SAN FRANCISCO — It was supposed to be a monumental occasion for Twitter.
But just minutes into the Twitter Spaces with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), the site was breaking because of technical glitches, as more than 600,000 people tuned in. Users were dropping off — including DeSantis himself. A flustered Musk scrambled to get the conversation on track, only to be thwarted by his own website.
“We’ve got just a massive number of people online,” Musk said. “So the servers are straining somewhat.”
Eventually, they launched a new Space on a separate account, citing Musk’s account as the problem — although it drew a fraction of the traffic as DeSantis eventually made his announcement roughly a half-hour late.
Musk and Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Before the technical issues, the announcement was expected to serve as a significant coup for Musk and Twitter as the platform increasingly courts a right-wing audience. The event comes after high-profile conservatives have embraced Musk’s takeover and personalities such as fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson have said they would bring content exclusively to Twitter.
Musk acquired the site for $44 billion in October on a promise to restore his vision of “free speech,” following Twitter’s ban on former president Donald Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and other times he thinks the platform has censored speech or content.
But the site has also faced immense financial pressure since Musk’s takeover, which saddled it with debt and culminated in mass layoffs. Musk’s job cuts have reduced Twitter’s previous staff of 7,500 by about 80 percent. The layoffs — paired with an ultimatum last year to commit to an “extremely hardcore” workflow — left certain critical teams almost entirely gutted. Suddenly, there were one or two employees left managing core functions of the site.
Musk, meanwhile, has openly embraced right-wing politics that clash with Twitter’s progressive internal culture.
Musk has repeatedly praised DeSantis, saying in the fall that he would support DeSantis in 2024.
“If DeSantis runs against Biden in 2024, then DeSantis will easily win — he doesn’t even need to campaign,” Musk said in July.
Musk declined this week to make a presidential endorsement, however, after he was asked about the matter at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit.
“I would really just like someone fairly normal and sensible to be president — that would be great,” he said, though he declined to assess the sensibility of the candidates in the race.
Musk’s position as owner and current CEO of Twitter put him in an unusual position to host a presidential announcement, given the traditional role of social media executives in refereeing political discussion on their platforms. He said Wednesday that Twitter sought to be a “a level playing field” that could hopefully “be a platform that brings people of divergent political views to exchange those views and perhaps some minds will be changed one way or the other.”
“Twitter was indeed expensive. But free speech is priceless,” he added.
Despite his support for DeSantis, Musk wrote in November, “Twitter as a platform must be fair to all.”
On Wednesday, however, Musk and his co-host found themselves at the center of a conversation that was expected to revolve around the presidential run of a candidate for whom they’ve expressed admiration. Musk and investor David Sacks, who has worked closely with Musk on the Twitter takeover, repeatedly had to explain why the site broke at a pivotal moment.
Nearly 20 minutes into the conversation, Musk and Sacks were still grappling with the technical problems.
“All right, I’d like to welcome Governor DeSantis for the —” Musk said before the audio cut out. “This is unfortunate; we’ve never seen this before,” he said. (A voice in the background said, “There’s so many people.”)
Finally, DeSantis joined a new Twitter Space with Sacks, where DeSantis was able to make the announcement. About 150,000 users were tuned in.
Musk explained the glitches as a result of “some scaling issues related to my account,” blaming the vast reach of his Twitter profile, which has more than 140 million followers.
“You know you’re breaking new ground when there are bugs and scaling issues,” Sacks said, after congratulating DeSantis for “breaking the internet” and apologizing for the technical issues.
Musk’s Twitter has been beset by glitches and high-profile outages since he took over as his skeleton staff has sought to implement major changes, sometimes with little regard for the potential consequences. Musk himself has acknowledged that Twitter has been gutted of some critical expertise, and in March he called the site “brittle.”
But Musk has hosted other spaces previously that commanded far more listeners than the more than 600,000 on Wednesday.
DeSantis’s opponents were quick to seize on the debacle.
President Biden’s Twitter account posted a donation page for his reelection campaign.
“This link works,” read the tweet.
Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign nodded to the technical problems in an email.
“Glitchy. Tech issues. Uncomfortable silences. A complete failure to launch. And that’s just the candidate,” a Trump spokesperson said.
As the Twitter Space concluded, Sacks noted that more than 300,000 users were tuned in.
“It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish, and I think this finished really strong,” he said.
Musk thanked DeSantis and said he hoped to host similar forums in the future.
“It is important for people to hear directly from candidates,” he said. “Thank you for working with us on this historic event.”
Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.