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How Elon Musk would reshape how Twitter works

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Elon Musk may finally own Twitter by the end of the month. The mercurial billionaire changed his mind yet again this week and says he does want to buy the company after all. And if this deal does go through, Musk would dramatically reshape how the social media site works. Here to talk more about all of this is NPR's Shannon Bond. Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: OK. So catch us up here. The deal is back on, like, for real?

BOND: Well, sort of. So just to recap, Musk agreed to buy Twitter back in April, but he quickly changed his mind and has spent months trying to get out of the deal. But facing an imminent trial, he surprised everyone this week when he said he would go through with it. So now the judge in the case is giving Musk until October 28 to complete this purchase or they will go to trial.

CHANG: OK. The clock is ticking. Assuming he does not have another change of heart, like, what do we know about what Musk will do once he does own Twitter?

BOND: Well, he said from the beginning that this was about free speech. And just a reminder, Ailsa, over the years, Twitter has created a lot of rules to promote what it calls healthy conversations. So it has rules against harassment, hate speech, extremism, false or misleading claims about elections and COVID. But Musk says these are too restrictive. He says Twitter should allow basically all legal speech. And that would be a big change. I spoke with Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, and he says, for an idea of what this might look like, you can just look to social media sites that have much laxer rules like Parler and Truth Social, the site backed by former President Trump.

ANGELO CARUSONE: You can look at these alternative platforms where the feature is the bug, where being able to say and do, you know, the kinds of things that we prohibited from more mainstream social media platforms is actually why everyone gravitates to them. And what we see there is that they are cauldrons of misinformation and abuse.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, you know, Shannon, you mentioned Donald Trump, which, you know, we all remember he was banned from Twitter after January 6. What has Musk said about that?

BOND: Well, he said that banning of Trump was a, quote, "morally bad and foolish decision" - and says he'd bring him back. And Musk has been really critical of the idea that anyone should be permanently banned from Twitter except spambots and he says people who explicitly advocate violence. And so that could mean not just letting Trump back, but other banned users, too - conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine activists, election deniers. In a kind of ripple effect, you know, Facebook is considering whether to reinstate Trump when its ban expires in January. And, you know, in some minds, if Twitter lets Trump back on, it could make it easier for Facebook to do the same, even as we see Trump further embracing this stolen election lie and other conspiracy theories.

CHANG: Well, ultimately, what do you think all this will mean for Twitter as a business?

BOND: Well, you know, Twitter has struggled for a long time to make money. You know, it relies on advertising. But it's hard to see advertisers wanting to be on a site that has a lot of hate speech and harassment and toxicity - or users, frankly, too. So Musk, you know, has talked about moving away from advertising. His latest idea is to turn Twitter into what he calls an everything app, so an app that you could use for messaging, but also for payments, maybe even to do ride hailing, anything you could do online - right? - could be your sort of digital hub. But, Ailsa, I think it's important to remember Musk loves to talk about these grand visions - right? - making electric cars cool, going to Mars. So we're going to have to see if he actually follows through on this grand vision he's laying out for Twitter.

CHANG: We'll see. We'll see. That is NPR's Shannon Bond. Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.