In late May, something unusual happened at Twitter. Shareholders voted to approve two proposals to change how the company operates — and did so against Twitter’s recommendations.
While shareholder votes are often nonbinding for management, these nonetheless pushed for good corporate governance practices. The first proposal required Twitter to compile a report on the risks of using concealment clauses, such as nondisclosure agreements, to ensure greater accountability for the company and protections for staff. The second proposal required Twitter to disclose its spending on elections.
The developments, however, were overshadowed by something else unusual happening at the company. Elon Musk, the mercurial billionaire, had agreed to buy Twitter for $44 billion the month before only to begin raising doubts about the deal soon after. The deal to take Twitter private, which was finally completed this week, likely renders the votes moot; Musk will have final say, not shareholders, a power he wields over numerous entities.
In the tech industry, and especially in the social media sector, annual shareholder meetings have long been something of a farce that captures the broader power imbalance in Silicon Valley. Rather than hold management accountable, shareholders typically run into an unbreachable wall of opposition from founders like Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, Snap’s Evan Spiegel, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who control a majority of voting shares at their respective companies.
Twitter was different. The company billed itself as a “town square,” and also operated in a more democratic fashion than many of its peers, sometimes to its detriment. The company’s CEOs, of which there have been several over the years, clashed with the board and left or were pushed out. Twitter was vulnerable to an activist investor, shareholder proposals and ultimately a takeover from the world’s richest man. It was messy, sure. Zuckerberg once allegedly described Twitter as a “clown car.” But at least it was a clown car that partly belonged to the public.
Now, Musk joins the list of rich, white men who single-handedly control social platforms that collectively reach and shape the lives of billions of people around the world. And Musk, who will reportedly have “absolute control over Twitter” according to a shareholders’ agreement, promises to be uniquely disruptive.
In an effort to support his maximalist vision of “free speech,” the Tesla CEO plans to rethink Twitter’s content moderation policies and permanent bans for users who previously violated the platform’s policies, including former President Donald Trump. He also reportedly wants to gut Twitter’s staff. and has already fired several top executives.
Each of these moves has the potential to undo the work of employees who have labored to make Twitter a better platform with “healthy” conversations after years of complaints from users about harassment and toxic discourse. These moves could also upend the many corners of society shaped to some degree by Twitter. While it is barely a tenth the size of Facebook, Twitter has always had an outsized influence over the worlds of media, politics and tech.
That influence now belongs to Musk. There are two vastly diverging views of the billionaire. Many think of him as a generational figure who is a hybrid of Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs and the fictional Tony Stark — an innovative spirit who defies skeptics to build big businesses that better the world. The others can’t look past his history of false promises, erratic behavior and incendiary remarks.
To those in the first camp, Musk serving as the sole decider at Twitter may be cause for celebration. To those in the second, quite the opposite. But both camps have cause for concern.
More than any other figure, Musk has become the embodiment of a level of concentration of power and wealth that would have seemed almost unthinkable just a couple of decades ago.
The world’s richest man, worth more than the GDPs of many countries, is now in control of one of the world’s most influential social networks. One individual now owns or oversees businesses that are shaping the automotive and space industries, rethinking core infrastructure with freight tunnels and satellite internet, building humanoid robots and brain-interface machines and determining how millions connect with each other and find news.
Musk, prone to self-aggrandizement, insists his interest is to aid humanity, but he also insists that he knows best how to do so at each turn and does not seem to take criticism very well. He and his supporters have been known to lash out at detractors on Twitter, where he spends an unusual amount of time for someone running multiple companies. And now, rather than take his ball and going home when countless users criticize him for, say, offering unsolicited advice on how to end Russia’s war in Ukraine, he is buying the whole field for $44 billion.
In 2022, many people may be accustomed to the tremendous power wielded by tech founders. Jeff Bezos, a fellow billionaire and Musk’s rival, also owns a rocket company and used his vast wealth to acquire The Washington Post. But Musk isn’t buying a newspaper, he’s buying the news, or at least one of the key platforms that shape it.
It’s a level of unimpeachable power perhaps only rivaled by Zuckerberg, and there have been clear downsides in this sphere. Zuckerberg, whether he was being truthful or not, tried to downplay his platforms’ influence in the 2016 US presidential election only to spend years trying to extinguish scandals related to it. Facebook has since tried to push off its most difficult decisions to an independent oversight board, but the buck still stops with Zuckerberg. The same will go for Musk.
Elon Musk is a conglomerate, and each arm of his empire potentially gives him more leverage, real or imagined, in advocating for the others. Before lawmakers choose to speak out about concerns with Tesla, for example, some may also weigh whether Musk might discontinue offering his Starlink broadband internet system in Ukraine, or whether he might put his thumb on the scale to promote certain content on Twitter that may disadvantage them.
More immediately, however, owning a social network ensures Musk a different kind of personal power increasingly sought by other controversial billionaires, including Trump (with Truth Social) and Musk’s friend Ye (with a proposed deal to buy Parler). It is the power of knowing that, no matter what he says and no matter how offensive it may be, he can never be turned off.
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