It's been Elon Musk versus Twitter for the last few weeks, with the billionaire buying huge chunks of the company's stock, firing off salvos of suggestions for improving the platform (albeit deleted later in what may have been a fit of post-tweet regret), turning down a seat on the board, and most recently offering – or threatening – to simply buy out the whole company.
For onlookers, it's great entertainment. But for Twitter's other shareholders and its employees, including the executive leadership, it's drama that they neither want nor need. Musk is notorious for sending stock market valuations on a roller coaster ride with random tweets that may or may not be unfounded, and his sudden interest in Twitter has already first sent its share price skyward, then created a muddle of uncertainty around the company's fate.
Some former Twitter shareholders definitely haven't appreciated it, with one group filing a class action lawsuit against Musk earlier this month for failing to disclose his investment within the legally required window. Twitter employees, meanwhile, protested so vociferously that the company's management took the unprecedented step of organising an ask-me-anything town hall with Musk. (It was cancelled after he turned down the board seat.) And the leadership are clearly very wary of Musk's intentions, with the board's unanimous adoption of a poison pill to ward off the billionaire's buyout attempt underlining just how unwelcome his attentions are.
It's not the first time Elon Musk has gotten far too many people stirred up with provocative public statements or outlandish declarations which might or might not be indicative of his actual intentions. Back in 2018, he got into serious trouble with regulators by casually tweeting about taking Tesla private; in late 2021, he used his sale of Tesla stock to publicly mock tax avoidance discussions; and in between, he's gotten into any number of open quarrels on Twitter with everyone from former Tesla CEO Martin Eberhard to former US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
In many ways, Musk is as much of a troll as any random commenter prodding up trouble on social media. His recent string of now-deleted suggestions for Twitter, which included removing the 'w' from the company's name, certainly have a trollish flavour to them, and his latest, deliberately cryptic tweet apparently spinning out the drama over buying Twitter is no improvement.
The missing word, said to be 'Tender', has observers speculating that he's preparing a tender offer for Twitter.
But unlike the average random commenter, Musk has the means to make his provocations into reality – in this case, potentially affecting the fate of an entire company worth roughly $35 billion (discounting the spike in valuation that Musk himself created), the livelihood of its 7,000-odd employees, the holdings of its shareholders, and the access and experience of an estimated 300 million active users worldwide. The drama becomes less entertaining from this perspective, and much more worrying. Even if Musk makes an about-face and lets the whole matter drop, the damage has already been done. Twitter's valuation has become uncomfortably volatile; shareholders' and employees' confidence has been shaken. Only the user base is benefiting right now, partly from the entertainment value of the whole drama and partly because Musk's suggestions for the company, however bizarre, have often been more or less in line with changes that users want to see.
And there lies the main problem with Elon-Musk-the-troll. As a Twitter user himself, with a keen sense of drama and what's apparently an equally keen enjoyment of the controversy he creates, he cuts a fine public entertainment figure, and a very popular one at that with over 80 million followers on the platform. But the troll also happens to be worth over $200 billion, and Elon-Musk-the-billionaire is a lot less entertaining to the much smaller number of people who have real skin in the game.
If there's any underlying takeaway from this month's ongoing drama, it may be the same one that social media users around the world have already realised: trolls aren't actually all that funny once you're the target. And when the troll is a billionaire, it's even less funny for those who have something tangible to lose.