Wednesday, February 21

Twitter lags behind its rivals. Here’s why Elon Musk bought it anyway.

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On Monday, Elon Musk agreed to acquire Twitter for $44 billion, making good on an offer that was met with skepticism by much of the investor community when he launched his hostile takeover bid.

That’s in part because, by the numbers, Twitter is hardly the most successful — or even the most influential — social media platform in the marketplace. TikTok has more than 600 million monthly users and is growing exponentially as the platform chosen by young people, according to estimates from Insider Intelligence. Facebook, while stagnating, has more than 2 billion monthly users and is practically synonymous with the Internet in some places.

Twitter had a humble 338.6 million monthly global users last year, according to the estimates. And while politicians, journalists and celebrities — and even Musk, with more than 84 million followers — use it as a megaphone, it’s not the most consequential platform globally.

Musk, a billionaire who leads electric-car company Tesla and aerospace company SpaceX, has argued he was motivated to buy Twitter out of concern that the company had imposed overly aggressive content moderation practices, which he said endangered “free speech” on a platform that had become crucial to politics and government.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in the news release announcing his purchase.

Twitter declined to comment. Musk did not respond to requests for comment.

Why did Elon Musk buy Twitter?

Still, the company has an elite and dedicated audience. Among the users who regularly visit Twitter, just a handful of them are responsible for the vast majority of content appearing on the social network.

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The most-active quarter of adult Twitter users in the United States produced nearly all of the content by all adult users in the country, according to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center. That means 75 percent of adult Twitter users in the United States hardly tweet.

The majority of the most-prolific users visit Twitter daily, and more than 20 percent of them say they visit the site “too many times to count” each day, according to Pew.

Elon Musk acquires Twitter for roughly $44 billion

“The thing about Twitter is, it’s actually quite a demanding platform,” said Ethan Porter, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “In other words, to really participate on Twitter, you need to be a really active Twitter user, and the number of people who have jobs that allow them to be active Twitter users is pretty small.”

  • Barack Obama (132 million followers; 16,463 tweets)
  • Justin Bieber (114 million followers; 31,399 tweets)
  • Katy Perry (109 million followers; 11,628 tweets)
  • Rihanna (106 million followers; 10,627 tweets)
  • Cristiano Ronaldo (99 million followers; 3,781 tweets)
  • Taylor Swift (90 million followers; 716 tweets)
  • Lady Gaga (85 million followers; 9,745 tweets)
  • Elon Musk (84 million followers; 17,539 tweets)
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi (78 million followers; 32,603 tweets)
  • “The Ellen Show” (78 million followers; 23,822 tweets)

Experts said Musk is not wrong to target Twitter if he wants to have an impact on public discourse. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. Twitter users say they get news from the social media network, according to Pew. The vast majority of those Twitter news consumers say they have used the social media network to follow live events, Pew’s report found.

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Even if their tweets reach only an elite audience on the social media network, politicians, companies and activists often rely on the platform to set the news agenda more broadly.

Perhaps no public figure has been more effective at dominating the larger media ecosystem through Twitter than Donald Trump. A recent report by the anti-misinformation group First Draft found that the three major cable networks — MSNBC, Fox News and CNN — showed 1,954 of Trump’s tweets making up 32 hours of airtime between Jan. 1, 2020, and Jan. 19, 2021.

Trump says he won’t rejoin Twitter. Some advisers don’t believe him.

Perhaps the biggest question facing Musk as the new owner of Twitter is what he’s going to do about Trump. The former president — who was one of the most followed users on the platform — was booted following his tweets in the lead-up and aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

While it is unclear how Musk might address the Trump ban, he said at a TED conference this month he would want to be “very cautious” with permanent bans, preferring timeouts.

“Trump had a relationship with Twitter where he was really good at using the platform to get attention in his presidential campaign and then through the end of his presidency,” Porter said. “If people’s views toward Trump have permanently shifted, then it’s easy to foresee a post-Musk Twitter where Trump still has access to get to the site but is just simply less impactful.”

But for years, analysts have argued Twitter could do better — particularly at making money.

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After activist investor Elliott Management took a stake in the company in 2020, Twitter announced ambitious goals to boost its business, including increasing user growth and doubling its annual revenue by 2023. To address those issues, newly installed Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal pledged to move more quickly to release products and to impose new management systems.

Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, explained

There was a good reason he wanted to change course. Last year, the Facebook core app earned nearly $70 billion in advertising revenue — more than 15 times the amount Twitter earned in the same period, according to estimates from Insider Intelligence. Estimates by Insider Intelligence are based on data from research firms, government agencies and public companies, among other sources.

Many investors — including some from Musk’s Tesla — have said they are excited to see how he might be able to turn the company’s financial performance around.

For his part, Musk said at the TED conference this month that his bid for Twitter wasn’t about making money. The Tesla CEO is putting up a significant portion of his wealth to back the deal.

“My strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization. I don’t care about the economics at all,” he said.

Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.

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