As of October 29th, Elon Musk became the new CEO and owner of the popular social media platform Twitter. Musk has already declared multiple plans as a new leader, ranging from reversing Donald Trump’s ban from the platform to enacting a subscription service for users to gain access to the titular blue checkmark. How did the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla become the owner of one of the largest social media sites in the world and what are the implications for American culture and politics?
On April 4th, it was reported that Musk became Twitter’s largest shareholder, owning a 9% stake in the company. After rejecting a seat on the platform’s board of directors, Musk offered to purchase the company for around $44 billion, which Twitter agreed to on April 25th. Just weeks later, Musk asked his banker to “slow down” the deal due to the turmoil between Ukraine and Russia, explaining that “it won’t make sense to buy Twitter if we’re heading into World War 3.”
On May 13th, Musk declared his deal with Twitter was “temporarily on hold,” claiming he was concerned about how notorious fake ‘bot’ accounts may impact the value of the platform; others argue that the steep decline in tech stocks gave the mogul “cold feet,” and blaming ‘bot’ accounts was just a tactic to free himself from the deal. After a messy period in which Twitter sued Musk for attempting to pull out and Musk countersued the company, the billionaire struck up a deal on October 3rd: he would buy the company for the originally settled amount of $44 billion if Twitter dropped the lawsuit. On October 27th, the purchase was finalized.
On November 5th, Musk officially announced his plan for a subscription service in which users (for $7.99 a month) would receive Twitter’s iconic blue verification check mark on their page, as well as “half the ads & much better ones.” The new system serves to help Musk achieve two of his main goals for the platform: to reduce the number of fake accounts and increase the revenue of Twitter, which historically has struggled to make a profit. In addition to official changes, Musk’s rise to CEO has spurred unofficial but incredibly impactful changes to the culture of the platform. In what is likely a response to Musk’s outspoken support for free speech (regardless of the speech’s content), the Network Contagion Research Institute disclosed that in the 12 hours following the new CEO’s ascension, “the use of the n-word… increased nearly 500% from the previous average.” The NCRI also shared that the uptick in slurs used on the platform likely stems from users on other sites, such as 4chan, which is infamous for the hate speech among users, encouraging “trying to test the limits on Twitter.”
Due to what experts have described as the “discernible increase in extreme expression on the platform,” many worry about how this trend could impact the midterm elections. This year’s midterm elections are especially important for multiple reasons. For one, the events of January 6 have further divided the nation in regard to the validity of the election, which is a vital point of contention in many campaigns. Also, the Dobbs decision has stoked the fire between Democratic and Republican candidates further, with the former emphasizing the fear of more rights, like gay marriage, being taken away, and the latter encouraging tighter restrictions on abortion for their own home states. Finally, the makeup of the Senate is incredibly tight already: the Democrats only hold a majority based on the role of Vice President Harris as a tie-breaker. Therefore, the switch of just one Senate seat from one party to the other can have drastic consequences for future legislation. For all of these reasons, politicians and American voters alike have expressed concern for Musk’s self-identification as a “free speech absolutist” fearing that free speech could translate into a lack of regulation regarding the spread of false information on Twitter.
Elon Musk recently announced that he would delay the institution of the subscription service until after the midterm elections, likely in an attempt to quell fears regarding the spread of misinformation at such a pivotal time in American politics. However, there will be many elections after these midterms that will be impacted by Musk’s changes as well as future alterations and consequences currently unknown. Musk’s intentions with Twitter will still impact the state of American politics; if not directly, then certainly indirectly, as his rise to CEO has already seemingly encouraged many users to use not only more offensive and harmful language. Worst of all, the reversal of previously banned accounts notorious for spreading misinformation (such as Donald Trump) could drastically increase the presence of ‘fake news’ on the platform, which could revert the country to a climate like the one in 2020 that allowed Russian bots to influence the presidential election.