Musk joined Twitter in 2009 and now has more than 112 million followers – the third most of any account behind former President Barack Obama and Canadian singer Justin Bieber. He had long considered buying the platform before the $44 billion deal closed last week.
Musk hasn’t detailed the changes he intends to make on Twitter, though he wasted no time in making sweeping layoffs. But he has said he wants to make Twitter a haven for free speech. He has said he disagrees with the platform’s decision to ban ex-president Donald Trump for inciting violence ahead of the January 6, 2021 attack on the US capital.
“I hope even my worst critics stay on Twitter because that’s what free speech means,” Musk tweeted earlier this year when he announced his intention to buy the platform.
As CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, Musk uses his Twitter account to make business announcements and promote his companies. He ponders technology and commerce, but has also posted jokes about women’s breasts and once compared Canada’s prime minister to Hitler. He regularly weighs in on global events, as he did in March 2020 when he tweeted that the “Coronavirus pandemic is stupid”.
That same month, he tweeted that children were largely immune to the virus and predicted that cases would soon disappear.
Musk has also used his Twitter account to weigh in on other big news events — with mixed results.
This fall, Musk infuriated leaders in Ukraine when he took to Twitter to pitch a potential peace deal. Under Musk’s plan, Russia would get to keep Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and Ukraine would have to drop its plans to join NATO.
Musk also suggested that people living in other areas illegally annexed by Russia should vote on whether Russia or Ukraine should gain control of the territories — a move Ukraine’s supporters said would reward Russia for its illegal aggression.
“The danger here is that Musk, in the name of ‘free speech,’ will turn back the clock and make Twitter a more potent engine of hate, division and misinformation,” said Paul Barrett, a disinformation researcher and deputy director of New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.
Stern singled out Musk’s comments about Ukraine as particularly troubling. “This is not going to be pretty,” he said.
Just days after buying Twitter, Musk waded into another firestorm when he posted a link to an article promoting a bizarre conspiracy theory about the attack on the husband of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The article suggested that Paul Pelosi and his assailant were lovers, although authorities said the suspect admitted to targeting the speaker and did not know her husband.
Musk later deleted the tweet without explanation.
Musk has long used the megaphone of his Twitter account to hit back at critics or people he opposes, such as when he attacked a diver working to rescue boys trapped in a cave in Thailand by calling him a “pedo,” an abbreviation for pedophile. The diver had previously scoffed at Musk’s proposal to use a submarine to rescue the boys. Musk, who won a defamation lawsuit filed by the diver, later said he never intended “pedo” to be interpreted as “pedophile.”
Three days before Elon Musk agreed to buy Twitter, the world’s richest man tweeted a picture of Bill Gates and used a crude sexual term while joking about his stomach.
Earlier this year, he criticized the Twitter chief responsible for the platform’s legal, policy and trust departments. In response to his tweets about the executive, many of Musk’s followers piled on misogynistic and racist attacks, as well as calls for Musk to fire her once his purchase of Twitter was approved.
Musk fired the manager on day one.
Musk’s use of Twitter has at times led to problems for his own companies. In an August 2018 tweet, for example, Musk claimed he had the funds to take Tesla private for $420 per share, although a court has ruled that was not true. That led to an SEC investigation that Musk is still fighting.
Last year, another federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board, ordered Musk to delete a tweet that officials said illegally threatened to cut stock options for Tesla employees who joined the United Auto Workers union.
Those tweets helped cement Musk’s reputation as a brash outsider. But that doesn’t mean he’s equipped to run a social media platform with more than 200 million users, said Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University professor who studies social media. Grygiel has assigned Musk’s tweets as reading material for students.
“Look at the feed: It’s all over the place. It is unpredictable. Sometimes it’s quite extreme, Grygiel said. “It paints him as some kind of rebel leader who wants to take control of the public square to save it. That’s a myth he’s constructed.”
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