In today’s newsletter: After months of drama the world’s most online billionaire has tweeted that he has acquired the social network. The Guardian’s UK technology editor, Alex Hern, breaks down what might happen next
In the early hours of this morning, Elon Musk tweeted, “the bird is freed”. It appears to be a zany – and very Musky – way to announce to users of the site that he has completed his $44bn takeover of Twitter.
If so, this was not a happy or easy acquisition: there have been U-turns and lawsuits, with Twitter taking Musk to court in the summer for allegedly reneging on his contract. Today was supposed to be deadline day. By 5pm New York time (10pm here in London), Musk either had to complete the deal or face an arduous legal battle.
He chose the former, with a little time to spare. And it looks as though Musk has wasted no time in getting started, with reports that several senior executives have already been fired, including CEO Parag Agrawal. A new era has begun.
Musk claims that he is doing this for the greater good: “The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilisation to have a common digital town square,” he wrote in a social media post. He claims he didn’t do this to make money but “[to] help humanity, whom I love.” How noble. But like billionaires before him who have bought sports teams and newspapers, Musk’s decision to set his sights on Twitter may also be seen as a way to acquire soft power and to have a new toy to play with. For today’s newsletter, I spoke to the Guardian’s UK technology editor, Alex Hern, about how we got here, and what Twitter under a Musk ownership will mean for the future of social media.
Climate | The UN’s environment agency has said that there’s no credible pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5C because progress to reduce carbon emissions has been “woefully inadequate”. In a report, it stated that the only way to limit the worst impacts of the climate crisis is a “rapid transformation of societies”.
Politics | Civil service chief, Simon Case, is understood not to be launching an investigation into Suella Braverman’s reappointment as home secretary and the circumstances around her original departure.
Scotland | Scotland’s community safety minister, Ash Regan, has resigned in order to vote against a new law that aims to streamline how transgender people can change their legal sex. Nicola Sturgeon has accused Regan of failing to raise any of her concerns with her colleagues.
Northern Ireland | Northern Ireland is on course for a snap election after a recall of the Stormont assembly failed to break political deadlock and elect a speaker. The DUP said it would boycott Stormont unless unionist objections to the post-Brexit Irish Sea border were resolved.
London | British Transport Police are hunting a man who assaulted one person at a tube station and then pushed another on to the tracks at a different stop. Police do not believe that any parties involved were known to each other and neither victim sustained serious injuries.
Twitter has often been described as a hellscape. If Elon Musk’s leadership means that the app gets worse and becomes unusable it might actually be a good thing for my screen time and mental health. Not everything’s about me, though – and the wider political, social and cultural implications of this takeover have alarmed many people. So what will the next chapter of Twitter look like?
The long saga
This whole affair began in March, when Musk decided being addicted to Twitter wasn’t enough – he wanted in on the company. However, buying a company of that size isn’t an easy task so, instead, Musk decided to do things quietly.
On 14 March, without the knowledge of Twitter, he acquired a 9.2% stake in the company. Two weeks later, in an SEC filing, it was made public that Musk was Twitter’s largest shareholder (he tweeted “Oh hi lol”). It wasn’t long before Musk was offered a seat on the board. He accepted, and then less a week later backed out. This decision fuelled rumours that a hostile takeover was afoot.
Three days later, that suspicion was confirmed when Musk made a hostile bid for Twitter with an offer that valued the company at $43.4bn, $54.20 a share, a figure that he obviously came to after a lot of careful consideration.
“The price that he offered was a weed joke – the 420 weed joke [420 is slang for marijuana] in there is not a coincidence and it’s not the first time he’s done it. He also offered to take Tesla private at $420 a share. He loves throwing the numbers 420 and 69 in important financial things,” Alex says.
This very cool offer meant that Musk would be paying a premium on the share price. Twitter eventually accepted – meaning that, while there were hostile overtones, this was not legally a hostile takeover in the end. “Twitter effectively said, we have a fiduciary duty to our shareholders to take this offer that is well above our current stock price, so … fine,” Alex says.
Within a month of announcing to the world that he would buy Twitter, Musk tried to pull the plug on the deal, because, according to him, the company’s fake account problem was worse than he’d been told. Musk decided that this purported omission had led to him overvaluing the company and it was no longer a financially viable endeavour until Twitter sorted the issue out. “That doesn’t pass the smell test though,” Alex says. “The fake account problem was why he said he was buying Twitter in the first place, he wanted to fix it.”
Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that – following a global market crash and a devaluation of Twitter – Musk was paying a higher premium and with it his personal wealth was taking a hit. A deal that was probably never going to be lucrative all of a sudden looked like it would be a significant drain and that wasn’t worth it – even for the world’s richest man.
What happens now?
After countless U-turns, Musk may have figured, what’s one more? Earlier this month, he sent a letter to Twitter saying that the original deal is still on – owning Twitter would be the start of his journey to creating an “everything app”. And, for once in this whole ordeal, he’s followed through. For many, a world where Elon Musk owns Twitter is just about the worst thing that could happen for the site. But Alex has said that all is not necessarily lost.
For a long time Twitter has struggled to turn its political and social relevance into profit. Going private could relieve the company of many of these pressures. “There’s a positive future in which we have someone running Twitter who is rich enough to not need it to make that much money and as such can focus on running it as a social company with the social importance that it has,” Alex says.
However, Elon Musk’s idea of what is good for society doesn’t necessarily line up with what most people believe. On the one hand, Musk’s dreams of creating an all-encompassing super-app like China’s WeChat seems far-fetched.
He can, however, have a significant impact in other ways. One of the biggest gripes Musk has with Twitter is that he believes the site is over-moderated, an opinion that is not widely shared – and he has already signaled that he will reverse a permanent ban on Donald Trump. In fact, the company is often under fire for not doing enough when it comes to keeping users safe from harassment and taking down inappropriate, offensive or illegal content.
It’s not inevitable that Twitter will return to its wild west days where anyone could post what they wanted. The chance that Musk will be working the moderation desks himself, or trying to rip up the rulebook without opposition is relatively low. The issue with Musk is and has always been the fact that no one can tell how wedded he is to any of these ideas. His commitment to “shitposting” (I’m not being unnecessarily crude, it’s a real phenomenon where users intentionally post provocative or off-topic comments on social media), has meant that no one will really know how far he will take his joke.
The other big question is whether he will follow through on rumoured major cuts at the company. Earlier this month it was reported that Musk planned to eliminate nearly 75% of Twitter’s staff in an effort to pay down the company’s debt. However Musk later dismissed those reports, telling employees he would not cut such a large portion of the staff.
At the very top, at least, he is certainly making changes. Reuters reported Parag Agrawal and finance chief Ned Segal were in Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters when the deal closed and were escorted out.
This bizarre legal dispute is perhaps an indicator of where social media more broadly is headed (“The old guard is falling apart,” Alex says). Following reports that Meta’s profits halved during the third quarter of the year, investors wiped more than $65bn (£56bn) off its market value on Wednesday, all while Mark Zuckerberg’s company haemorrhages $15bn a year on building Metaverse technology and its ads business shrinks. Meanwhile, Twitter’s value has been falling for a couple of years.
As apps like TikTok and BeReal grow in terms of cultural clout, and the financial and social power of the old tech giants begins to wane, the arrival of Elon Musk could be Twitter’s final death knell – or an unexpected breath of fresh air.
“The site has no running water, flushing toilet or wifi, but forgoing these basic facilities seems like a fair trade, to me at least”: a fascinating read from conservation biologist Mairi Hilton, who will spend five months working in Antarctica for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters
As protests in Iran regain momentum, Clea Skopeliti spoke to four people about what 40 days of protests has looked like for them. Nimo
“By the end of this century, Africa, which had less than one-tenth of the world’s population in 1950, will be home to 3.9 billion people – or 40% of humanity.” Howard W French’s long read details how the west African coast is fast becoming key to the future of urbanisation. Tim Burrows, subeditor, newsletters
With an avalanche of sweets on the horizon for children this Halloween, Sarah Ayoub spoke to some experts about what you should do with all the treats. Nimo
Aeron Davis on how the arrival of Rishi Sunak as the UK’s “first investment banker prime minister” means the City’s takeover of Downing Street is complete. Tim Burrows
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F1 | Formula One faces a significant legal challenge. The sport has been accused of breaching Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines, after it extended its contract to hold races in Bahrain until 2036 despite widespread human rights violations in the country.
Football | Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal after a one game hiatus guaranteed Manchester United’s qualification for the Europa League knockout round playoffs, the English side beating Sheriff 3-0. Arsenal however offered up one of their worst performances of the season, losing to PSV Eindhoven 2-0.
Football | It was an entirely different story in the Women’s Champions League though. Helped along by two goals from Lina Hurtig and a stunning volley from Jordan Nobbs, Arsenal comfortably beat FC Zürich 3-1 in a group stage match.
The Guardian’s front page carries the news that the UN has found “there is ‘no credible way’ to keep to the 1.5C climate target”, on the same day that “Shell reports another round of bumper profits, and UK temperatures hit 20C in October”.
The Telegraph reports that the “PM plans to expand windfall tax grab”, while the Times says that the “PM seeks to curb channel crossings”. The i carries an exclusive: “Sunak poll gives Tories election hope”.
The Mail headlines “Royals dreading Harry’s ‘raw and unflinching’ book”, as the title of Prince Harry’s memoir – Spare – is revealed.
The Sun also carries royal news: “Wills not going to Qatar”, while the Mirror goes with “Ghislaine Maxwell, enjoying a jog in the sun” with a full page photo of the disgraced socialite.
Finally the Financial Times reports on a “Brutal week for big tech as investors knock $550bn off market valuations”.
This week, editor of the Saturday magazine culture section and The Guide newsletter, Gwilym Mumford, takes over our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now.
The Love Box in Your Living Room – BBC/iPlayer
Amid the pomp and circumstance around the BBC in its centenary year, here come Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse to puncture its balloon. Structured like a particularly OTT Adam Curtis documentary, this affectionate mock history of the corporation finds time to skewer everything from Muffin the Mule to Peaky Blinders. But the particularly sharp digs in the ribs are reserved for enemies of the Beeb, including Nadine Dorries and Rupert Murdoch.
With Halloween approaching, now’s the ideal time to sit trembling in a cinema, watching a terrifying horror film through your fingers. This debut feature from Zach Cregger certainly fits the bill, having already scared viewers witless in the US. Barbarian’s appeal lies in its mystery – its trailer, refreshingly, reveals next to nothing about the plot. All we can say is there’s a woman, a rental home, an unexpected house guest and a very dark basement …
Martha – Please Don’t Take Me Back
This Durham four-piece pair bounce major-key pop punk with sharp social commentary – a combination that really should be a disaster but somehow works on tracks like The Winter Fuel Allowance Ineligibility Blues. The band’s new album is their hookiest yet, full of chiming, shout-along choruses, but lyrically Martha have never seemed more despondent about the state of things – witness their ennui on standout track Hope Gets Harder.
One Year: 1942 (widely available)
Each season, this never less than fascinating Slate podcast tackles forgotten or misremembered stories from a different year in 20th-century America. Its previous outings focused on years still fairly fresh in the collective memory – 1977, 1986, 1995 – but its latest hops all the way back to 1942 for stories on rampant inflation, a sudden national surge in marriage, and a landmark strike by musicians.
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War hero or war criminal? Australia’s defamation trial of the century
Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated living soldier, is suing three Australian media companies for defamation, over reports he alleges wrongly portray him as a war criminal and murderer. As Guardian Australia reporter Ben Doherty tells Michael Safi, the case has shone a glaring light on Australia’s Special Air Service, revealing a troubled institution, deeply riven by internecine fighting over decorations and medals: in thrall, on some evidence, to a “warrior culture”.
A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad
According to research from King’s College London, the presence of birds and the sound of birdsong can improve mental wellbeing for people with depression, as well as the population at large. Based on a study of participants in the UK, Europe, the US, Australia and China, researchers found that seeing or hearing birds led to higher scores of mental wellbeing. Andrea Mechelli, professor of early intervention in mental health at the university, said: “We need to create and support environments, particularly urban environments, where bird life is a constant feature
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And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until Monday.