Now that Elon Musk has bought Twitter, his controversial plans for the platform have led to worries about values at a time when businesses are grappling with a new direction of travel. New commitments to hybrid working, flexibility and equality are just taking root. How will new company cultures escape the influence of old prejudices in an era of disruptive social media?

After a summer of will he/won’t he, Elon Musk has finally bought Twitter. On October 26, as the news was sinking in, he entered the company’s San Francisco HQ – carrying a sink – just days before a deadline that threatened legal action if he didn’t complete the deal.

Why has Musk bought Twitter?

Elon Musk has long used Twitter to share his thoughts on himself, on his businesses, and on fragile geopolitical crises. So why has he now finally gone ahead with the $44 billion deal? In a personal statement to advertisers, Musk explained that: “The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilisation to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.” He added: “That is why I bought Twitter. I didn’t do it because it would be easy. I didn’t do it to make more money. I did it to try to help humanity, whom I love.”

Twitter has been described as a niche platform, used daily by approximately 238 million people worldwide. This contrasts with the 3.71 billion people who use at least one of Meta’s products (among them Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram) each month.

Twitter’s users include influential politicians, journalists, celebrities and academics, posting to a far wider reach than a closed group of WhatsApp users. In the upheaval of recent years, the platform has been punching above its weight. In that time, much has changed – especially in the workplace.

Chipping away at the centre-ground

In the three years since Covid began, mindsets in the workplace have shifted. Hybrid working, new energy in conversations around equality, the onset of the great resignation and the impact of younger generations have together reshaped attitudes.

Once, homeworking was an exception. Not anymore. Since Covid, leaders have adopted a new approach to personal development, flexibility, and recognition at work. Diversity and inclusion strategies are front and centre; leaders are talking about social wellbeing and future skills. In fact, the pace of change has sometimes outstripped company cultures that have struggled to adapt.

Building unity isn’t easy at the best of times. It’s particularly hard when polarised political opinion in the wider population chips away at centre-ground values. Musk’s deal doesn’t make things any easier.

Why are people worried about Musk’s acquisition? 

Musk is a self-described free speech absolutist. Some worry that Twitter’s new direction may enflame tensions and make it harder for objective facts to be heard and accepted. Within hours of Musk’s arrival, racist language on Twitter surged nearly 500% from the previous average, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute, leading to fears of more to come.

Individuals are now more likely to see inflammatory tweets questioning equality. For leaders actively pushing their D&I strategy, the implications of this are sobering.

In the current period of uncertainty and change, team cohesion remains a priority – though pulling it off isn’t easy in a geopolitical landscape rocked by inflation, war and energy concerns. Despite widespread fragile morale, leaders can unite their team in a shared understanding of purpose, where everyone pulls together in the interests of a flourishing business.

A united team who trust each other are more likely to believe things that fit into their shared understanding of reality – such as the fact that diverse teams deliver better results. Individuals who challenge this united grip on reality threaten team cohesion.

A “free-for-all hellscape”

Before Musk’s arrival, Twitter restricted users who breached content policies. In 2021, the Pew Research Center found that 6 in 10 Republican Twitter users felt that limiting the visibility of specific posts, such as election misinformation, was a major problem. Now, such restrictions are about to be revised. Musk has swiftly parted ways with top executives – including Vijaya Gadde, the head of legal policy, trust and safety, who oversaw the decision to suspend Donald Trump’s account. Musk has said he will reverse this decision.

Other users who were banned include conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and the personal account of Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. “FREEDOM OF SPEECH!!!!” tweeted Taylor Greene from her professional account after Musk’s deal was announced, followed by “We are winning.”

Musk has suggested that he will create a Twitter content moderation council, deciding on who is to be reinstated, and what they might be allowed to say. He is reportedly in discussion with leaders of civil rights groups. But he has a way to go to soothe fears. Twitter’s former policies on hate speech were a light at the end of the social media tunnel. Some now fear the light is an oncoming train. Even Musk himself has noted that: “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.”

In his personal statement to advertisers, Musk accepted that: “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”

Free speech is essential, as long as it’s free for everyone. Being allowed to attack the rights of others isn’t a virtuous triumph. Celebrating freedom by using it to suppress other people misses the point. If the freedom to say as you feel potentially jeopardises others’ freedom from fear, intimidation and misinformation, is that freedom at all?

Fans of absolutist freedom fail to see this breakdown in logic, people like Musk himself. Which is why his commitment to free speech has been described as “less than absolute”, particularly regarding concerned Tesla staff or curious journalists.

How can leaders strengthen unity and morale?

Those who set themselves apart, rejecting verified facts and evidence, risk slipping into misinformation and disinformation. Worse, their messaging invites other people to join them in dismissing the verified information that the rest of us rely on.

Twitter, like other social media platforms, is targeted by agencies that sow disinformation on behalf of other countries. In the last few days, accounts linked to six such networks have been taken down after tweeting about the midterm elections. All appeared to be based in the US, though the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) found that “three…had technical indicators suggesting ties to the People’s Republic of China, and the other three had technical indicators suggesting they were located in Iran.”

Verified information is accurately sourced. Journalists are proud of accuracy, which is why they put their name next to their work. The anonymity that bedevils social media protects those who simply want to share an opinion. Just because Twitter allows them to share a legitimate opinion as widely as they want, this alone doesn’t qualify it as verified information, though again Musk seems confused on this. In response to a journalist, he tweeted “You represent the problem: journalists who think they are the only source of legitimate information. That’s the big lie.”

Since Musk’s arrival, rival platforms are seeing an uptake in interest, including Curv which breaks away from the anonymity typical of social media, and encourages users to source their content. In the workplace, leaders can protect unity with training courses in future skills. These help individuals learn to take a critic’s view of content that they see online, which in turn supports skills in analysis and decision-making. Ultimately, society will never root out its extremists. But we can control our response to them, demand objective facts, and remain focused on the unity that helps to silence their cause.

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