Elon Musk Now Owns Twitter, the Social Media Platform Most Critical to Tesla’s Success

The modern version of Tesla would not exist without Twitter. The same is true of Musk, who now owns the company.

byApr 25, 2022 7:03 PM
Elon Musk Now Owns Twitter, the Social Media Platform Most Critical to Tesla’s Success
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Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is, at this point, all but impossible to separate from his bombastic image on Twitter. On Monday, that link became even more inextricable with Musk's apparent purchase of the social media company for $44 billion.

What seemed like a billionaire's flight of fancy a mere 10 days ago today became, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "one of the biggest acquisitions in tech history and will likely have global repercussions for years to come, including possibly reshaping how billions of people use social media." As grandiose as that sounds, there is truth to it; Twitter may boast a smaller user base than platforms like Facebook or TikTok, but its influence stretches far and wide, consistently able to shift financial markets, upend elections, create or destroy careers or influence the currents of public opinion arguably more than most competitors.

Few people know this better than Musk. Twitter has been instrumental to Tesla's growth over the years and the venue for more than one serious pratfall. It is where Musk's most fervent customer base gathers in force to defend him, where critics and stock shorts level their attacks, and where Musk himself hypes new products and initiatives without the filter of a PR team—and, on more than one occasion, makes a costly misstep of his own.

Musk, currently the richest man in the world, seemed to embrace all of that chaos on Monday. He has repeatedly said he is making this massive purchase of Twitter under the auspices of safeguarding free speech. Calling himself a “free speech absolutist” and likening Twitter to a global public town square, he has taken shots at everything from the platform's lack of an edit button to its inconsistent moderation of content and enforcement of its own rules. He has long lambasted Twitter's approach to content moderation, and speculation has arisen that he may order a reversal of the ban on former President Donald Trump, which would have profound implications for the next election and the years to come.

But while society continues to debate the effects of this Muskian brand of free speech absolutism on things like hate speech, deliberate disinformation and rhetoric that runs counter to proven facts, you could argue that this could be also looked at as a simple business decision instead: Musk is now cementing control over an app that has been absolutely crucial to Tesla's existence.

Perhaps that's just one part of Musk's decision to buy Twitter, instead of all of it. But just as Musk can't be separated from Twitter at this point, neither can Tesla. More than any other car company—arguably, more than any other company—Tesla came of age in the era of social media. And it depends on this platform specifically for its success.

Twitter launched in 2006 and encountered much of its early growth not from college kids like Facebook or the Zoomers who use TikTok today, but from tech industry influencers, politicians and journalists. As hellish as the site often is—trolls, racists, misogynists and targeted harassment campaigns are just part of business as usual—Twitter's power lies in its ability to make an outsized impact on the rest of the world, even people who don't use it. This was essential to Tesla early on a decade ago as the tiny, nascent, niche electric car startup sought to elbow its way into a conversation dominated by traditional automakers and their deeply entrenched sales channels. Musk and his company used the platform effectively to defend Tesla, fire back at critics, get people excited for new products (including ones that never materialized), and most importantly of all, build up the $TSLA stock price.

Tesla spent years as one of the most-shorted stocks on the market, and Twitter was where the shorts did their work. A recent Los Angeles Times story reveals that behind the scenes, however, an army of pro-Tesla bots seemed to have a hand in pushing stock prices up. Musk himself over time stopped being a startup CEO and more of, as that story calls him, "a singular force on Twitter," amassing more than 80 million followers and becoming one of the platform's most influential and central characters. When Tesla eliminated its PR team sometime in 2020, Musk's tweets to his followers effectively took its place, and even today, product announcements often come in the form of his tweet replies and offhand comments to his followers. Today, Tesla is far and away the most valuable car company in the world, and Musk is the richest man in the world who also, now, owns a social media network.

Even before today's purchase, Musk has elevated his Twitter presence to the point where he, and Tesla, can do what just about no other corporate operator can do: influence the company's fortunes, and the stock market as a whole, with a few tweets. Much as Trump was able to shape the course of American and global politics with one of his tweets, so can Musk in the world of business. You could say that's power money can't buy, but then again, he just did.

This power has not come without its consequences, of course. There's the infamous "funding secured" debacle of 2018, where Musk drew the ire of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over tweets that he had the money to take Tesla private. That decision cost Musk the role of chairman at Tesla and $20 million in fines, though it didn't end his career as some predicted it would. And then there was the massive public black eye when Musk called a British cave diver a "pedo guy" amid a Twitter feud, although he later prevailed in that case. Musk is also arguably the face for cryptocurrency scams on Twitter, much to his chagrin; this would not have happened without his incredible prominence on the platform.

So Musk can call this a defense of free speech all he wants—the issues he's had have been in violating securities rules, not Twitter's policies—but in the end, this is the case of a billionaire cementing an even greater degree of power over the medium he depends on most. Any discussions about edit buttons and tweet-length and moderation are incidental to Musk's own financial concerns, which remain extremely tied to this one platform.

Maybe there's a billionaire's ego at work here too. In fact, scratch the "maybe"; that's a big part of it. Musk's arch-rival Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, so there's an element of one-upmanship at work with this purchase. But while Musk positions himself as a kind of online crusader for democracy, no one can deny that it's in the best interest of his businesses to have a tighter degree of control over this platform. Talk of "What's going to happen next?" and "Will we get an edit button?" misses the point.

For as long as Musk is in the position he's in today, Tesla won't need a PR team ever again. Why influence the conversation when you can control it instead?

Contact the author: patrick@thedrive.com.