Elon Musk has struck a deal to buy Twitter for about $44 billion (£34.5 billion), vowing a more lenient touch to policing content on the platform.
The outspoken Tesla CEO, who is also the world’s wealthiest person, has said he wanted to buy and privatise Twitter because he thinks it is not living up to its potential as a platform for free speech.
Musk said in a joint statement with Twitter that he wants to make the service “better than ever” with new features, such as getting rid of automated “spam bots” and making its algorithms open to the public to increase trust.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said.
But Musk’s commitment to free speech has been called into question, as critics recalled when he cancelled a blogger’s Tesla order over a “super rude” article.
In 2016, Californian venture capitalist Stewart Alsop wrote an open letter to Musk about a badly-run launch event for a new Tesla model.
Headlined “Dear @ElonMusk: you should be ashamed of yourself”, the letter listed Alsop’s gripes about the event: it started late, focussed too much on safety and was so busy that people like Alsop – who had paid a $5,000 deposit on the car – didn’t get the chance to test drive it.
Alsop concluded that “it would still be nice if you showed some class and apologised to the people who believe in this product”. But instead, Musk cancelled his pre-order.
In a follow-up post – “Banned by Tesla!” – Alsop relayed a phone call with Musk: “I also hear that you are not comfortable having me own a Tesla car and have cancelled my order for a Tesla Model X.”
He added: “I must also admit that I am a little taken aback to be banned by Tesla. When I wrote a blog post about my BMW X1 called ‘My Car Makes Me Feel Stoopid’, the CEO of BMW didn’t take the car back.”
Musk, in response, tweeted: “Must be a slow news day if denying service to a super rude customer gets this much attention.”
‘Free speech absolutist’
Musk has described himself as a “free-speech absolutist” but is also known for blocking or disparaging other Twitter users who question or disagree with him.
In recent weeks, he has voiced a number of proposed changes for Twitter, from relaxing its content restrictions — such as the rules that suspended former president Donald Trump’s account — to ridding the platform of fake and automated accounts, and shifting away from its advertising-based revenue model.
Asked during a recent TED talk if there are any limits to his notion of “free speech”, Musk said Twitter or any forum is “obviously bound by the laws of the country that it operates in. So obviously there are some limitations on free speech in the US, and, of course, Twitter would have to abide by those rules”.
Beyond that, though, he said he would be “very reluctant” to delete things and in general be cautious about permanent bans.
It will not be perfect, Musk added, “but I think we want it to really have the perception and reality that speech is as free as reasonably possible”.