While Musk’s earlier federal regulatory filings indicated that he planned to take a passive stake in Twitter, his actions since then leave no doubt that he intends to shake it up. After acquiring his stake on March 14, Musk spent the next three weeks influencing discussions around the future of Twitter — its algorithm, how it polices speech, and even whether a “new platform” was needed — all without disclosing that he was a part-owner and in talks to join the board.
“Looking forward to working with Parag & Twitter board to make significant improvements to Twitter in coming months,” Musk tweeted Tuesday, in a reply to a public welcome from the company’s new CEO, Parag Agrawal. Hours earlier, Musk had polled his 80 million Twitter followers on whether they’d like to see an edit button — which would allow them to edit tweets after posting them — a winking nod to a long-standing feature request from the platform’s power users. It could also be a harbinger of how he plans to use his own Twitter megaphone as a bully pulpit to agitate for changes.
The prospect of the mercurial Musk micromanaging Twitter has sent the company’s stock soaring, employees reeling and Republican leaders clamoring for a more permissive stance on political speech from a platform that permanently banned former president Donald Trump. And it sets the company up for a cascade of political controversies in an election year, with conservatives agitating for Musk to end “censorship” and employees pushing for the company to enforce its rules protecting people from misinformation and harm.
“Elon Musk has made clear he opposes big tech censorship, and that’s something all freedom-loving Americans can get behind,” tweeted Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a supporter of former president Donald Trump. Others, including a former Trump administration official, called on Musk to reinstate Trump’s account.
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Twitter executives outwardly embraced Musk on Tuesday even as they sought to soothe employees anxious at how he’ll complicate their work.
“Through conversations with Elon in recent weeks, it became clear to us that he would bring great value to our Board,” Agrawal tweeted. “He’s both a passionate believer and intense critic of the service which is exactly what we need on Twitter, and in the boardroom, to make us stronger in the long-term.”
Jack Dorsey, the company’s co-founder and Agrawal’s predecessor as CEO, echoed the welcome while hinting that he expects Musk to take on a leadership role. “Parag and Elon both lead with their hearts, and they will be an incredible team,” he tweeted.
A senior Twitter executive tried to reassure her team in an open letter to staff, saying that the work of combating “hate speech and trolls” was “bigger than any board member,” according to internal documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Musk’s term on the board will extend through 2024, according to a regulatory filing dated Monday. While Dorsey remains on the board, his 2.3 percent ownership stake is now dwarfed by that of Musk, who is poised to vie for influence with activist shareholders such as a group from Elliott Management that had pressed for Dorsey’s ouster amid demands for faster growth.
Twitter officials pushed back on the idea that Musk will wield outsize control.
“Our Board plays an important advisory and feedback role across the entirety of our service,” spokesperson Brenden Lee said in a statement. “Our day-to-day operations and decisions are made by Twitter management and employees.”
Musk did not respond to a request for comment.
The elevation of Musk to the board sets the stage for an election-year political confrontation between conservatives who would like to see a more laissez-faire approach to moderating what users say and executives within the company who have championed stronger actions to reduce misinformation and harm. It also risks drawing the company’s management into further turmoil after years of investor activism and the sudden departure of Dorsey late last year. The company is already at a critical juncture ahead of the 2022 midterm elections that will determine control of Congress.
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Twitter inflamed conservatives when it kicked Trump off its platform last year after his comments that appeared to promote the Capitol insurrection. At the time, Musk indicated in his own tweets that he disagreed with the decision by social media companies, and he has referred to himself as a free-speech defender.
“Musk understands attention better than almost any politician or business leader,” said Emerson Brooking, resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensics Lab at the Atlantic Council. “He has made his fortune largely on the manipulation of attention in the public interest, not making electric cars.”
Brooking said he thinks Musk could make moves to restore Trump’s account and to push the company to go softer on the right.
Some leading Republicans seemed to agree, publishing celebratory tweets at the news of Musk’s board seat. Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the top Republican on the influential House Judiciary Committee, tweeted simply: “Musk. Free speech.”
Musk has long seen himself as a hero battling societal ills he sees as inevitable, from climate change to artificial intelligence.
His recent crusade for online free speech appeared to begin with Trump’s banishment from Twitter last year. Days after Twitter booted Trump, Musk wrote that “a lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”
Since then, he has posted a steady stream of tweets positioning himself as a free-speech absolutist. And he has conducted a series of polls that hint at how he intends to wield his influence.
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On March 24, after he had acquired part of Twitter but before he had disclosed it, Musk conducted a Twitter poll asking whether Twitter’s algorithm should be “open source.” The next day, he ran another Twitter poll, this time asking whether Twitter adheres to principles of free speech. The “consequences” of that poll, he said, would be “important.” Twitter users voted overwhelmingly that Twitter did not.
Musk followed up on March 26 asking, “Is a new platform needed?”
Musk’s free-speech tweets continued in the following days, leading to speculation that Musk was taking interest in investing in or launching his own social media company. On March 28, Musk responded to complaints that the journalist Chris Hedges’s content was taken down when YouTube removed videos that were part of Russia-state outlet RT in the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I disagree with you, but I disagree with deleting your stuff even more. That’s what free speech is about.” Musk wrote on March 28, in response to videos being taken down.
On Monday, after the investment was publicly revealed, Musk tweeted simply, “Oh hi lol.” Later Monday, Musk conducted another poll on the simpler issue of whether Twitter should have an edit button. (Twitter’s communications team tweeted late Tuesday that the company had been working on creating an edit button for months and “didn’t get the idea from a poll.”)
Agrawal’s statement that the conversations with Musk unfolded over weeks suggests a longer timeline than Musk had previously hinted at with his polls, where he had not publicly disclosed any stake in Twitter. A form Musk filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Tuesday listed purchases of Twitter stock dating back to Jan. 31.
Musk’s appointment to Twitter’s board comes with a limitation on how large his ownerships stake can grow. According to a securities filing, Musk can own up to 14.9 percent of the company, which ensures at least for the near term that the Tesla and SpaceX owner cannot orchestrate a hostile takeover of the company.
Musk’s current 9.2 percent stake is not anywhere near a controlling interest, but it is enough for him to gain significant leverage and influence over the company, said Stephen Crimmins, a securities lawyer with McGonigle P.C. “Musk has immense voting power with such a large stake and the ability to influence how other existing shareholders may vote,” he said.
Crimmins said that any time a person buys such a large stake in a company, the question of a board seat usually arises. Once Musk’s stake was revealed to the board, they had two choices: Work with Musk or force him to use his voting power as leverage to exert his will over the company. Twitter chose the least hostile route, welcoming Musk with open arms.
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By capping Musk’s stake and thus limiting his influence, Twitter has kept things calm for the near term. If Musk isn’t happy with the power he’s amassed as a major shareholder and board member, he can leave the board and amass an even larger stake, perhaps even attempting a hostile takeover, Crimmins said.
The company’s stock had jumped nearly 30 percent from its Friday close as of Tuesday afternoon.
Twitter employees, meanwhile, debated Musk’s new stake all day Monday and into Tuesday. Some responded with shock at the latest chaotic decision to embroil the company, while others posted jokes and memes. And some worried that Musk’s history of instability and fights with the SEC would only bring more mismanagement to Twitter.
“Can we do anything about Elon being appointed to the board? I know myself and a lot of others are concerned and upset about this,” one employee wrote on the company’s internal chat system.
Taylor Telford contributed to this report.