Explained | Musk earns a seat on Twitter’s board; what next?

While Musk did not share any details about why he bought shares of Twitter, except posting a tweet on Monday saying: “oh hi lol”, there are some cues to what he might end up doing at the California-based company.

Updated - April 07, 2022 03:00 pm IST

Published - April 06, 2022 04:28 pm IST

File photo of Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

File photo of Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

Elon Musk is Twitter’s most famous ‘blue tick’ personality with over 80 million followers on the platform. The CEO of Tesla is a regular user of the micro-blogging site, and its most vocal critique.

On Monday, Musk had taken 9.2% stake in social media platform, according to a U.S. securities exchange filing. He reported owning 73.5 million shares of the company as of March 14, an announcement that sent the company’s shares soaring 27% in New York Stock Exchange.

Musk’s stake is valued at $2.9 billion based on Friday’s closing price, and makes him Twitter’s largest shareholder, holding more than the company’s co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey. That size has earned him a seat at the social media firm’s board.

While Musk did not share any details about why he bought shares of Twitter, except posting a tweet on Monday saying: “oh hi lol”, there are some cues to what he might end up doing at the California-based company.

Content moderation

In recent times, the billionaire had weighed up the platform’s commitment to free speech. In some of his tweets he had broached the idea of starting his own social media firm, without disclosing specifics.

On March 24, Musk tweeted a poll, asking his followers whether the platform “rigorously adheres” to free speech. Over 70% of the two million users who voted clicked ‘no’.

Musk’s poll came two weeks after the Twitter handle of a U.S.-based parody website, Babylon Bee, was taken down ‘for hateful comment’. The website had derisively awarded Rachel Levine, a transgender U.S. government official, the title “Man of the Year”. The site’s award was in response to USA Today naming the government health official “women of the year”.  

That piece of satire was posted on Twitter, which led the platform to block the parody account’s handle. Reacting to Twitter’s suspension, Seth Dillon, the CEO of Babylon Bee, explained in a series of tweets that the platform would not restore the account until the tweet on Rachel Levine was deleted. Dillon refused. The site’s handle is now unblocked, but it has been kept from posting new content.

After Musk joined Twitter’s board, Dillon replied to the two-week old pool tweet on Tuesday saying, “Musk reached out to us before he polled his followers about Twitter’s commitment to free speech. He wanted to confirm that we had, in fact, been suspended. He even mused on that call that he might need to buy Twitter.”

In a separate episode, several conservatives took to the microblogging site on Monday expressing hope that Musk would overturn Twitter’s decision to de-platform former U.S. President Donald Trump after the infamous January 6 U.S. Capitol attack.

Open-source algorithm

Later, on the same day, on March 24, Musk once again reached out to his followers on Twitter. This time he polled on whether the platform’s algorithm be made open source or not. The poll was retweeted by co-founder Dorsey with a note, “the choice to which algorithm to use (or not) should be open to everyone.” Over 80% of the million odd users who took the poll voted ‘yes’.

Some experts note that making social media algorithms open source could weed out misinformation and hatred from these platforms. Having an idea of what a platform prioritises over another will help users to be more informed, and keep bad actors from manipulating the system.

But others point out that the codes that run these platforms are part of the corporation’s trade secret. Balancing disclosure and corporate secrecy will be a tough act to follow as most tech firms may not even have a team or department that has a full view of how their algorithm works. It continues to be black box that few have complete access to.

A battle with financial regulators

While crafting policies around content moderation and open-source algorithm could take much of Musk’s time at Twitter in the long-term, a fight with financial regulators in the U.S. will be an urgent priority.

That’s because, according to the filing, Musk’s disclosed 9.2% holding was submitted in a form that is required for investors to use when they pick more than 5% stock, without planning to seek control of the company. But Tesla CEO will have an active role to play at Twitter. Also, Musk’s notice to the exchange was sent several days later.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) has previously brought enforcement actions against some people who missed ownership-disclosure deadlines repeatedly. And Musk’s disclosure could hurt him in his ongoing legal battles with the SEC.

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