Tesla CEO Elon Musk completed his $44 billion purchase of Twitter on Thursday after a chaotic, months-long buyout process, leaving the richest man on the planet in control of one of the world’s most widely used social media and communication platforms.
Musk wasted no time imposing himself on the company, swiftly firing several top executives including CEO Parag Agrawal.
“The bird is freed,” Musk tweeted late Thursday.
A self-described free speech absolutist who has proven in practice to be anything but, Musk has yet to fully detail his vision for Twitter, but critics of the takeover fear that the billionaire’s suggestions thus far — including reversing the permanent bans of former President Donald Trump and potentially other figures such as the hate-spewing conspiracy monger Alex Jones — could further deluge the platform with disinformation ahead of key elections in the United States and Brazil.
As The New York Times observed, “Twitter said it would prohibit misleading claims about voting and the outcome of elections, but that was before Mr. Musk owned it.”
“Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter will make it an even more hate-filled cesspool, leading to irreparable real-world harm,” said the Stop the Deal Coalition, an alliance of groups that includes Accountable Tech, Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, and the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. The coalition has urged Congress to investigate Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. (The purchase is reportedly already facing an investigation by federal regulators.)
“Musk’s plans will leave the platform more vulnerable to security threats, rampant disinformation, and extremism just ahead of the midterm elections,” the coalition said. “Elon Musk has a thirst for chaos and utter disregard for anyone other than himself and should not own Twitter.”
The coalition noted that, to fund the Twitter purchase, Musk is “accepting financing from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud and the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar — two countries run by repressive regimes.” Saudi Arabia and Qatar are hardly bastions of free speech: Earlier this month, the Saudis sentenced 72-year-old U.S. citizen Saad Ibrahim Almadi to 16 years in prison over tweets criticizing the regime.
Almadi’s son told The Washington Post that the kingdom has tortured his father in prison.
“Elon Musk owning one of the world’s most powerful communication platforms is dangerous for us all,” the Stop the Deal Coalition continued. “As Musk runs Twitter to the ground, let this serve as a warning to other platforms that they will be held accountable for ignoring public safety and dismantling the guardrails designed to protect our information ecosystem.”
Elon Musk is an erratic billionaire who has promised to rollback critical safeguards, replatform users who have repeatedly incited violence, and provide a megaphone to extremists who traffic in disinformation.
And he has just been given carte blanche control over this platform.
— Nicole Gill (@nicolelgill) October 28, 2022
In a statement posted to Twitter Thursday morning, Musk said the reason he purchased the company “is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.”
But Musk’s stated openness to free expression appears not to apply to his employees, Tesla customers, or journalists covering his companies.
“In November 2020, former Tesla employee Stephen Henkes said he was fired from his job at Tesla on August 3, 2020 after raising safety concerns internally then filing formal complaints with government offices, when the company failed to fix and communicate accurately with customers over what he said were unacceptable fire risks in the company’s solar installations,” CNBC reported Thursday.
“Musk and Tesla have also sought — not always successfully — to silence customers,” the outlet added. “For example, Tesla used to compel customers to sign agreements containing non-disclosure clauses as a prerequisite to have their vehicles repaired,” the outlet added. “In 2021, Tesla asked customers to agree not to post critically to social media about FSD Beta, an experimental driver assistance software package that some Tesla owners could test out using their own cars and unpaid time to do so.”
“Musk is the face of 21st-century tech-based, extreme capitalism.”
Musk, like other billionaire CEOs, is also a union-buster.
Last year, the National Labor Relations Board upheld a judge’s ruling that Tesla unlawfully fired an employee involved in union organizing. The labor board also affirmed the finding that Musk illegally threatened workers “with the loss of their stock options” if they decided to form a union.
David Nasaw, emeritus professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center, wrote in a column for the Times on Thursday that “Musk is the face of 21st-century tech-based, extreme capitalism, just as the robber barons, who built our railroads, and Andrew Carnegie, who supplied those railroads and the builders of modern American cities with steel, embodied the exuberant and expansive industrial capitalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
“Mr. Musk has exploited the opportunities emerging in a rapidly disintegrating regulatory state apparatus and acquired a small army of investors and a fleet of lobbyists, lawyers, and fanboys (known as Musketeers),” Nasaw continued. “He has sought to position himself as a tech genius who can break the rules, exploit and excise those who work for him, ridicule those who stand in his way, and do as he wishes with his wealth because it benefits humanity.”
“It is not unreasonable to expect that a Musk-owned and controlled Twitter will, in the name of free speech, allow disinformation and misinformation to be tweeted ad infinitum so long as it discredits his political opponents and celebrates and enriches himself and his allies,” Nasaw added. “Elon Musk is a product of his — and our — times. Rather than debate or deride his influence, we must recognize that he is not the self-made genius businessman he plays in the media. Instead, his success was prompted and paid for by taxpayer money and abetted by government officials who have allowed him and other billionaire businessmen to exercise more and more control over our economy and our politics.”