Reading Elon’s Tea Leaves

Musk took over Twitter. We still don’t know what that actually means for free speech.

AccessTimeIconOct 28, 2022 at 8:30 p.m. UTC
Updated Oct 28, 2022 at 9:10 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconOct 28, 2022 at 8:30 p.m. UTCUpdated Oct 28, 2022 at 9:10 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconOct 28, 2022 at 8:30 p.m. UTCUpdated Oct 28, 2022 at 9:10 p.m. UTC

Electric car mogul/aspiring Martian Elon Musk took over Twitter. This could mean a lot for free speech online, or not. We just don’t know. Here’s an attempt at parsing his statements and actions over the past few months.

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Reading Elon’s Tea Leaves

The narrative

Elon Musk finally took over Twitter. It took a while, and Twitter had to sue him to force him to close the deal, but it happened.

Why it matters

Twitter is a pretty central place for a lot of the crypto world. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the main town square, but it’s certainly significant. It’s also a place where many users are able to interact pseudonymously with each other, a state of affairs Musk has – intentionally or not – threatened in the past.

Breaking it down

I have a confession to make. I had no idea what to write about this week. I took some time off last week, went out and socialized and returned to stare at a google document that was as blank as my brain.

Luckily, on Thursday night, something happened:

(CNBC)

It’s official now. Elon Musk bought Twitter, for real this time*!

(*Though admittedly, as of the time I’m writing this, there's no press release or EDGAR filing or anything from the company itself, but it sure looks official based on multiple reports from news organizations.)

I wrote about this whole thing when Musk first announced he had a deal with Twitter’s heads, so it seems only fair to revisit that newsletter and see what, if anything, has changed since then.

There's two ways we could approach this. One is, “lol Elon spent $31 billion and a bunch of banks spent a further $13 billion to buy a company worth $41 billion at the time of closing and quite a bit less than that over the past few months, and this only after several months of legal wrangling that ultimately led to the same outcome it would have had Musk not tried to pull out.”

The other is, Twitter might now have a new approach to the content (tweets) on its platform.

The key thing, to me anyway, is we still don’t know what Musk actually plans. He has published a few tweets saying he is pro-free speech, but on Thursday said in a message (to advertisers?) that “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape.”

Recall that when he originally announced his intent to buy Twitter, he also said he wanted to authenticate every user because of the bot issue. In April, I wrote that the implications of Twitter collecting personally identifiable information – if that is how this shakes out – are troubling. Twitter’s now apparently likely to experience a staffing shakeup, which isn’t reassuring either.

Obviously it’s far too soon to actually tell what he’ll do with Twitter, but this is his chance to walk the talk on free speech.

One of the first things Musk did was fire Twitter’s leadership, including CEO Parag Agrawal, Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal, General Counsel Sean Edgett and Head of Legal Policy, Trust and Safety Vijaya Gadde. In all honesty, props to them – they took on Musk, forced him to fold and now they walk away with a collective $200 million.

But Gadde’s departure in particular will be interesting. She was denigrated for apparently being responsible for banning users like former President Donald Trump (and it is baffling to me that a decision like that did not end up in front of former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey) but the more important role she played was defending the rights of Twitter users to be pseudonymous.

Last I checked, Crypto Twitter had a fairly large number of users who preferred to be anonymous for various reasons, including that they may get sued if they weren’t. We just saw a prominent bitcoiner have to defend himself in court over things he tweeted. Twitter at large has occasionally been sued by people hoping to unmask users.

Governments especially might have an interest in Twitter’s new leadership. Within hours of Musk’s takeover, we saw government officials in various locations warning him that they expect him to abide by their own regulations. Musk’s assertion that Twitter would follow the laws of the land is also relevant here.

And, for whatever reason, a few months ago Musk wrote a column for a regulatory entity in China that is apparently tasked with censorship. I don’t know what to make of that.

Musk now takes on his third major CEO role (after Tesla and SpaceX), which he runs in addition to various other groups or companies he supports (the Boring Company, Neuralink, for example).

And just to look back at a previous prediction, back in April I wrote, “This could take up to six months, according to Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal.”

Agrawal called it – it took more or less exactly six months.

I also wrote, “Plenty could happen in that time (including Musk changing his mind, which, let’s face it, isn’t exactly out of the realm of possibility).”

Musk did indeed change his mind, or at least try to. I wonder how much the attorneys involved made thanks to that decision.

Biden’s rule

Changing of the guard

Key: (nom.) = nominee, (rum.) = rumored, (act.) = acting, (inc.) = incumbent (no replacement anticipated)
Key: (nom.) = nominee, (rum.) = rumored, (act.) = acting, (inc.) = incumbent (no replacement anticipated)

N/A

Outside CoinDesk:

  • (The Washington Post) A Post reporter followed one of the survivors of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, over the summer. This is quite a report, and it really is worth your time.
  • (Bloomberg Businessweek) Bloomberg Businessweek has its second-ever cover-to-cover story, and of course it’s on crypto and of course it’s written by the one and only Matt Levine. I also thought this short clip of an interview he sat for with Bloomberg’s Sonali Basak and Kailey Leinz provided a fascinating 150-second summary of where he stands today.
  • (The Washington Post) The bugs are disappearing.
  • (FDIC) The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation published the results of its 2021 survey of unbanked and underbanked households. If we are to accept the premise that this is an issue the crypto industry wants to address, it’s obviously worth looking at data on it.

If you’ve got thoughts or questions on what I should discuss next week or any other feedback you’d like to share, feel free to email me at nik@coindesk.com or find me on Twitter @nikhileshde.

You can also join the group conversation on Telegram.

See ya’ll next week!


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Nikhilesh De

Nikhilesh De is CoinDesk's managing editor for global policy and regulation. He owns marginal amounts of bitcoin and ether.