Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, contacted Parag Agrawal, the CEO of Twitter, a few weeks ago with a friendly tip. He was buying stock in the social media company, Musk confided, and wanted to talk about how to make Twitter better.
Musk had ideas for reshaping social media that dovetailed with those of Agrawal and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, according to their public exchanges. All three have floated the idea of radically shifting the power of social media to users and away from giant companies, by using an approach to technology that would give people control over what they see on their social media.
In the weeks that followed, Agrawal discussed Musk becoming a more active participant in Twitter’s future, according to two people with knowledge of the talks who were not authorized to speak publicly. Agrawal also welcomed Musk, who has more than 80 million Twitter followers and sometimes tweets a dozen or more times a day, as joining the company’s board, one of the people said.
On Tuesday, Twitter announced that Musk, 50, would be named to its 11-person board of directors for a term expiring in 2024. That followed Monday’s revelation that Musk had amassed a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter, which made him its largest shareholder. Musk has agreed not to own more than 14.9 percent of Twitter stock or take over the company, which is based in San Francisco, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“Through conversations with Elon over the past few weeks, it became clear to us that he would bring tremendous value to our board,” Mr. Agrawal he tweeted on Tuesday.
The addition of one of Twitter’s most powerful users to its directory has implications for a social network where world leaders, legislators, celebrities and more than 217 million users conduct their daily public discourse. Unlike other Twitter board members, Musk did not sign an agreement prohibiting him from influencing company policies. That could allow him to work with Mr. Agrawal on a futuristic vision for “decentralized” social media.
That vision challenges the way platforms are created. The core technologies would be built publicly and transparently, with oversight and input from coders around the world. Users could then customize their social media feeds and set their own rules about what types of speech are acceptable. That’s very different from how social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are set up now, with companies dictating which posts can stay and which must be removed.
The plan is consistent with Musk, Dorsey and Agrawal’s beliefs in unrestricted free speech. Musk has criticized Twitter for moderating its platform too restrictively and has said more speech should be allowed. Mr. Dorsey also grappled with the decision to remove former President Donald J. Trump from the service last year, saying he was not “celebrated or proud” of the move. Mr. Agrawal has said that public conversation provides an inherent good for society.
Their positions have increasingly become outliers in a global debate over free speech online, as more people have questioned whether too much free speech has allowed the spread of misinformation and divisive content.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Musk, who runs the companies Tesla and SpaceX, said he hoped to “make significant improvements to Twitter in the coming months.” He did not elaborate and did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Agrawal and Mr. Dorsey also did not respond to requests for comment.
A Twitter spokesperson said Musk would not be involved in policymaking at the company. Twitter employees would continue to make day-to-day policy decisions, he said, and the company would be impartial in developing and enforcing its rules.
Musk could bring turbulence to Twitter. He has long used the service as a cudgel, trolling Tesla short sellers and insulting critics. He has also spread inaccurate information about the pandemic. After he mused about taking Tesla private in a 2016 tweet and incorrectly claimed that he had raised funds for the transaction, the SEC fined him $40 million.
His appointment to Twitter’s board was welcomed by some Republicans on Tuesday, who accused the company of political bias and censoring right-wing voices. “Musk. Freedom of expression,” Rep. Jim Jordan saida Republican from Ohio.
(Democrats, with whom Musk has tangled online over the party’s proposed wealth tax, did not express an opinion.)
David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has previously worked with the United Nations on speech issues, warned that Musk’s views on free speech could conflict with Twitter’s policies, which it purports to govern. conversations around the world.
“The risk is that their individual and personal business preferences, which are sometimes idiosyncratic, influence rule-making and compliance in a way that is inappropriate for a company that, in their words, is a version of a public square.” he said.
Twitter’s move toward a “decentralized” social network is rooted in discontent among some of its top leaders with the way the platform has become an arbiter of what speech is and isn’t allowed online. While Twitter users do exercise some control over their social media feeds, such as choosing who they follow, the service’s algorithm selects which posts are seen at the top of their feeds, and the company can decide whether to ban accounts on Twitter. based on whether posts have violated your policies.
Dorsey, who stepped down as Twitter’s chief executive in November, has said users should have more power over the posts they see so they can make their own moderation decisions. Last week, he lamented in a tweet that the centralization of the Internet by corporations had damaged the web.
“I realize that I am partially at fault and I am sorry,” he wrote.
In 2019, Mr. Dorsey funded a project called Bluesky, an effort to develop a new infrastructure for social networks that would give users control over their data, selecting top tweets with their own algorithms and allowing them to move their data to other networks. platforms.
“We believe that people should have choices about the key algorithms that affect their online experience,” Mr. Dorsey testified in Congress in 2020, calling the concept “an exciting market-driven approach where people can choose which algorithms they filter their content so they can have the experience they want.”
At the same time, Musk has dabbled in technologies to decentralize control. In 2015, along with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sam Altman and others, Musk founded an artificial intelligence lab called OpenAI and said the company would openly share its research with the world at large. Musk later parted ways with the company.
It’s unclear if a decentralized Twitter could join. It could take years to emerge because it would involve a complicated process of renewing the entire platform.
As of March 14, Musk, who has a net worth of more than $270 billion, had amassed a more than 5 percent stake in Twitter, according to a company filing. After that, he began to express more of his thoughts on Twitter and free speech on the service, including in exchanges with Dorsey.
“Twitter algorithm should be open source”, Mr. Musk tweeted on March 24, asking his followers to vote “yes” or “no” on the idea of making the code that powers Twitter’s algorithm publicly available. Such “open” algorithms could give people more options to organize their feeds as they wish and prioritize different types of content.
Mr. Dorsey readily agreed. “The choice of which algorithm to use (or not) should be open to everyone,” he said. tweeted in response.
On March 25thMusk asked his followers if Twitter was not abiding by the principles of freedom of expression. “Freedom of expression is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you think Twitter strictly adheres to this principle? he asked him.
A day later, after more than two million users responded, Mr. Musk wrote“Since Twitter serves as the de facto public square, failing to adhere to the principles of free speech fundamentally undermines democracy.”
“Is a new platform needed?” she added.
On Monday, in one of his first tweets after his involvement was revealed, Musk posted another poll on Twitter asking people if they wanted to be able to edit tweets, a feature many have requested without success.
Mr. Agrawal jumped, tweeting, “The consequences of this survey will be important. Please vote carefully.” The company then said had been working on an editing feature since last year and would be testing it out soon.
Dorsey weighed in on Tuesday after Musk’s appointment to Twitter’s board became official. The development didreally happy”, he tweeted.
cade metz contributed report.