Earlier this spring, Elon Musk received a text from a German billionaire proposing a deal.
“Why don’t you buy Twitter?” asked Mathias Döpfner, who is behind the publishing empire Axel Springer. “We run it for you. And establish a true platform of free speech. Would be a real contribution to democracy.”
Musk replied a few minutes later: “Interesting idea.”
A month later, the Tesla billionaire announced his $44bn offer to take Twitter private. Musk's friends, advisors and hangers-on were enthralled by the idea and urged the 51-year-old to reforge the social media company into an anti-censorship app.
“Please do something to fight woke-ism,” texted an acquaintance listed as “TJ” in court documents, who is reported to be Talulah Riley, the British actor and Musk’s ex-wife.
“I am with you 100pc… this is a principle we need to f----- defend with our lives or we are lost to the darkness,” said Antonio Gracias, a friend of Musk and former Tesla director, according to text messages revealed as part of Musk's recent legal tussle Twitter over the deal.
“Our public squares should not have arbitrary sketchy censorship,” added Jon Lonsdale, a tech investor who has founded an “anti-woke” university.
After months of back-and-forth, including a legal battle with Twitter that brought these texts to light, Musk now looks set to take charge of the social media company. The deal, if it does indeed go through, raises questions over what the platform might look like under the Tesla entrepreneur - and whether regulators and politicians in Britain can stomach it.
Musk, the world’s richest man, has described himself as a “free speech absolutist” and previously suggested reinstating Conservative accounts banned by Twitter, such as that of former US President Donald Trump.
With Musk in control, Twitter staff are also fearful of what could happen to the political direction of the company, not to mention their jobs - Musk, who is worth $228bn on paper, has repeatedly said Twitter employs too many staff.
Musk “will turn this platform into a political weapon for harassing everybody," one Twitter employee wrote on anonymous workplace message site Blind.
The billionaire's leanings towards looser moderation could also lead to a run-in with the UK Government. Britain is currently developing the Online Safety Bill, a piece of legislation threatening social media companies with huge fines and even jail terms for directors if they fail to do enough to stop “harmful content”.
While the new laws are designed to improve protections for children online, critics argue they will have a chilling effect on free speech. Opponents have called the scope of the bill “breathtaking”, including requirements for tech giants to take down so-called “legal but harmful” posts. This position may well create a clash with Musk’s Twitter.
Toby Young, general secretary of the Free Speech Union, says: “I cannot see Elon Musk being willing to remove content from Twitter that’s perfectly legal but which some purse-lipped puritan has decided is too dangerous for adults to be trusted with.”
Western European nations in particular have grown more aggressive around online censorship in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war has led to efforts to block Kremlin-backed TV channels, such as RT, and its social media accounts.
In private, Musk has chafed against this approach. In response to an EU demand to block RT, Musk texted that the channel broadcast “a lot of bull---- but some good points too” and said “free speech matters most when it’s someone spouting what you think is bull----”.
Musk’s vision for encrypting Twitter users’ direct messages also looks like another source of conflict between Musk and the British Government. A ministerial lobbying campaign in recent years has tried to discourage tech companies from rolling out end-to-end encryption. Government officials fear they will become unable to read users’ messages at will, something that can be important when trying to tackle terrorism or other serious offences.
“Trying to figure out what to do with Twitter DMs”, Musk texted to WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton in April. “They should be end-to-end encrypted (obv). Dunno if better to have redundancy with Signal or integrate it.”
Musk's contacts, such as podcaster Joe Rogan and Justin Roiland, the animator behind the cartoon Rick and Morty, have privately urged the billionaire to rebuild Twitter in a way that protects free expression and cuts out spam.
Döpfner, of Axel Springer, wrote: “Make it censorship free by radically reducing terms of service” in one text in April. It is understood that Döpfner’s texts with Musk did not progress into more formal talks.
Despite the urging of his allies, Musk has sounded some more pragmatic notes around his approach to free expression online.
In one text message, revealed as part of his court battle with Twitter, Musk said his aim for Twitter to be as “broadly inclusive as possible” and “not some rightwing nuthouse”.
In April, he Tweeted that his views on speech would “mean that which matches the law”. He added: “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.”
When it comes to actually running Twitter, Musk may soon discover that moderation is a balancing act. Different laws in different jurisdictions can make it challenging. In Germany, for example, denying or downplaying the Holocaust can land internet users in jail. Its strict NetzDG laws mean tech companies face fines in the tens of millions if they fail to tackle misinformation.
Nu Wexler, a former Twitter employee and a partner at communications advisors Seven Letter, says: “If the deal goes through, we’ll see the difference between free speech in theory and practice.”
Buying Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 4, 2022
Anti-hate speech campaigners warn that loosening Twitter’s moderation would be bad news for persecuted groups. Danny Stone, chief executive of the Antisemitism Policy Trust, says: “I fear for a Musk owned Twitter.”
But the tide may be turning in his favour. Michelle Donelan, the new Digital Minister, has said the Government is “making changes to the [Online Safety] Bill in relation to freedom of speech for adults”.
Boosting free speech on the platform is also just one of Musk’s ambitions.
The Tesla billionaire has said: “Buying Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app.” He has given hints of what this could look like, incorporating private messaging and payments into a single super app.
In an all-hands with Twitter, he said: “Think of it like WeChat in China, which is great now, but there's no WeChat equivalent outside of China. There’s a real opportunity to create that.”
WeChat, which is used by more than 1 billion people, combines instant messaging, video calls and mobile payments.
Ultimately, though, it is Musk’s free speech push that has drawn the most attention.
Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s former head of Europe, is sceptical of Musk’s “brilliant masterplan”.
He says: “He has a desperate need for attention. One of the quickest ways to get more attention for Twitter will be to welcome Donald Trump back. I suspect he'll go full steam ahead towards doing that within a month of owning it.”
For Daisley, it is just another reason to push on with enforcing a new set of rules on the world’s tech giants. “It makes it more clear to people around the world that we should live in fear of waiting for billionaires to make decisions for us. We need to regulate social media ourselves.”