Elon Musk’s Achilles’ heel

See updates through December 2, 2022, at end of post.


Fig. 1. “Elon Musk shared a video of his entrance on his Twitter account.” Photograph attributed to Elon Musk, October 26, 2022, via the New York Post,[1] fair use.


Unlike Boris Johnson, who is having to resign as British prime minister,[2] Elon Musk has not yet met his comeuppance. In the long and annoying saga of Musk’s agreement to buy Twitter,[3] we’re seeing yet again that Musk, like Johnson,[4] believes he is invincible, in no small part on a profoundly defective personality.[5] Even to the unbelievably rich, this world is a harsher place:

If [Elon] Musk goes to court to wriggle out of the deal [to buy Twitter], as opposed to using this threat as a tactic to cut the offer price, it carries huge risk. If he loses, he could have to pay damages to shareholders equivalent to the difference between the $54.20 he agreed and the price to which the stock falls, said Scott Galloway, a professor at New York University Stern school of business.[6]

That’s not just the $1 billion agreed to for terminating the deal.

[Elon Musk] is going to owe billions [in damages], maybe even $15 billion or $20 billion. This is going to be one of the most famous cases in business history.[7]

Danny Fortson posits three possibilities: 1) Twitter aggressively seeks to hold Musk to the deal, which seems unlikely to be tenable,[8] I’m thinking because it just wouldn’t take all that much for all that fancy financing Musk arranged to make the purchase possible to fall through;[9] 2) that Musk is actually seeking to lower the price; and 3) that Musk really tries to hold Twitter in breach,[10] which, on the evidence, seems unlikely to succeed.[11] Fortson thinks it’s really number two[12] and, based on what I’m seeing, I have to think he’s right—at least on the merits.

If there is a fault in Fortson’s argument, it is an assumption that Musk is a rational actor. And while I think that Musk has yet to grow out of puberty,[13] I am thinking the fault here would not be in what Fortson reaches to, but where he stops short, not that Musk is simply irrational, but that he is hyper-rational, to the expense of the very factors that any social scientist would be warning about,[14] and therefore fallacious in a selective but willful ignorance of factors that are likely most important in the success or failure of his venture.

Try to imagine this: The hell that must be working at Twitter these days, where the ups and downs of Musk’s purchase effort have already taken a toll on morale;[15] and, with the reputation that Musk has, taking over a company where morale is so low. We’re seeing Musk’s unbearable arrogance; whether it does him in here or at some point in the future, we can have confidence that it will do him in.


Update, July 10, 2022:

[William D. Cohan] asked if, in his forty-plus years of M&A [merger and acquisition] experience, this banker [a longtime Wall Street banker friend] had ever seen anything before like what Elon [Musk] had just done: thoroughly embarrassing and discrediting himself by signing a merger agreement to buy a company and then reneging on that deal in a fit of buyer’s remorse. “Yeah,” he replied. “When he tried to take Tesla private,” a reference to Elon’s last pathetic M&A failure, in 2018, when he tweeted that he was going to buy Tesla for $420 a share and that he had “funding secured” to do it. Elon did not, of course, have “funding secured,” and paid a $20 million fine, among other penalties, for misleading shareholders.

But Elon has well and truly screwed the pooch this time. As a result of this little stunt, he and his companies—Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company—will now be as big pariahs on Wall Street as Donald Trump, as a result of all his shenanigans over the years. Who on Wall Street is going to want to do business with Elon after he ginned up a takeover of Twitter, signed a legally binding agreement to do so for $44 billion in cash, put the biggest banks to work on the deal (and thereby used their credibility to help legitimize his offer) and then manufactured a half-assed excuse for why he no longer wanted to do it?[16]

William Cohan is referring, of course, to Elon Musk’s claim about “bots,” which he is deploying as an excuse to back out of his deal to purchase Twitter,[17] and which is unlikely to carry much weight in the courts.[18] It might be an understatement to suggest that Cohan holds Musk’s attempt to back out of the deal in extreme disdain but he forecasts it’ll be in the courts for many years to come.[19] This, of course, excludes entirely the possibility that Musk is just trying for a better deal.[20]

One way or another, these are all very rich people battling over vast sums of money. Time will tell whether this is just Musk holding out for a lower price or this really ends up as a lengthy court battle[21] or, somehow, a combination of both. As I’ve previously noted, Musk has some growing up to do,[22] so it’s impossible, really, to rule out any of Danny Fortson’s three possibilities[23] (two of which reduce to Cohan’s lengthy court battle[24]); the simplest thing would indeed still be for Musk to settle for a lower price,[25] but at least from afar, it looks to me like Musk often thinks he’s the only person with any brains in whatever room he happens to be in, and there most definitely is that adolescent sense that the world’s problems would all be solved if everyone just did everything Musk’s way. You know, like nuking Mars.[26]


Update, July 11, 2022:

Corporate-law experts say Twitter appears to be on sounder legal footing than Mr. [Elon] Musk. The filing [by Musk to withdraw from the Twitter purchase agreement] didn’t provide evidence to back up his assertion that the estimate [of spam bots on Twitter] was inaccurate or an alternate calculation. “This isn’t even in the ballpark,” said Zohar Goshen, professor of transactional law at Columbia Law School, adding that the impact on a company’s value needs to be so dramatic that its value would be halved, for example. . . .

The question remains whether it is really possible to force the eccentric billionaire—known for eschewing norms even when it gets him in legal trouble—to buy a company he doesn’t want to own.[27]

For the world’s richest man, Elon Musk is supposedly cash poor. He had to arrange financing for the deal to purchase Twitter and there was some uncertainty as to whether he could or would pull it off.[28] So I continue to believe that it wouldn’t be very difficult at all for all this financing to collapse.[29] That leaves me extremely skeptical that Musk can be forced to buy Twitter.

Another of Danny Fortson’s possibilities was that Musk will really push his claim that Twitter breached the deal. I’m just not seeing anyone say Musk has a legal leg to stand on here. He waived due diligence and was well aware of the bot problem well before he initiated his purchase. But he’s effectively claiming he didn’t know what he was getting into.[30] This is unlikely to carry much weight in the courts[31] and I don’t see judges doing anything but rolling their eyes at this one.

Of Fortson’s possibilities, that leaves a settlement, with Musk purchasing Twitter at a lower price.[32] Everything I’ve ever heard about civil proceedings is that judges lean heavily on parties to settle out of court and so this is what I expect to happen here. Short of a bankruptcy, where I assume Musk would be required to liquidate many of his Tesla shares, which had already fallen in price as Musk was putting his deal together,[33] and would presumably fall further, Musk will be forking out a lot of money, certainly no less than $1 billion and maybe many billions of dollars.[34] It doesn’t follow, however, that he necessarily gets to own Twitter as part of such a settlement. And I think that’s really the remaining question.


Update, July 12, 2022: Twitter has sued Elon Musk over the Musk’s attempt to back out of his agreement to buy Twitter, accusing him of damaging Twitter’s business, and asking the court to enforce the agreement, forcing Musk to consummate the deal.[35] This would be the first of Danny Fortson’s options, one he thought unlikely to succeed.[36] (I concurred.[37]) Of course that’s a very long ways from saying Musk will prevail. I’m still not seeing anyone say he has a legal leg to stand on.[38]


Update, July 15, 2022: It appears my assumption that the banks financing Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter can easily get out of that deal, thus undermining Musk’s ability to follow through,[39] was incorrect. Like Musk, they signed legally binding commitments.[40] Like Musk, though he seems not to give a damn,[41] they face reputational risks for reneging. And “[e]ven if they [the banks] do find a reason to get out of the deal — for example, by arguing Musk’s about-face has made the agreement significantly riskier for them — Musk could be forced by a judge to find another source of funding.”[42] Quoting at length:

The banks are only on the hook to fund the deal if it closes, and many people don’t believe Twitter will be successful in getting a court to force Musk’s hand. A more likely outcome is that the judge in Delaware Chancery Court, where the trial will take place, will force a compromise, making Musk pay Twitter a hefty fee for putting it through so much trouble, but letting him walk away in the end, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

In that case, the banks will still get a small fee from Musk for doing the work and they no longer have to lend him anything.

There’s another reason they might be sticking with Musk for now — they want to stay in his good books, and arguing that he’s acting in bad faith might jeopardize that. Musk is still the world’s wealthiest man and will have a lot of need for debt financing in the future regardless of how the Twitter situation ends, Tobias said. “You want to keep his business if you’re a bank, because I think it’s pretty lucrative,” he said.[43]

And “Musk’s agreement with Twitter has a clause that requires him to go through with the deal even if his debt financing becomes unavailable.”[44]

Gerrit De Vynck, from whose report I quote so liberally in this update, doesn’t say how Musk might raise the money if so ordered. But based on past performance, Tesla might be in for a fall.[45]


Update, July 18, 2022: I said that Elon Musk had yet to meet his comeuppance.[46] That might be about to change (quoting at length):

Elon now has a fine mess on his hands, and he’s not going to be able to easily extract himself from it anytime soon, unless, say, he agrees to pay some sum—oh, I don’t know, perhaps $5 billion—that few people have on their Bingo cards. That prediction, pulled out of thin air, is obviously more than the $1 billion walk-away fee that no longer seems viable, or in play legally, but less than what Elon might have to pay per a court order, should he be required to close the deal as he agreed to do on April 25. It’s the kind of number that might get this sad dispute resolved outside of court more quickly.

My friend Scott Galloway suggested with merit on Pivot the other day that Elon will have to pay something more like $16 billion, the difference between the $44 billion he agreed to pay for Twitter and Twitter’s market value after the judgment in Delaware court goes against Elon, if it does, of course. (As a proxy for what that might be, I used Twitter’s roughly $28 billion market value these days.) Whatever the case may be, as I have written before, Elon is now operating from a position of weakness. He has signed a “seller friendly” merger agreement, and his buyer’s remorse over the alleged preponderance of bots on Twitter’s platform seems thin, despite what his lawyers wrote in a Friday filing that “false and spam accounts” are “fundamental to Twitter’s value.”

Indeed, the depths of Elon’s legal troubles are clearly laid out in the complaint that Twitter’s attorneys at Wachtell Lipton and Potter Anderson & Corroon filed on July 12 in the Delaware Court of Chancery against Elon and the two holding companies he set up to acquire Twitter. Elon and his attorneys at Skadden and at Quinn Emanuel will have the opportunity to rebuke the Twitter filing, of course, which they started to do on Friday by rejecting Twitter’s request for a speedy trial. But in the meantime, the new allegations—including heretofore private emails and letters—about Elon’s behavior since he signed the merger agreement on April 25 is both pretty revelatory and pretty damning.[47]

It’s not like this’d be the first time Musk’s mouth has gotten him in trouble.[48] But it really, really doesn’t look like Musk’s lawyers can get him out of this one. Musk will need to settle.[49]


Update, July 19, 2022: Pardon my Schadenfreude. Confirming William Cohan’s expectation,[50] “the judge [Kathaleen McCormick] left the door open to compelling [Elon] Musk to complete his purchase, by hinting the case might require more than a $1 billion breakup fee to resolve. . . . Twitter’s lawyer argued that Musk had breached the deal, which, if the court agrees, allows the company to recoup more than the $1 billion breakup fee in damages, according to [Adam] Badawi.” The trial is set for October, not September as Twitter had requested, but a lot closer to that date than to February as Musk had requested.[51]


Update, August 1, 2022: I’ve seen a number of articles suggesting that Elon Musk is on fairly weak legal ground trying to get out of his purchase agreement for Twitter, an agreement in which he waived due diligence.[52] But if you really want the gory details, which I do not quote here, you’re going to want to read Ankush Khardori’s article for New York Magazine:[53]

Whether we actually get a trial [in lawsuits between Elon Musk and Twitter] remains to be seen. On the surface, these major corporate cases tend to look like intractable conflicts headed toward a dramatic final verdict that will give one side total victory and the other total defeat. But from the inside, they tend to be subtle tactical battles where the only real stakes are slightly more or less favorable terms of an inevitable deal. Most major corporate cases settle before trial — the actual litigation functions as a sort of proxy drama over the eventual terms. If things are going well for your side in the early going, you adjust your settlement demands upward and vice versa. Billionaires and large public companies generally do not like uncertainty, and for that reason, they tend to avoid trials with huge amounts of money on the line, which can be the most uncertain of undertakings. (Of course, one question that looms over this particular proceeding is whether the world’s richest man might be playing by a different set of rules.) . . .

It’s not wrong to say that [Musks’ lawyers’] top objective here is to plausibly find ways to waste everyone’s time [forestalling a summary judgment in the company’s favor].[54]

It still doesn’t look like Elon Musk has a case:

Twitter v. Musk does not have the hallmarks of one of these cash-cow disputes — to put it mildly. After Twitter filed its lawsuit against [Elon] Musk, most legal observers quickly concluded, with good reason, that Twitter is on much stronger legal footing than Musk is. (One expert I spoke with before Musk’s filing on Friday, who asked not to be quoted by name, went so far as to say that Skadden [Musk’s lawyers] “should be feeling a little embarrassed” about the weakness of Musk’s defense.)[55]

While we don’t know much about Musk’s countersuit, “the length and quality of a legal filing are often inversely correlated,” Khardori writes, “and again, Musk’s overriding strategic objective is to make this litigation as unwieldy and convoluted as possible even if he ultimately has little to work with.”[56]

Given Khardori’s explanation—he says the judge will want to at least appear to give both sides a hearing[57]—I really have to wonder just how much of Musk’s nonsense that judge will be willing to put up with.


Update, August 8, 2022: In my last update, Ankush Khadori had argued that Elon Musk’s legal strategy in a lawsuit over his attempt to withdraw from his agreement to purchase Twitter would necessarily rely on obfuscation and delay.[58] and I wondered how much of Musk’s nonsense the judge hearing the case would be willing to put up with.[59] It doesn’t sound like this particular judge will have much time for such nonsense at all.[60] If Musk gets out of this with a favorable verdict, I think a whole bunch of people, certainly including myself, are going to be really, really surprised.


Update, August 10, 2022: It appears that even Elon Musk realizes his bullshit is unlikely to prevail. He has sold more Tesla stock in preparation for a contingency in which the court forces him to go through with the purchase of Twitter.[61] He of course frames it a bit differently:


Parse the language: Musk seems to be acknowledging that Twitter, not the judge, but Twitter has the ability to “force[] this deal to close.”[62] I think we can reasonably infer from this that Musk is indeed seeking a settlement[63] and does not anticipate this getting to a stage where the judge would issue such an order. That this stock sale occurs after Musk “said less than four months ago he had no further stock sales planned” suggests further that this is costing him more than he anticipated.[64] He’s not winning. He’s losing. He’s losing big. And he knows it.


Update, October 4, 2022: It appears Elon Musk may honor his original deal after all.[65] This about covers it:

“This is a clear sign that [Elon] Musk recognized heading into Delaware Court that the chances of winning vs. Twitter board was highly unlikely and this $44 billion deal was going to be completed one way or another,” wrote Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives. “Being forced to do the deal after a long and ugly court battle in Delaware was not an ideal scenario and instead accepting this path and moving forward with the deal will save a massive legal headache.”[66]

Of course, buying a company that everyone, including that company’s employees, knows you had decided you didn’t want is “not an ideal scenario” either.


Update, October 12, 2022: It’s all a bit deeper in the weeds of high finance than I can quite wrap my head around, but William D. Cohan argues that in the present interest rate environment, Twitter is essentially worthless and Elon Musk will need to sink even more money into it to keep vulture financiers out of it. The banks and his equity partners are all in for huge losses.[67] But you know, given our present operating definition of intelligence, the world’s richest man must also be the world’s smartest man.

Remember that as the lights come on, that is, if someone can pay the power bill, and Cohan’s predicted “quite a show” goes on.[68]


Update, October 28, 2022: Elon Musk has now taken over Twitter. All of a sudden, things sound different:[69]

Chief executive officer Parag Agrawal, chief financial officer Ned Segal, and Vijaya Gadde, head of legal policy, trust, and safety, were all fired, according to the people. Sean Edgett , the company’s general counsel, was also pushed out, one of the people said. The top executives were hastily shuttled from the building, the people said. . . .

Musk has publicly criticized Twitter’s outgoing management over product decisions and content moderation, as well as saying he would restore former president Donald Trump‘s account.[70]

In a message to advertisers on Twitter on Thursday, Mr. [Elon] Musk said he was buying the company to “have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner.” He said Twitter “cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”[71]

And yet, somehow not so different: Musk now owes over $200 million to those executives[72] he was so ungracious with.[73]


Update, October 30, 2022: It might not[74] be the earlier threatened three quarters of the workforce,[75] but

The proposed [broad] layoffs are expected to reduce engineering positions as well as affect other areas at the company, one of the people said. Twitter has roughly 7,500 employees, according to a disclosure earlier this year. The full scale of cuts being discussed couldn’t be determined. . . .

Several employees have said they are worried that Mr. [Elon] Musk could move to cut jobs before [November] 1, which is a vesting date for Twitter’s compensation program. Employees’ grants were expected to be paid as cash after Mr. Musk’s acquisition, according to people familiar with the issue. A number of employees have said they are concerned Mr. Musk could try to avoid making those payments if their employment is terminated before Nov. 1.[76]

This’d certainly be a way to accelerate that downward spiral I warned about earlier.[77]

A few folks in my feed have noticed significant drops in followers since Elon Musk’s takeover. I’ve seen a small drop, from 800 to 797. It’s very apparent, however, that my feed is much less active. Folks might not be deleting their accounts, but as Reuters reported, they’re leaving[78] nonetheless.


Update #2, October 30, 2022: William Cohan updates[79] his earlier analysis of Elon Musk’s Twitter financing[80] since capitulating[81] to a near-certain loss in court over his attempt to get out of the deal.[82]

In essence, though the banks have, for now, decided to hang on to the debt in the deal, hoping to avoid writing it down at least as far as a fire sale now would require, they’ll likely only be able to do that for so long, at which point Musk himself might buy the debt at a deep discount. Yes, you read that right. He borrowed $13 billion. He’ll pay it off for, maybe, $4 billion.[83] That’d be $9 billion in free money.


Update, October 31, 2022:

The social media platform said it has been targeted with an attempt to make users think Twitter has dropped or weakened its content policies after the world’s richest man bought the company for $44bn (£38bn) last week.

Twitter’s head of safety and integrity said those running the site had not changed content policies but had been subject to “an organised effort to make people think we have”.

In a Twitter thread posted on Sunday, Yoel Roth said the company had seen a “ton” of tweets posted by a small number of accounts featuring slurs and other derogatory terms. To illustrate the scale of the attack, he said more than 50,000 tweets that repeatedly used one unspecified slur came from just 300 accounts.

Roth said most of those accounts were “inauthentic” and the users involved had been banned.[84]

Content moderation policy changes may not have changed,[85] but the damage has been done:[86]


Long-time Internet users know from long and painful experience that there is no value in responding to trolls—it only encourages them.

The ADL, a Jewish advocacy group that examines anti-Semitism in the U.S., said it identified more than 1,200 tweets and retweets spreading anti-Semitic memes and called it a coordinated effort that followed Mr. Musk’s takeover. The Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies online social threats, tweeted data Friday showing that the use of the N-word on Twitter jumped 500% in the previous 12 hours.

The National Basketball Association star LeBron James quoted the data Saturday, tweeting, “I dont know Elon Musk and, tbh, I could care less who owns twitter. But I will say that if this is true, I hope he and his people take this very seriously because this is scary.” He added: “So many damn unfit people saying hate speech is free speech.”[87]

The trouble on Twitter, however, is that its new chief executive officer is a big part of the problem:

Mr. [Elon] Musk also waded into controversy. On Sunday morning, he tweeted a link to an internet post speculatively calling into question what happened in the violent Friday morning attack on the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Mr. Musk tweeted. He later deleted the tweet.[88]

The “speculation that Elon Musk retweeted was vile, despicable, and unfounded, itself hate speech, and part of a pattern of utterances of a similar kind in which white Christian nationalists use yet more hate speech to fend off accusations that their hate speech provokes violence.

I like LeBron James’ formulation: “So many damn unfit people saying hate speech is free speech.”[89] As I have elsewhere pointed out, “the evil here is enormous, . . . encompassing many issues that distinguish a civilized society from barbarity. We tolerate it at our own peril.”[90]


Update, November 2, 2022:

“The current situation is unpredictable and chaotic, and bad actors and unsafe behaviors can thrive in such an environment,” Interpublic Group of Cos. wrote in an email Monday that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “At this moment, we cannot confidently state that Twitter is a safe place for brands.” . . .

After he closed the $44 billion purchase of the social-media company last week, Mr. [Elon] Musk wrote on Twitter that the site “cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”

The Interpublic email cited research that showed “a rise in inappropriate behavior” on the site since the company was taken private. “It’s reasonable to expect that bad actors may feel emboldened given Musk’s statements about being a free speech absolutist and his more recent sharing of conspiracy theories,” the email read. Interpublic said it would work with clients who had non-cancelable Twitter contracts to modify their contract terms.[91]

One of my concerns about Elon Musk and his acquisition of Twitter, as I have with high technology executives generally, is a disgraceful faith in artificial intelligence idiocy, which has already demonstrated its unfitness for purpose in content moderation[92] and is specifically unfit for policing hate speech.[93]

Neither Elon Musk nor anyone else wave a magic wand and suddenly make fallacies valid,[94] but high technology executives press on regardless, as if they simply said, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”[95] Add to this Musk’s own record on so-called “free speech”[96] in combination with looming job cuts,[97] and the characterization of “[t]he current situation [at Twitter] [a]s unpredictable and chaotic”[98] begins to look charitable far beyond recognition.


Update, November 3, 2022 (repeatedly updated): This is still madness:

Senior personnel on the product teams [at Twitter] were asked to target a 50% reduction in headcount, a person familiar with the matter said this week. Engineers and director-level staff from Tesla Inc., the carmaker also run by Musk, reviewed the lists, the person said. Layoff lists were drawn up and ranked based on individuals’ contributions to Twitter’s code during their time at the company, the people said. The assessment was made by both Tesla personnel and Twitter managers.[99]

“[I]ndividuals’ contributions to Twitter’s code” is almost certainly being measured quantitatively and exceedingly unlikely—because there’s no way to evaluate for quality at scale—to be measured for quality. Which is to say that programmers who survive at Twitter will be programmers who generate vast quantities of crappy code.

It should go without saying that if this is how Elon Musk runs Tesla and SpaceX, then anyone getting on board with anything with either company has to out of their flipping mind. We won’t see these problems at these companies as rapidly simply because neither faces the pressures that Twitter now does.

But we will also see the consequences more rapidly at Twitter.

The risk for Twitter, as for any social network, is “unraveling,” [David] Garcia said. Something happens to raise the costs or reduce the benefits of being in the network. It could be a failed redesign of the interface or some kind of flame war (or a takeover by a divisive gazillionaire). So a few people who were only marginally attached drop out. Some of their friends now have less reason to participate, so they drop out, too, and so on.

This snowball doesn’t roll all the way down to zero users. There are tight-knit groups of people who stay in the network because their friends are still in it. But there aren’t enough of these clusters to entice advertisers, so the network hemorrhages money and eventually shuts down, Garcia said. He described the process in a paper, “Social Resilience in Online Communities: The Autopsy of Friendster,” that compared Friendster to Livejournal, Facebook, Orkut and Myspace. He wrote the paper in 2013 with Pavlin Mavrodiev and Frank Schweitzer, two colleagues from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he worked at the time.[100]

If Musk indeed implements his plan to make “blue checks” (verified user status) available to anyone with Twitter Blue (this includes me),[101] David Frum warns, correctly I think, that a user’s ability to tell good information from misinformation or disinformation will be degraded:[102]

But individuals cannot do everything themselves. They need some degree of institutional support. That has never been a Twitter excellence, and Musk is giving reason to fear that he will degrade the site further. Musk wants revenues from Twitter—that’s a reasonable expectation; the site is a business—but his first idea is a very bad one: to charge a fee for account verification. Musk seems to think of verification as a status marker, like a personalized license plate. It’s not. It’s a crucial tool against site abuse. Consider this:

A hurricane is on its way. Tweets begin to fly with information and misinformation. Which to believe? Right now, you can check the verified accounts of federal and state agencies, and know for certain that they are who they say they are. But what if some prankster can create an account that looks official, pay $20 a month or $8 a month or whatever the fee is to verify it, and then try to push rumors to deceive frightened people?

What kind of sicko would do such a thing? you wonder. Well, it happened during Hurricane Sandy: an account with a big following recklessly sowed panic—and to this day, that account remains active.[103]

Probably only Twitter knows how many Twitter Blue accounts it has. Probably only currently verified users know whether they will pony up to keep the long-coveted blue check. But some have already indicated they will not. There will be a dilution of value to the blue check such as Frum describes[104] at the very time that Musk starts charging for it,[105] and it certainly won’t be a reason to stay on Twitter if you’re already inclined to leave.

Twitter has bucketloads of debt from Musk’s acquisition so already starts from a perilous position.[106] It’s already losing its most prolific users[107] and is likely to be a less reliable source of information.[108] Hate speech seems to be running rampant, spooking advertisers,[109] even as Musk contemplates restoring violent tweeters to the platform.[110] And in a desperate attempt to stop the losses, Musk is cutting in half the workforce that keeps the platform running.[111] Elements of a downward spiral that has manifestly already begun are in place with no demonstrated way to pull out.


Update, November 5, 2022 (updated): I no longer believe Twitter is in a death spiral. A Washington Post story conveys a terrifying picture of what it is like to suddenly be ruled by Elon Musk.[112] I’ve previously noted of Musk’s layoffs that “‘individuals’ contributions to Twitter’s code’ is almost certainly being measured quantitatively and exceedingly unlikely—because there’s no way to evaluate for quality at scale—to be measured for quality. Which is to say that programmers who survive at Twitter will be programmers who generate vast quantities of crappy code.”[113] So even as Musk has gotten rid of his best programmers at Twitter, he is, it turns out, expecting those who remain to produce significant changes in one seventh the time.[114] This, of course, is not by any means the way to keep a platform functional.

Meanwhile, advertisers are fleeing, depriving Twitter of revenue, Musk complains, due to pressure from “activists,” certainly not because they’re afraid he’s about to associate their brands with a deluge of threatening, violent, and hateful speech[115] and misinformation and disinformation, all of which seems to be on the increase,[116] in the name of so-called “free speech.”[117]

Musk, of course, points his blaming finger in every direction but himself, when we have seen from the beginning of this sorry episode,[118] and really even before it,[119] is that he’s simply a jackass, an excruciatingly rich jackass, but a jackass.

Twitter is now on a full-throttle nosedive to doom.


Update, November 6, 2022: Elon Musk now has egg on his face. The question is how bad it will get and whether Musk will ever perceive through his narcissistic delusions to understand that the egg is there:

Some of those who are being asked to return [to Twitter] were laid off by mistake, according to two people familiar with the moves. Others were let go before management realized that their work and experience may be necessary to build the new features Musk envisions, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing private information.[120]

Musk’s move to give verified user status to anyone paying for a Twitter Blue subscription had attracted considerable criticism, due to the potential for users to impersonate authoritative sources of information.[121]

The social-media company received internal and external feedback that the verification process for its Twitter Blue program could be ripe for abuse, according to one of the people, who asked not to be identified. That raised concerns that candidates and other political actors might be impersonated on the site in the days before the US election.

The delay is the second major reversal of measures that new owner Elon Musk put in place to stem what he said were daily losses of $4 million a day.[122]

After a weekend where several high-profile users changed their names and pictures to match Elon Musk’s, Twitter’s new owner says the social media platform will crack down on the practice.

“Going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying parody will be permanently suspended without warning,” Musk wrote in a Twitter post.

“Previously, we issued a warning before suspension, but now that we are rolling out widespread verification, there will be no warning,” he said. This will be “clearly identified” as a condition for signing up to the company’s paid subscription service Twitter Blue, Musk said. He added that any name change at all will cause temporary loss of a verified check mark.[123]

I have opened an account on Tribel; it appears to be the least awful alternative to Twitter.


Update, November 11, 2022:

The move to pause its revamped Twitter Blue offering comes after some impersonators exploited their blue check marks, sowing confusion on the platform. Verified users have falsely posed as LeBron James demanding a trade, George W. Bush attacking Iraqis and Eli Lilly & Co. cutting insulin prices to zero. . . .

The apparent change is one of many shifts that have caused chaos on Twitter since Elon Musk bought the social-media company two weeks ago. He has upended the company with layoffs, leadership changes and policy shifts. Several advertisers have paused spending, and Mr. Musk said Thursday that bankruptcy was a possibility for Twitter. . . .

Twitter officials said the new Twitter Blue didn’t verify people’s identities.

Before Mr. Musk bought Twitter last month, the company used to verify accounts for free that it deemed notable and trustworthy. The company gave blue check marks to accounts run by politicians, journalists, entertainers and others. Those accounts still have blue check marks but now they are mixed in with users who have paid to be verified.

This week, Twitter has tried to offer clarity by marking some verified accounts with an additional label: an “official” tag and a gray check mark. However, the company has flip-flopped on that policy in recent days by rolling out the designation, taking it away and then restoring it again.

Mr. Musk has said he wants Twitter to be the world’s most accurate source of information and that he wants every user to be verified unless they are a bot account. He has long said that one of his priorities was to get bot operators off Twitter. . . .

Impersonators have also posed in recent days as brands including the doll company American Girl, the oil company BP PLC and Chiquita, which produces bananas. Lockheed Martin Corp., the defense company, and game maker Roblox Corp. have also been impersonated.

An account with the handle “nlntendoofus,” pretending to be the videogame company Nintendo Co. Ltd., posted a picture of the character Mario raising his middle finger. The account was later suspended.[124]


Update, November 12, 2022: I have said that Elon Musk thinks he’s the smartest person in whatever room he’s in. The only one he thinks he or anyone has to listen to is himself.

Justin Brookman, a former [Federal Trade Commission] official and now the director of technology policy for the advocacy group Consumer Reports, said [Elon] Musk would be risking Twitter’s finances if it is found to be violating the terms of the consent decree. And the cost will likely be a lot more than the $150 million fine imposed this past spring on the social media giant by federal regulators over accusations of deceptive practices.

“We’re off the map here, and all eyes are on him,” Brookman said of Musk.

He added that it would be a “serious violation” of the consent decree if Musk is found to have been stripping certain privacy or security practices or launching new products without proper security checks. In addition, the new paid check mark program under the Twitter Blue subscription service is going to raise red flags with the FTC because it has already led to the impersonation of celebrities and brands in a potentially harmful way, Brookman said.[125]

We are seeing in spades that he is an imbecile and a jackass. And he is certainly not the one who can pull Twitter out of the full-throttle nosedive to doom he has put the company into.


Update, November 15, 2022: We might be seeing a specific impact site for Twitter’s full-throttle nosedive. Under Elon Musk, Twitter appears to be running afoul of both U.S. Federal Trade Commission[126] and European Union privacy regulations.[127] Fines could run into the billions of dollars.[128]

Twitter was first put under a consent order in 2011, and it agreed to a new order earlier this year. If the FTC finds Twitter is not complying with that order, it could fine the company hundreds of millions of dollars, potentially damaging the company’s already precarious financial state.[129]

If [Twitter] fails to [keep regulators informed], it’ll be compliance cost and risk spiraling out of control — with the potential for a total car crash scenario smashing the business (per the internal lawyer’s note to Twitter employees obtained by the Verge last week, an FTC penalty for Twitter breaching the consent order could run into the billions of dollars) and smashing any remaining staff who are exposed to personal liability (such as those agreeing to work in ways that run counter to the terms of the FTC consent decree). . . .

On the [General Data Protection Regulation] side, if Twitter gets exposed to decentralized oversight across the EU by falling out of the [one-stop shop in Ireland], it could lead to major headaches as it could be hit with multiple GDPR fines by watchdogs all over the region — each of up to 4% of its annual turnover. So a pipeline of such fines could quickly start to add up for Twitter (which Musk has already claimed could face bankruptcy).[130]

All this, of course, is in addition to a national security investigation that could already be happening and that we won’t immediately know about if it does.[131]


Update, November 16, 2022: Elon Musk is simply delusional:

Anyone who did not sign the pledge by 5 p.m. Eastern time Thursday was told they would receive three months of severance pay, the message said.

In the midnight email, which was shared with The Washington Post, [Elon] Musk said Twitter “will need to be extremely hardcore” going forward. “This will mean working long hours at high intensity,” he said. “Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”

The pledge email, paired with a new policy mandating a return to the office, is expected to lead to even more attrition at a company whose staff Musk had already reduced by half.[132]

What Musk is attempting here is to treat creative (for an admittedly strange value of ‘creative’) people like Amazon warehouse workers, with work speed-ups. Creativity simply doesn’t work like that and only a fool imagines that it does.

And, just as with the warehouse workers, it’s not clear that there’s any reward for this effort, other than getting to keep an abusive, albeit a whole lot better paid, job for an abusive employer. What’s different here is that Amazon will probably still be in business next year and the year after. There’s considerable reason to doubt that Twitter will be.[133]


Update, November 18, 2022: A British Broadcasting Corporation story[134] in particular must be read to be believed.

Despite the turmoil at the company, Mr [Elon] Musk tweeted on Friday: “And… we just hit another all-time high in Twitter usage lol.”

Satirist Frank Lesser replied: “‘Rome has never been this brightly lit at night!’ – Nero” – a reference to the Roman emperor who is reputed to have fiddled while Rome burned.

Before Mr Musk took control of Twitter the company had about 7,500 staff. The firm was also reported to have employed thousands of contract workers, the majority of whom are understood to have been laid off.[135]

There might be less than 2,000 left now[136] as Twitter had already laid off approximately half its workforce,[137] then asked those remaining to commit to long hours and “exceptional” performance,[138] reportedly leading hundreds (sounds like over a thousand) more to accept severance.[139] We might be really close[140] to that 75 percent cut in staff that Elon Musk had originally threatened,[141] and we might be really close to Twitter simply crashing as critical systems are now insufficiently staffed.[142]


Update, November 22, 2022: Y’all have to forgive me. I’ve never been a parent, let alone of a rebellious teenaged boy, so I’m a little slow on the uptake.

But after some back-and-forth on (where else?) Twitter, I’ve decided that my description of Elon Musk as having never outgrown puberty is more apt than I imagined. He’s constantly picking fights,[143] even fights he can’t win, like, most obviously, his attempt to back out of the deal to purchase Twitter, but even now with regulators both in the U.S.,[144] possibly even on national security grounds,[145] and the European Union.[146] His defiance of regulators is absolutely nothing new[147] and who can forget the whole ‘pedophile’ thing that didn’t make any sense even before we get to Musk calling a rescue diver a pedophile?[148]

Now Elon Musk persists in antagonizing Twitter’s advertisers and users; these in combination with his layoffs and regulatory concerns have put Twitter on a full-throttle nosedive to doom.[149] He might finally have picked a fight he can win—against himself.


Update, December 2, 2022: It seems a little incongruous that Kanye West’s Twitter account has been suspended again,[150] almost as if West is being offered as a sacrificial lamb to appease those (advertisers[151]) who criticize Elon Musk for encouraging hate speech on Twitter.[152] I’m just spitballing here in a context that is now deeply into Musk’s hubris[153] and far beyond any sense whatsoever, but perhaps Musk, who has said he would support Ron DeSantis in 2024,[154] really doesn’t like the idea of West running for president in 2024 (with Donald Trump furiously spurning West’s offer of a vice presidential slot on the ticket)?[155] After all, isn’t it kind of important that our white supremacists[156] actually be white?

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