one-fifth of Musk’s tweets since he bought the company have promoted or defended Twitter, including its policies around policing misinformation. Another 10 percent of Musk’s tweets trolled his ideological adversaries or responded positively to other users who did so.

“There's two sides to Musk — there’s the businessman side and then there's this free speech evangelist side,” Nonnecke said. “Perhaps he's trying to facilitate some of that by engaging with individuals on the platform directly.”

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Roughly 12 percent of his Twitter activity as owner of Twitter has promoted his other companies, according to The Post analysis. Musk’s Twitter celebrity amounts to free advertising for his car company, Tesla, which has a long-standing policy against paying for advertising, said Michelle Amazeen, the director of the Communication Research Center at Boston University.

The hotline operator bit “is either really good or really bad for Tesla stockholders,” said David Karpf, an associate professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

Power users and conservatives

Musk’s tweets have attracted the attention of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), novelist Stephen King — but also right-wing influencers and others now looking to speak to the Twitter boss.

Conservative politicians and influencers have been gleeful that Musk has taken over the platform because they feel silenced as punishment.

A group of right-wing YouTubers cracked open a bottle of Louis XIII cognac (which sells for several thousands of dollars) and toasted — “To Free Speech!” — in celebration of Musk purchasing Twitter.

One of the biggest open questions is whether Musk will reinstate accounts that were suspended for spreading misinformation. Musk tweeted on Oct. 28 that he would form a moderation council with “widely diverse viewpoints” before taking any action on suspended accounts.

When word broke Monday that the account of Mark Finchem, the Republican candidate for Arizona secretary of state, had been suspended, Musk tweeted that he was “looking into it.”

Amazeen noted that the message sends signals to conservatives who have complained about being censored on the platform, without “committing to anything.”

“He’s been very deliberate in implying that he will bring people back, but he’s also been very deliberate in making sure that people know that there will be rules," North said.

Holding the keys to the kingdom

Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington historian who writes about the tech industry, said Musk has long practiced the Silicon Valley method of disrupting old-school bureaucratic structures for the sake of innovation. But that is usually a facade, she said.

“Underneath that swagger, there are people who have management expertise who run the company with things they teach you in business school,” she said, later adding: “You do have to have the bean-counters or the solid unflashy engineers.”

It appears Musk may actually want to walk the walk of tech owner swooping in to save the day all on his own, considering he dissolved Twitter’s board of directors and installed himself as chief executive, she said.

There is a long history of rich people buying modes of information dissemination, said Matthew Pressman, an associate professor of journalism at Seton Hall University.

He said those with deep pockets have purchased newspapers over the years for one of two reasons: either to exert more political influence or to portray their purchase as benevolence saving democracy.

Musk falls into the second category, Pressman said adding that while Musk’s trial balloons haven’t all gone over well so far, “the results have historically been better when it’s someone who believes in the business.”

(Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, stated the latter reason for buying The Washington Post.)

For Nonnecke, all of Musk’s Twitter activity since the purchase “reinforces his position as the sole owner and overseer of the platform."

“He wants to be the ruler of that kingdom," she said. “And I think by engaging with people on there, he’s trying to reinforce that he’s the one in charge.”

In the ultimate show of being in charge, Elon Musk began mass layoffs at the 7,500-employee company on Friday.

After months of legal disputes, Elon Musk closed his deal to buy Twitter and exerted control of the social media company, firing key executives on Oct. 27. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)