Elon Musk closed his long-simmering, $44 billion Twitter acquisition deal on Thursday and declared in a late-night tweet that ‘the bird is freed’, riffing on the social media giant’s iconic logo.

It was a punctuating moment for a journey that took its first steps back in January, but even with months of accumulated, and sometimes contradictory, commentary from the Tesla/SpaceX CEO to draw from, little is really known about what Musk has planned for the platform, which boasts around 240 million daily users.

Musk had pilloried the platform’s leadership team in the lead-up to the deal’s conclusion and his first publicly known actions after becoming the self-proclaimed “Chief Twit” were to terminate a handful of executives, including CEO Parag Agrawal who replaced Twitter co-founder and longtime figurehead Jack Dorsey in late 2021. Dorsey himself issued a squishy endorsement of Musk’s efforts to take over the company which launched in 2006.

Musk has alluded to plans to retreat from Twitter’s current content moderation policies calling himself a “free speech absolutist” but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that lack of content oversight for social media outlets can have negative, even disastrous, consequences. And it’s a move that, should it come to pass, is sure to draw responses from the advertisers who generate the bulk of Twitter’s revenues.

Perhaps concerned about how his pre-deal invective may be worrying advertisers, Musk dropped a lengthy tweet on Thursday afternoon, addressed to them, that seemed to qualify some of his earlier comments. The posting laid out some of Musk’s broader intentions for where he might be taking the company.

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The latest word from Elon Musk on his plans for Twitter

In his Thursday tweet, Musk noted that much of the speculation surrounding his plans for Twitter and potential changes to advertising formats has mostly been inaccurate, and stipulated that his main motivation for acquiring the platform is his interest in creating a forum for open dialogue.

“The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence,” Musk wrote. “There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society.”

Musk said that traditional media outlets have sacrificed objectivity in the pursuit of audience growth and “fueled and catered to those polarized extremes, as they believe that is what brings in the money, but, in doing so, the opportunity for dialogue is lost.”

Musk said his intentions for Twitter aren’t about making more money but are, instead, “to help humanity, whom I love.” And he recognized that pursuing his goal won’t be easy and could very well result in failure.

Qualifying some earlier statements about relaxing Twitter’s current content moderation policies as a “free speech absolutist,” Musk said he believes there’s a middle ground for content oversight that is welcoming to Twitter users’ wide range of opinions and viewpoints.

“... Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences,” Musk wrote. “In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all, where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences, just as you can choose, for example, to see movies or play video games ranging from all ages to mature.”

Twitter users: a house divided

Perceptions of the effectiveness, or otherwise, of Twitter’s moderation policies have followed a partisan bent, with some voices on the right claiming the platform has had it out for conservative voices.

That was evidenced in many early responses from elected officials when news broke about Musk’s plans to buy the platform last spring.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, took to the platform to warn of an “explosion of hate crimes“ and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called it “dangerous for our democracy.”

On the other hand, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the deal was the “biggest development for free speech in decades” and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said she hopes to get her personal Twitter account restored — after she had it permanently suspended for spreading COVID-19 misinformation. Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson simply tweeted, “We’re back.”

Friday brought a fresh torrent of responses and commentary on Twitter, about Twitter, and included declarations of quitting, kudos and criticisms of Musk, suggestions of alternate platforms for those looking to bail, suggestions for new features and, according to some reports, a slew of overtly racist and objectionable postings seemingly intended to test what the new limits were on the first day of operations under the new owner.

Will Musk actually revamp Twitter?

Earlier this year, University of Utah philosophy professor Jim Tabery spoke with the Deseret News about Twitter’s potential future under Musk’s leadership and noted the issues are more complicated than those on the left and right seem to believe. When it comes down to it, it’s all about the money and — even for the world’s richest person — $44 billion is hardly chump change.

“I suspect — if you want me to make a prediction — that Twitter is going to change very little over the course of the next 12 months,” Tabery told the Deseret News in May. “Yes, you’ve got somebody who is taking control who is out there as a big proponent of free speech, but it’s very easy to say that stuff in the abstract.”

Tabery argued that Twitter’s success as a social media platform is in part based on its willingness to moderate, and even under Musk, the company’s interests would still be best served by making the site welcoming and accessible to as many people as possible.

Decisions like banning former President Donald Trump “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, or Twitter’s rule against sharing false COVID-19 information are not political calculations, they are business and public relations strategies made by a for-profit company.

“There are lots of reasons to think that a tsunami is not coming,” he said. “On one side, (people are) imagining this sort of idyllic future where Twitter is suddenly a conservative haven, and liberals imagining this awful scenario. ... I don’t think that we’re going to get much traction out of predicting that Twitter’s going to suddenly turn into some really radical new social space. I think the market has kind of dialed it in where it’s at.”

When free speech comes with a cost

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The internet has no shortage of options for free speech absolutists, but none have managed to replicate Twitter’s brand. That’s no accident, Tabery said, because those so-called “free speech havens” quickly become filled with extreme — often violent — content, rendering them all but inhospitable to casual internet users.

Take 8chan for example. The site was started as a free speech utopia, but in 2019, its founder, Fredrick Brennan, called for it to be shut down after three separate mass shootings were announced in advance on the platform, according to The New York Times.

“I think (8chan) is the closest we’ve seen to this sort of genuine, hands-off, anything goes environment. And it’s a cesspool, right?” said Tabery. “If people think Elon is going to finally let Twitter turn into 8chan ... if you’ve got Twitter stock, run for the hills, because that is not a good business model.”

“It’s not like by bringing in Elon, there’s suddenly going to be this anything goes, Wild West phenomenon. There are still going to be boundaries,” he continued. “To the extent that he’s a savvy businessman — and all indications are that he is — he’s not going to let it get completely taken over by neo-Nazis, white nationalists and the sort of people promoting the virtues of genocide. If you want this thing to be successful, you still need those guardrails up to monitor what society is willing to tolerate in a space like that.”

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