By Sheila Dang
-News of Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk taking a board seat at Twitter has some Twitter employees panicking over the future of the social media firm’s ability to moderate content, company insiders told Reuters.
Within hours of the surprise disclosure this week that Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” acquired enough shares to become the top Twitter shareholder, political conservatives began flooding social media with calls for the return of Donald Trump. The former U.S. president was banned from Facebook and Twitter after the Jan 6. Capitol riot over concerns around incitement of violence.
“Now that @ElonMusk is Twitter’s largest shareholder, it’s time to lift the political censorship. Oh… and BRINGBACKTRUMP!,” tweeted Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert on Monday.
Despite Twitter’s reiteration this week that the board does not make policy decisions, four Twitter employees who spoke with Reuters said they were concerned about Musk’s ability to influence the company’s policies on abusive users and harmful content.
With Musk on the board, the employees said his views on moderation could weaken years-long efforts to make Twitter a place of healthy discourse, and might allow trolling and mob attacks to flourish.
In the wake of Trump’s ban from Facebook and Twitter, the billionaire tweeted that many people would be unhappy with U.S. tech companies acting “as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”
Musk has not articulated what he wants to do as a new board member but he has telegraphed his intentions with his Twitter activity. A week before Musk disclosed a 9.1% stake in Twitter, he polled his 80 million followers on whether the site adhered to the principle of free speech, and the majority voted ‘no.’
The employees, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, point to Musk’s history of using Twitter to attack critics. In 2018, Musk came under fire for accusing a British diver who had helped rescue children trapped in a cave in Thailand of being a pedophile.
Musk won a defamation case https://www.reuters.com/article/us-musk-lawsuit-idINKBN1YA13U brought by the diver in 2019.
When asked for comment, a Twitter spokesperson repeated a statement from Tuesday that the board “plays an important advisory and feedback role across the entirety of our service,” but daily operations and decisions are made by Twitter’s management and employees.
“Twitter is committed to impartiality in the development and enforcement of its policies and rules,” the spokesperson said.
Some employees that Reuters spoke to were not so sure about the company’s commitment to this.
“I find it hard to believe (the board) doesn’t have influence,” said one employee. “If that’s the case, why would Elon want a board seat?”
But other employees Reuters spoke to said that Musk’s involvement could help quicken the pace of new feature and product launches, and provide a fresh perspective as an active user of Twitter.
Neither Tesla nor Musk responded to requests for comment.
Twitter’s board figures prominently in discussions within Twitter, more so than at other tech companies, one employee said. That is because unlike Meta Platforms Inc, where founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg controls the company through a dual class share structure, Twitter only has a single class of shares, making it more vulnerable to activists like Musk. Teams within Twitter often consider how to communicate a strategy or decision to the board, for instance, the employee said.
On Thursday, Musk tweeted https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1511982702819520512?s=20&t=icqGAAlqCZdXjrowWZk0zw an image from 2018 of him smoking weed on the Joe Rogan podcast on Spotify, with the text: “Twitter’s next board meeting is going to be lit.”
One employee familiar with the company’s operations said there were no current plans to reinstate Trump. A Twitter spokesperson said there were no plans to reverse any policy decisions.
But a veteran auto analyst who covers Musk’s operating style at Tesla said such a decision may only be a matter of time.
“If Donald Trump was actually rich, he would have liked to have done the same thing but he couldn’t afford it. So Elon is doing what Trump would have liked to have done,” said Guidehouse Insights analyst Sam Abuelsamid.
“I wouldn’t be surprised” if Twitter restores Trump’s account now that Elon owns nearly 10% of the company,” he said.
Longer term, employees said Musk’s involvement may change Twitter’s corporate culture, which they say currently values inclusivity. Musk has faced widespread criticism for posting memes that mocked transgender people and efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19, and for comparing some world leaders to Hitler.
Several employees were alarmed by the warm welcome Musk received from Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal and cofounder Jack Dorsey, which prompted them to hit the job market this week.
“Some people are dusting off their resumes,” one person said. “I don’t want to work for somebody (like Musk).”