Elon Musk speaks out about social media and the freedom of speech

After purchasing 9.2% of Twitter shares, Musk offered the company $43 billion to enact a shareholder rights plan

Billionaire businessman Elon Musk now owns a significant piece of social media giant Twitter. On April 1, he secured 9.2% of the company’s stock, officially making Musk the largest shareholder after steadily acquiring large quantities of Twitter’s shares over the past several months. Musk’s accumulation of shares comes five months after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stepped down and the company’s chief technology officer Parag Agrawal took over. Musk publicly supported Dorsey on the platform and expressed some discontent with Agrawal’s appointment, continuing his apparent disapproval of some of Twitter’s policies.

A New York Times article describes Musk as “unpredictable and outspoken,” adding that he “often [uses] Twitter to criticize, insult and troll others.” The businessman seems to have primarily taken issue with the company’s handling of free speech, something other public figures and technology companies have spoken out about as well. The platform has come under fire from both sides of the political spectrum for either perceived failure or overemphasis on regulating false information. Musk has polled his over-81 million followers to gather opinions on whether Twitter’s censoring behaviors adhere to free speech policies, tweeting “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy.” Along with expressing concerns about Twitter’s adherence to free speech principles, Musk has also expressed “concerns about the relevance of Twitter … and its financial model, which is based on earning money from advertisements.”

As social media sites such as Facebook have become major players in the United States’ public political discourse, debates about the sites’ policing have become more mainstream. The questions center around if and when a social media company should step in to remove, hide or fact-check posts. Such questions rose greatly after the Jan. 6 insurrection, when Twitter and Facebook, along with other platforms, took steps to ban former President Trump from their sites, citing his promotion of election misinformation. Musk’s concerns with free speech seem to have stemmed from run-ins with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over past tweets. His automotive company, Tesla, has come under SEC scrutiny over the past four years, beginning in 2018 when the company settled a lawsuit after Musk baselessly tweeted that he had the funding secured to take Tesla private. The settlement included Musk’s removal as chairman of Tesla’s board.
Musk’s financial interest in Twitter comes on the heels of him floating the idea of starting his own social media site to rival Twitter. Replying to a user’s question on the site, Musk said he was “giving serious thought” to creating a platform where “free speech and adhering to free speech are given top priority.”

After becoming the company’s largest shareholder, Musk agreed to a deal that would appoint him to Twitter’s board and prevent him from buying more than 14.9% of the company in order to avoid a hostile takeover — only to renege on the offer. On April 10, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal announced that Musk would not be joining the board. Musk not joining the board — thus skirting the rules that require he act in the company’s and its shareholders’ best interests — allowed the businessman to make a bid to buy the entire company, an offer he extended on April 14.

In a letter to Twitter’s chairman and an SEC filing, Musk cited his interest in free speech as his reason for purchasing stock and eventually offering to buy the company.

“I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy,” he wrote. In the letter’s conclusion, Musk wrote. “Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.”

For Musk, it seems that taking the company private is the only way to fulfill this potential.

After meeting to discuss Musk’s $43 billion offer, Twitter’s board declined the offer by enacting a new shareholder rights plan, also called a poison pill. The company shared its reaction on April 15. This measure, designed to protect the company from hostile takeovers, permits existing shareholders to purchase additional shares, thereby weakening the hostile party’s interest. This poison pill “strongly suggests that Twitter’s board intends to fight Musk’s bid to take ownership of the company,” leaving the future of the site less uncertain than before.

Musk’s attempted takeover of Twitter raises many questions about the structure and future of the social media platform. After declining Musk’s offer of a new shareholder rights plan, the future of Twitter is still left undecided.