What Twitter should do next (after Musk)
Now that the Tesla CEO is riding off into the sunset, the social media company needs to skip the protracted court battle and focus on what’s important.
By Brad Berens
On Friday, Elon Musk made official his desire to wiggle out of his Twitter acquisition.
Many readers kindly and gratifyingly reached out or posted saying “Brad, you called this one!” Why? On April 17, a few days after Musk announced his bid to buy Twitter, I argued that he wasn’t serious. It wasn’t a narcissistic, adolescent bid for attention: it was a savvy earned media play to sell cars. Then, on May 1 after the board accepted Musk’s offer, I doubled down saying he still wasn’t serious.
Even if the market hadn’t tanked and Twitter’s stock price hadn’t dropped to $36.81 (losing nearly half its value from a year ago), Musk still wouldn’t want Twitter. There is no bid to renegotiate: he has never wanted to own the company.
Since Friday, pearl-clutching pundits have busied themselves speculating about how much Musk will have to pay to get out of this. Will it be the $1B kill fee articulated in the bid? But wait! He waived diligence. Will he have to pay the full $42B and still acquire the company? Or pay the difference between his offer price and Twitter’s market cap today? I’m confident that the answers are “maybe” on the first and “heck, no” on the other two.
But who cares?
The important question is not “how much will Elon pay?” but “what should Twitter do next?”
What Twitter probably will do—and what the company most certainly shouldn’t do—is spend months fighting Musk in court to extract as much cash as they can. Meanwhile, Twitter is also wondering and worrying about who the next acquirer might be: now that the stock is a comparative bargain, will somebody else (Oracle? Salesforce? Microsoft?) show up on the front porch wearing a straw hat and with a big bouquet of flowers?
Whether it’s a Quarter Pounder or a Big Mac Combo Meal, Twitter should extract its burger of Muskian flesh as quickly as they possibly can, decide that they aren’t going to discuss M&A until after November of 2024, and then move on.
Why? We don’t have time to screw around.
Twitter is a critical platform for journalism when journalism is in peril because of misinformation (biased opinion masquerading as news at both ends of the political spectrum) and disinformation (outright balderdash coming from all sides and most particularly from rival nations like Russia and China).
This is a bad moment for there to be a truth drought.
The mid-terms elections are less than four months away. Control of both the House and Senate, not to mention numberless State and Local races, hang in the balance. Regardless of what side of the political spectrum we lean towards, we need to know what’s accurate and what’s propaganda. Nearly 70% of Republicans believe the big lie that President Joe Biden didn’t legitimately win the 2021 election despite having no evidence. Nor have the details that have emerged in the Congressional hearings about the January 6 insurrection changed many minds—even with the smoking gun testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson.
Pearl-clutching pundits have busied themselves speculating about how much Musk will have to pay to get out of this. Will it be the $1B kill fee articulated in the bid? But wait! He waived diligence. Will he have to pay the full $42B and still acquire the company? Or pay the difference between his offer price and Twitter’s market cap today? I’m confident that the answers are “maybe” on the first and “heck, no” on the other two.
Since the soft word “insurrection” doesn’t sound as bad as it is, let’s be clear that this was a violent attempt to stage a coup and overthrow the federal government that had the full support of the outgoing president. People were injured. People died.
The appalling thing is that Twitter doesn’t care about any of that. They don’t have to care because Section 230 (an amendment to the 1996 Telecommunications Act) immunizes Twitter from being held responsible for anything said on its platform, no matter how big a lie or how evil the intent.
What should Twitter do?
The company should publicly commit to taking whatever money they extract from Musk and then using it to improve the product.
With content moderation, the company should rigorously enforce its existing conduct rules, which it failed to do with the 45th president because it was making a lot of money off his constant tweets. Only when 45 had clearly lost power did Twitter do the right thing, which was cowardly.
Twitter should choose criteria for accuracy and bias, and then hold posters responsible for what they tweet. It’s not enough to give somebody a warning after tweeting misinformation or disinformation: that user’s reach—how many other people see the tweets—should be throttled down. As Sasha Baron Cohen and others have famously said, “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.”
Social media execs say they don’t want to be the arbiters of truth, so outsource it. I’m a big fan of, advisor to, and investor in Ad Fontes Media, which has a rigorous and thoughtful methodology for this (there are others). When a tweet falls into the orange (incomplete, propaganda) or red (misleading, lying) zones, the tweet should come down and the user’s reach shrunk to zero unless and until that user’s behavior changes.
Twitter should err on the side of protecting the commonwealth from lies rather than disingenuously hand-waving about censorship: the First Amendment doesn’t apply to companies, only to Congress.
Will it be expensive to figure out real-time moderation? Yes. Will a billion dollars invested in that expensive problem be a good start? Yes.
Outside of moderation, Twitter should refocus its algorithms on conversation rather than pontification. Despite my years of complaining about Facebook’s poor ethics and business practices (recent examples here and here), the conversational product is amazing. When I post something on Facebook, thoughtful interactions come quickly and keep coming. With Twitter, threads unravel into nothingness quickly. This wasn’t always the case: in the early days, Twitter created and accelerated conversation, but (as many others have said) the company has failed to develop its core product for years.
Twitter has always been better at the media part than the social part.
But let me be clear: I am not saying that Twitter needs to be more like Facebook. That’s the last thing we need.
We need Twitter to be better than Facebook. We need Twitter, regardless of who owns it, to understand that truth and profit are not mutually exclusive.
The catch phrase with superheroes (Spider-Man particularly) is that with great power comes great responsibility.
When it comes to platforms like Twitter, the catch phrase must be that with great influence comes great accountability.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
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July 14, 2022