Twitter officially became privately owned by Elon Musk on Friday, sending the social media giant down an uncertain path under one of its most vocal critics.
The inquiry quickly turned to how the platform would operate under the self-proclaimed free speech absolutist, who some users fear will turn Twitter into a global playground for hate speech and misinformation.
In response to such concerns, Mr. Musk’s first political act was to announce on Twitter that he would form a “content moderation board” that would encompass “a wide variety of viewpoints.”
“No major decisions about content or account recovery will happen until this board meets,” he said.
Mr. Musk’s $44 billion deal ended a months-long soap opera of corporate shenanigans, including insults, threats and lawsuits.
“The bird is free,” the billionaire Tesla founder and space pioneer tweeted, referring to the company’s logo. “Let the good times roll.”
The deal sparked a backlash, with former US President Donald Trump backing a change in leadership on the platform that banned him, while activists warned of a spike in harassment and misinformation.
European politicians were quick to let Mr Musk know that there are rules for social media companies on the continent.
“In Europe, the bird will fly by our rules,” tweeted Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner.
Mr Musk has pledged to abandon content moderation and is expected to clear the way for Mr Trump to return to the platform.
The then-president was blocked amid fears he would incite more violence, like a deadly attack on the US Capitol in 2021, to reverse his election defeat.
Speaking on his own platform, Truth Social, Trump said he was “very happy that Twitter is now in good hands” but gave no commitment to rejoin if allowed.
Far-right users were quick to rejoice at Mr Musk’s ownership, posting comments such as “masks don’t work” and other taunts, suggesting moderation rules would now be relaxed.
“A huge responsibility”
Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley, who described Trump’s rise as a sign of growing fascism in the United States, said he would change his approach to office.
“I’m staying on Twitter for now. But I will try to be much more careful about what I say now that Mr. Elon Musk is in charge. Cascading hate speech can ruin your week,” he said.
Right-wing political commentator Ben Shapiro said he had gained 40,000 followers on Twitter on Friday, while actor Mark Hamill, a liberal, said he had lost nearly 6,000 followers in the past three days.
Mr Musk reportedly fired Twitter chief executive Parag Agrawal and other senior officials, although the company did not respond to AFP’s request for comment and Agrawal still listed himself as CEO on his Twitter profile.
But Ned Segal, Twitter’s CFO since 2017, has announced his departure.
“At its best, (Twitter) democratizes communication and knowledge, ensuring accountability and equal distribution of information,” Segal said.
“This is a huge responsibility for everyone involved in this case. I wish them strength, wisdom and foresight.”
Mr Musk, who is using a combination of his own money, funds from wealthy investors and bank loans to finance the deal, admitted he was overpaying for a company that regularly posts staggering losses.
How to monetize?
Twitter says it has 238 million daily users — fewer than Facebook’s nearly two billion — and can’t monetize in the same way as its rivals.
However, it has an extraordinary influence on public debate because it is a favorite platform for many companies, politicians, journalists and other public figures.
While he has promised that Twitter will not become a “free hellscape”, Mr Musk is reportedly planning major staff cuts, which will result in the loss of content policing teams.
Media watchdog Media Matters for America sounded the alarm about Twitter’s future under Musk, particularly the impact on the imminent US midterm elections.
The platform is “now on its way to becoming a supercharged engine of radicalization” and a “fever swamp of dangerous conspiracy theories, partisan shenanigans and operational harassment,” said the organization’s chief, Angelo Carusone.
The closing of the deal marked the end of a long dispute between the billionaire and the social network, which culminated in a lawsuit by Twitter to force Mr. Musk to honor the deal agreement.