Elon Musk has taken control of Twitter after a protracted legal battle and months of uncertainty. The question now is what the billionaire Tesla CEO will actually do with the social media platform.
Musk ousted three top Twitter executives on Thursday, according to two people familiar with the deal who said he was in charge. Such a shakeup was widely expected, but Musk has otherwise made contradictory statements about his vision for the company — and shared few concrete plans for how he will run it.
The people wouldn't say if all the paperwork for the deal, originally valued at $44 billion, had been signed or if the deal had closed. A Delaware judge had ordered that the deal be finalized by Friday.
Late Thursday, Musk tweeted, "the bird has been freed," a reference to Twitter's logo.
Twitter's users, advertisers and employees are parsing Musk's every move in an effort to guess where he might take the company — but the mercurial tech executive has not made the job easy.
He has criticized Twitter's dependence on advertisers, but made a statement Thursday that seemed aimed at soothing their fears. He has complained about restrictions on speech on the platform — but then vowed he wouldn't let it become a "hellscape." And for months it wasn't even clear if he wanted to control the company at all.
After Musk signed a deal to acquire Twitter in April, he tried to back out of it, leading the company to sue him to force him to go through with the acquisition.
Friday's deadline to close the deal was ordered by the Delaware Chancery Court in early October. The New York Stock Exchange notified investors that it will suspend trading in shares of Twitter before the opening bell Friday in anticipation of the company going private under Musk.
Musk has been signaling more recently that the deal is going through. He strolled into the company's San Francisco headquarters Wednesday carrying a porcelain sink, changed his Twitter profile to "Chief Twit," and tweeted "Entering Twitter HQ — let that sink in!"
The people familiar with the deal said Musk has fired CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal and Chief Legal Counsel Vijaya Gadde. Both people insisted on anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deal.
Musk privately clashed with Agrawal in April, immediately before deciding to make a bid for the company, according to text messages later revealed in court filings.
Around the same time, he publicly criticized Gadde, the company's top lawyer, in a series of tweets. A wave of harassment of Gadde from other Twitter accounts followed, including racist and misogynistic attacks, in addition to calls for Musk to get rid of her. After she was fired, the harassment on the platform began again.
In his first big move earlier on Thursday, Musk said that he is buying the platform to help humanity and doesn't want it to become a "free-for-all hellscape."
The message appeared to be aimed at addressing concerns among advertisers — Twitter's chief source of revenue — that Musk's plans to promote free speech by cutting back on moderating content will open the floodgates to more online toxicity and drive away users.
"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 in an uncharacteristically long message for the Tesla CEO, who typically projects his thoughts in one-line tweets.
He continued: "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 has previously expressed distaste for advertising and Twitter's dependence on it, suggesting more emphasis on other business models such as paid subscriptions that won't allow big corporations to dictate policy on how social media operates. But on Thursday, he assured advertisers he wants Twitter to be "the most respected advertising platform in the world."
The note is a shift from Musk's position that Twitter is unfairly infringing on free speech rights by blocking misinformation or graphic content, said Pinar Yildirim, associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
But it's also a realization that having no content moderation is bad for business, putting Twitter at risk of losing advertisers and subscribers, she said.
"You do not want a place where consumers just simply are bombarded with things they do not want to hear about, and the platform takes no responsibility," Yildirim said.
As concerns rise about the direction of Twitter's content moderation, European Union Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton tweeted to Musk on Friday that "In Europe, the bird will fly by our rules."
Breton and Musk met in May and appeared in a video together in which Musk said he agreed with the 27-nation bloc's strict new online regulations. Its Digital Services Act threatens big tech companies with billions in fines if they don't police their platforms more strictly for illegal or harmful content such as hate speech and disinformation.
Musk is expected to speak to Twitter employees directly Friday if the deal is finalized, according to an internal memo cited in several media outlets. There is internal confusion and low morale tied to fears of layoffs or a dismantling of the company's culture and operations.
The Washington Post reported last week that Musk told prospective investors that he plans to cut three quarters of Twitter's 7,500 workers when he becomes owner of the company. The newspaper cited documents and unnamed sources familiar with the deliberation.
Musk has spent months deriding Twitter's "spam bots" and making sometimes conflicting pronouncements about Twitter's problems and how to fix them.
Thursday's note to advertisers shows a newfound emphasis on advertising revenue, especially a need for Twitter to provide more "relevant ads" — which typically means targeted ads that rely on collecting and analyzing users' personal information.
Yildirim said that, unlike Facebook, Twitter has not been good at targeting advertising to what users want to see. Musk's message suggests he wants to fix that, she said.