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Elon Musk's Twitter acquisition: Has the world's richest man really 'freed' the microblogging site?

Elon Musk's Twitter acquisition: Has the world's richest man really 'freed' the microblogging site?

According to the Tesla CEO, he has freed, Twitter after acquiring the social network for $44 billion. Or has he?

According to the Tesla CEO, he has freed, Twitter after acquiring the social network for $44 billion. Or has he? According to the Tesla CEO, he has freed, Twitter after acquiring the social network for $44 billion. Or has he?

After much ado, Elon Musk is the official owner of Twitter. The Tesla chief, who first disclosed his 9.2 per cent Twitter shareholding in April, later going on to make a hostile bid for the social network, closed his $44-billion buyout just a day before a Delaware Chancery Court-ordered deadline of October 29. Before taking office, Musk tweeted: “The bird is freed”.

His tenure as Twitter’s new CEO (or what he calls “Chief Twit”) began with the firings of incumbent CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal, and the company’s legal affairs and policy chief Vijaya Gadde, who’s infamous for issuing former US President Donald Trump a lifetime ban. Twitter Chairman Bret Taylor has also exited the firm.

Back in April, before things soured between Agrawal and Musk, the former had called the Tesla boss “both a passionate believer and intense critic of the service which is exactly what we need on @Twitter, and in the boardroom”. Musk later expressed concerns over Twitter’s content moderation policies and its large share of spam accounts—a key metric that determines advertiser reach—even wanting to pull out of the deal. Twitter sued Musk for backtracking on the proposed buyout, which it termed “legally binding”.

After several months of to-and-fro and courtroom drama, the world’s richest person took the microblogging platform private, paying $54.20 per share, which he reckons is a lot. Twitter shares finally stopped trading on the NYSE from October 28.

Shortly before the deal went through, Musk had hinted at overturning all lifetime bans, indicating a possible return of Trump to the platform. But, just a day before the buyout, on October 27, he addressed a note to ‘Twitter Advertisers’ saying: “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences! In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all, where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences.” He also observed that social media in general runs the risk of being “splintered into far right-wing and far left-wing echo chambers”.

So, what can Musk do to prevent Twitter from becoming a more divisive platform than it already is? Soon after the acquisition, he announced that the San Francisco-based company would be forming a ‘Content Moderation Council’ and “no major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes”. He added that the council will have “widely diverse viewpoints”, without disclosing any further details.

Musk also does not want Twitter to be ‘free’ for all. Soon after the takeover, reports emerged that he had ordered Twitter engineers to ship a paid verification feature for blue-tick users by November 7. Existing verified users who don’t upgrade in 90 days stand to lose their blue ticks. Musk’s plan to charge approximately $20 a month for verification badges came under the scanner immediately. As of November 2, Musk revised the subscription offering to $8 per month, justifying the price users need to pay.

Twitter Blue subscribers “will get priority in replies, mentions and search, which is essential to defeat spam/scam; ability to post long video and audio; half as many ads and paywall bypass for publishers willing to work with us… There will be a secondary tag below the name for someone who is a public figure, which is already the case for politicians,” he explained in a thread.

This essentially means that anyone with purchasing power can now be Twitter-verified, raising critical questions on the identity and authenticity of users. Several people have raised concerns over fake profiles with blue ticks, impersonation, and other cybercrimes. Musk, of course, has no plan of action yet to tackle these.

It is evident that Musk is keen on growing the share of subscriptions in Twitter’s overall revenue pie. Primarily advertising-driven until now, subscriptions could improve Twitter’s margins, reckons the new boss. On October 31, Musk even launched a Twitter poll seeking views on whether he should “bring back Vine”? Vine was a short-video app, which Twitter acquired in 2012 but shut it down in 2016 for failing to monetise it. Now, with Musk’s renewed focus on revenue streams for content creators, Vine could very well see a return as a separate app or an in-app integration within Twitter.

In the weeks leading up to the buyout, the Tesla chief had also hinted at his desire to turn Twitter into “X, the everything app”. X could stand for a super app modelled on China’s WeChat, which the West has failed to replicate so far. Twitter could potentially enable multiple services besides microblogging—from messaging and shopping to travel and payments—becoming a one-stop shop for users. While that might benefit its ad monetisation, spammy feeds and cluttered UIs could lead to a user exodus.

Musk’s litmus test would be to grow Twitter, while simultaneously ensuring its loyal user base is retained. Can he succeed? Only time will tell.