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Elon Musk's Twitter deal: 'People are either outraged or happy'

·Senior Reporter
·5-min read
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The news on Monday that Twitter (TWTR) accepted Elon Musk's $44 billion offer to buy it elicited some wild responses, but many of the most conspicuous reactions have been political in nature.

On Twitter, liberals frequently responded to the news with reactions ranging from fear to distaste. As #leavingtwitter began trending, conservatives spoke about Musk's deal as a victory.

Such highly polarized responses have been baked in long before Musk ever took a stake in Twitter, said Jonathan Nagler, co-director of New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics. Conservatives are heavily invested in the social media censorship narrative, Nagler added. Meanwhile, liberals’ responses to Musk’s Twitter buyout are tied to the public memory of Donald Trump’s removal from the platform — and the concerns about what Twitter may become with less content moderation.

“First of all, it comes down to the free speech side of things, because he’s [Musk] said that he’s a free speech absolutist,” said American University communications expert Jason Mollica. "You can say that, and he may be all for allowing his own voice to be heard, but when it comes to people talking about him without his approval, in a sense, he’s been very restrictive.”

Musk, who originally revealed his stake in Twitter just a few weeks ago, has moved quickly. He revealed he'd made an offer for the company on April 14, and the nearly $44 billion deal was announced this week.

While Musk says he wants to foster free speech on Twitter, he's also been accused of muzzling his own critics. Outlets like Bloomberg, The Atlantic, and CNBC have noted this apparent contradiction, and there are scattered public examples. For instance, a Wall Street Journal reporter in 2018 tweeted that Musk and SpaceX demanded review of an article before publication. He also has previously hired private investigators to go after his detractors, according to Bloomberg and Fortune. 

“I think there's a broader context on this, which is the long history of research in the U.S. on whether people support free speech, and support the First Amendment — though those two things aren’t the same,” Nagler told Yahoo Finance. “What’s generally been a robust result is that people are really pro-free speech when it comes to speech they like, and they're not so pro-free speech when it comes to speech they don't like.”

It all comes back to Trump

Twitter users' reactions in recent days also tie back to Trump, and how Trump used the platform. The former president — who founded a new network called Truth Social — took the polarization that social media enables, and turned up the dial, bringing us to where we are now, said Mollica.

“Social media [post-Trump] has given everything a political angle,” he said. “We look at everything, even Elon Musk, and people are either outraged or happy about what happened because they feel this could potentially be good or bad for their side of the aisle.”

These visceral responses are underpinned by the fact that Musk himself has used Twitter in ways that weren’t quite above-board, and have benefited him financially, according to Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media at Carnegie Mellon University. Famously, Musk's run-ins with the Securities and Exchange Commission have led him to settling fraud charges spurred by his 2018 tweets claiming he had funding to take Tesla private.

“Free speech is a bit of a misnomer in that speech can be highly biased, misconstrued, and manipulated especially in a public forum like Twitter,” Lightman said. “Musk has done this in the past where he has provided opinions and statements that were taken as buy signals by the public, so the idea of market manipulation is important to discuss.”

What’s next is simply unclear

We have evidence that Musk could take Twitter far away from the content moderation that it’s built up in recent years, and we have evidence that his tenure as Twitter’s owner could be more muted, said Mollica. The truth is, no one knows.

“He could be leaning conservative, favoring opening it up, or it could be a lot like it is right now,” he told Yahoo Finance. “We know there will be changes, [and those changes] could be window dressing, like the edit button, or they could involve the algorithm being opened up.”

Notably, Musk did also say that he "hopes his worst critics will remain" on the platform.

Though the Musk-Twitter saga is entering a new chapter, we know that he has an interest in revamping, or pulling back content moderation.

“There’s a reason other platforms have done content moderation, to combat hate speech and misinformation that's both political and health-related,” Nagler told Yahoo Finance. “There’s also just this political question of whether we’re heading towards a dystopia where very rich people can buy media firms and use them to greatly enhance their political power.”

For now, writer Susan Orlean has perhaps summed up the only thing we do know.

Allie Garfinkle is a senior tech reporter at Yahoo Finance. Find her on twitter @agarfinks.

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