Jon Schwarz of The Intercept noticed that not long after Musk took control of Twitter, he posted this letter to Twitter’s advertisers on his own Twitter feed.
Musk revealed that his vision for Twitter is “a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner.” But a few paragraphs later, he declares, “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”
Why is this significant? Well, Schwarz notes, Musk is all but admitting that the need to keep Twitter’s advertisers happy trumps any desire to ramp down content moderation. How’s that, you ask?
Twitter’s content moderation has sometimes been heavy-handed — especially when it froze my account because David Duke got mad at me. But this is not because Twitter is run by a woke mob. It’s because Twitter needs to keep advertisers happy — and their top priority is a certain kind of environment for their ads.
This can take specific forms. Delta probably has it written into its contract that its ads won’t run near any tweets about plane crashes. But more generally, advertisers don’t want anything controversial that gets people out of the buying mood, or worse, mad at the brands themselves. Proctor & Gamble can’t allow its ads for Charmin, targeted at the Upscale Panera Mom micro-demographic, to appear below frothing diatribes about annihilating all Muslims.
Schwarz then notes that Twitter has only turned a profit for two of its 16-year existence, and is likely to bleed money for the foreseeable future. If, however, Twitter’s advertisers have any reason to be nervous about how Musk is running the platform, the losses could zoom to the tune of billions of dollars a year.
That, Schwarz believes, is why Musk was all but forced to adopt what amounts to “the mission statement of pre-Musk Twitter.” After all, the need to please advertisers means that it is “essentially impossible for (Musk) not to continue significant content moderation.”
If that isn’t enough, there’s a reason why Musk primarily financed his purchase of Twitter with loans rather than buying it himself. Most of his wealth is tied up in Tesla and SpaceX stock—and if he isn’t careful, his Twitter gambit could cost him everything.
It’s true that Musk has said, “I don’t care about the economics at all.” But even as the richest man on earth, he has to care about them. He has a current estimated net worth of $220 billion, but that’s not $220 billion in cash sitting in a bank vault — it’s mostly tied up in his stakes in Tesla and SpaceX.
Thus to cover big Twitter losses, he would have to sell off more of his stock every year. This would be painful in monetary terms but more so in terms of power: Eventually he would get into a situation in which he could lose control of the companies, Tesla in particular.
To this, I’d add that if the banks who loaned him $13 billion of the purchase price get nervous about how Musk is running Twitter, they have every right to call those loans in.
All things considered, Schwarz concludes—and rightly—that Musk has painted himself into a corner. As Schwarz puts it, Musk’s “endless paeans to free speech” have made him the darling of the right—especially MAGA World. However, Schwarz believes that when it becomes apparent that Musk won’t—or rather, can’t—open the floodgates, “the sense of betrayal among Musk’s super-fans will explode with the force of a supernova.” The left already doesn’t trust Musk given his past bloviating about free speech. If Schwarz is right, Musk may be about to be left on an island.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we on the left shouldn’t worry about what Twitter will look like now that Musk has his paws on it. I suspected this spring that he was going to learn he can’t do everything he wants just because he’s a billionaire. And just like another narcissistic billionaire that we all love to hate, that lesson is going to be really painful. That’s reason enough to stay on Twitter—the Schadenfreude of watching that lesson unfold.