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To Save Twitter, Elon Musk Should Fire Himself

Musk’s conflicts of interest make him too dangerous to run the global public sphere.

By , the dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Elon Musk in Berlin
Elon Musk in Berlin
Billionaire Elon Musk arrives at the ceremony for the Axel Springer Award in Berlin on Dec. 1, 2020. Hannibal Hanschke-Pool/Getty Images

Billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of and arrival at Twitter has turned the global social media company into a raging dumpster fire with significant consequences all around the world. The closest indication of any method behind the madness may be Musk’s Nov. 9 tweet: “Please note that Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months. We will keep what works & change what doesn’t.” Even here, Musk may have been overpromising: Twitter’s offices are now temporarily shuttered following mass firings, reported mass resignations, an apparent exodus of advertisers, a new plague of fake accounts, and confusion over future content policies. Many people are horrified by the Musk mayhem, his longtime critics are having an “I told you so” moment, and those inclined to be generous are taking a cautious view of “too early to tell.” Some former employees fear the platform may only have a few weeks to live.

To save Twitter, however, the choice is unambiguous: Musk urgently needs to fire himself. This is not because his opening act has been so chaotic but for deeper structural reasons. If Twitter’s mission is to be, in Musk’s own words, “by far the most accurate source of information about the world,” the combination of Musk’s multiple conflicts of interest and Twitter’s international operations would conspire to kill that mission. For one, Twitter’s global footprint is already on shaky ground. Second, Musk’s own international entanglements make the problem much worse. Third, the business pressures bearing down on the platform will be Twitter’s final nail in the coffin under Musk.

Twitter has served many purposes worldwide. It’s been a megaphone for the world’s powerful, but it has also given power to the powerless: Cairo’s revolutionaries at Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, desperate families searching for a hospital bed or oxygen tank during India’s second COVID-19 wave, and the #MeToo movement everywhere. Twitter has been a critical tool for crisis response during earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters.

Billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of and arrival at Twitter has turned the global social media company into a raging dumpster fire with significant consequences all around the world. The closest indication of any method behind the madness may be Musk’s Nov. 9 tweet: “Please note that Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months. We will keep what works & change what doesn’t.” Even here, Musk may have been overpromising: Twitter’s offices are now temporarily shuttered following mass firings, reported mass resignations, an apparent exodus of advertisers, a new plague of fake accounts, and confusion over future content policies. Many people are horrified by the Musk mayhem, his longtime critics are having an “I told you so” moment, and those inclined to be generous are taking a cautious view of “too early to tell.” Some former employees fear the platform may only have a few weeks to live.

To save Twitter, however, the choice is unambiguous: Musk urgently needs to fire himself. This is not because his opening act has been so chaotic but for deeper structural reasons. If Twitter’s mission is to be, in Musk’s own words, “by far the most accurate source of information about the world,” the combination of Musk’s multiple conflicts of interest and Twitter’s international operations would conspire to kill that mission. For one, Twitter’s global footprint is already on shaky ground. Second, Musk’s own international entanglements make the problem much worse. Third, the business pressures bearing down on the platform will be Twitter’s final nail in the coffin under Musk.

Twitter has served many purposes worldwide. It’s been a megaphone for the world’s powerful, but it has also given power to the powerless: Cairo’s revolutionaries at Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, desperate families searching for a hospital bed or oxygen tank during India’s second COVID-19 wave, and the #MeToo movement everywhere. Twitter has been a critical tool for crisis response during earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters.

This impressive breadth of use notwithstanding, Twitter covers large parts of the world where speech isn’t free. More than two-thirds of all Twitter users are outside the United States, contributing just under half of the company’s revenues. In only 7 of the top 20 countries ranked by the number of Twitter users is the internet labeled “free” by Freedom House (one country had no available data). The risk of manipulation and misinformation on Twitter was already high. With Musk’s arrival, that risk has risen to unacceptable levels given his other business interests. 

Musk’s global business activities clearly jeopardize Twitter’s mission. One of his undeniable traits is his ability to attract funders from around the world. His Twitter acquisition was co-financed by entities with links to China, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—three countries with a questionable track record of commitment to the information accuracy Musk says he seeks. The Qatar Investment Authority, for example, invested $375 million in Twitter. Qatar is set to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and is battling criticism for human rights violations at construction sites, media censorship, and the curtailment of the rights of women and minorities. Leverage over Twitter would give Qatar access to a megaphone to reshape the narrative. Two other problematic funding sources for Musk’s Twitter acquisition are Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Company and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, who are jointly the second-largest investor after Musk. Saudi Arabia, with the eighth-highest number of Twitter users, has one of the worst records on rights and freedom in the world.

Musk’s global business activities clearly jeopardize Twitter’s mission.

This is just the start. Musk’s conflicts of interest multiply when you consider two of his other businesses: Tesla and SpaceX. Both are crucially dependent on repressive governments, and Musk already has a clear record of pandering to them.

Tesla, for one, cannot survive without its ties to China, the world’s largest electric vehicle market by far. The electric car company’s revenues there have doubled two years in a row. Tesla also has its largest vehicle assembly plant in Shanghai, built with a loan and special concessions from the Chinese government. Most of Tesla’s direct sources for its batteries are in China. This degree of dependence on a single country with an all-powerful state makes it impossible to trust that a Musk-led Twitter would disallow its manipulation for propaganda purposes. Although Twitter is blocked in China, its diplomats and operatives abroad are active on Twitter promoting favorable narratives. In fact, Chinese authorities have created hundreds of fake accounts, creating bot armies and surveillance systems to monitor and silence dissidents abroad.

Musk’s other prominent venture, SpaceX, is also critically reliant on problematic international connections. Consider Starlink, SpaceX’s network of satellites designed to deliver high-speed internet anywhere. The company plans to expand service to most of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East next year and needs permission from government gatekeepers. It has secured a license in Qatar and will be launching its services in Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates next year. The Oman Investment Authority has also made an undisclosed investment in SpaceX. The three countries rate poorly on freedoms. With leverage over Musk via SpaceX, they could gain leverage over Twitter.

Beyond Starlink, SpaceX is poised to be a major player in this growing market for space launches, part of a booming commercial space market projected to grow to more than $1 trillion by 2040. A large part of the demand—for everything from satellite launches to moon missions—will come from authoritarian and semi-democratic governments as well as private entities connected to them. All will have interests in propaganda and ways to burnish their global prestige.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Musk is easily influenced by foreign governments. China has made clear that it exerts power over Tesla, including by banning the cars from “sensitive areas” because the cars’ driver assist systems can allegedly be used for spying. State-controlled media could change their coverage of Tesla any time, with a corresponding effect on sales. Financial connections between Chinese entities and Tesla, not least the loan to build the Shanghai factory, also give Beijing enormous leverage. Musk’s response to all this has been to praise China. His eagerness to please Chinese authorities is evident, for example, in a recent tweet suggesting that Taiwan become a special administrative zone controlled by Beijing. Unsurprisingly, news of Musk’s acquisition of Twitter was quickly followed by Chinese (and Russian) propaganda mouthpieces previously banned from the platform urging Musk to allow them back.

Twitter’s own business pressures, made incomparably worse by the chaos he has unleashed, will be the final nail in the coffin of a Musk-run Twitter. As he attempts to make the platform profitable, he will severely jeopardize its mission, creating a vicious cycle where compromised trust could scare off users and advertisers—in turn requiring even more drastic attempts at monetization. Musk recently gutted Twitter’s contract workforce who moderate content—not exactly conducive to information accuracy and trust. Those “writing great code will constitute the majority of our team and have the greatest sway,” said an email to Twitter staff from Musk, which further indicates a low priority for content moderation. With staff rapidly thinning out, some countries where Twitter operates will be the squeaky wheels garnering the few resources that are left, whereas others are likely to be starved.

Trouble is, Twitter’s global operating environment has become much too complex for Musk’s capricious, Sun King style of management. The United States has historically had relatively few content moderation rules, but several U.S. states have passed laws, and there is a case against Twitter in the U.S. Supreme Court. Elsewhere, new laws in the European Union and Britain require the company to implement risk assessments, transparency reports, and data access. The EU’s Digital Services Act gives regulators tools to monitor content and demand its removal. The United States and Europe are substantial sources of advertising revenue, so the world can expect Musk to direct some of Twitter’s resources there. But elsewhere, moderation and compliance could soon look weak. U.S.-based corporate headquarters are generally notorious when it comes to adapting to non-U.S. conditions, and Musk’s management style will throw additional sand in the company’s gears.

There are others who will place demands. Musk’s arrival comes on the heels of a record number of Twitter content removal requests from foreign governments. Japan had the most requests, but the demands came from 44 countries. Except in China, Iran, Russia, North Korea, and a few other countries, Twitter is accessible from any internet connection. According to some reports, roughly 4,400 out of 5,500 contract workers have been fired. This means there will be large parts of the world—with hundreds of millions of users—where misinformation and manipulation will likely thrive. The burden will fall on poorer nations, with have plenty of vulnerable users but not enough advertisers to make these places a priority for Musk. Far from being the most accurate source of information, Twitter risks becoming the most effective tool to manipulate information in large parts of the world.

The conclusion is inescapable. If Musk’s plan was to keep what works and change what doesn’t, it’s become clear that what doesn’t work at Twitter is Musk himself. He should swallow his pride, take a loss, and sell the company to a better owner.

Bhaskar Chakravorti is the dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is the founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context, where he established and chairs the Digital Planet research program.

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