QOTD: What Does Elon Musk Buying Twitter Mean for the Automotive Industry?

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

It's official. Tesla boss Elon Musk now owns Twitter, one of the most influential social media platforms.

I've spent a lot of time -- perhaps too much time -- since yesterday thinking about how the head of a car company now owning Twitter will affect those of us in the automotive media -- and the industry as a whole.

Think about it: Musk now owns a platform in which his competitors advertise and promote their own brands. One that his competing executives use.

It's also a platform on which those of us in the automotive media use to promote our own work -- including stories about Tesla or Musk that are factually accurate but critical. Some of us post critical opinion pieces. And many of us post critical opinions of Musk and Twitter on our personal accounts.

The mind boggles at the possible scenarios. Could Musk use content moderation to silence critical voices? My understanding is that he could -- if a private platform is allowed to kick racists out, then it should have the right to control what appears on it, right?

Or could Musk quietly use control of algorithms to quietly bury a negative review of the Model S from Motor Trend? To keep ads from Ford or GM from surfacing?

Does he now have access to the personal data of journalists, academics, high-level car-company executives, and stock-market analysts? Does have now have access to Twitter user data that could help him target Tesla's marketing?

Or is this just all paranoia on my part? Maybe Musk will just delegate all or most of the work to others and focus his time and energy on Tesla and SpaceX and whatever else he's working on.

It's also possible Musk will make changes to Twitter that will actually work to benefit other car companies and/or the media, both in general and in terms of automotive journalism.

I reached out to Mike Masnick, the editor of TechDirt, a blog that covers the collision of technology and free speech, among other things, and asked him a few questions. Our exchange, lightly edited:

Q: We know that Twitter, as a private platform, is free to moderate content without it running afoul of free speech. It has that right. It has the right to moderate content from racists, for example. Does Musk now have the right to say, suppress a car review of a Tesla he doesn't like? Or a Ford ad? Or a journalist who is expressing critical thoughts on his personal account? Legally speaking, as well as morally speaking.

Masnick: Yes, it can moderate however it wants with a few (very minimal) limitations in the US at least. There are more restrictions elsewhere, especially in the EU. But, yes that means he could absolutely suppress a car review he doesn't like, or ban all ads from competing companies. He could even take down competing car company accounts if he wants. In theory, he could even read their DMs (though that begins to push on some legal issues). Legally, all of that is absolutely allowed. I can't comment on moral issues, because those are all individual decisions.

Q: As a follow-up, could Musk quietly silence criticism by pulling algorithmic levers? For example, tweaking the algorithm to hide a bad review of a Model S from Motor Trend? I believe this is called shadowbanning and I've been skeptical that Twitter does this -- but could that change under Musk?

Masnick: He could absolutely do that if he wanted to, though I imagine it's not quite that easy to do, and if he wanted to, he'd find it more difficult than he expected. I'm not convinced he would actually do that, but he absolutely could.

Q: Are there any legal challenges to a CEO of a company -- in this case, multiple companies -- owning a platform in which media coverage of those companies is shared?

Masnick: There's not much that could be done legally. In theory, if Twitter somehow became dominant, then there could be antitrust concerns about him leveraging one business to harm competitors in other businesses, but none of Musk's companies currently come close to the threshold for that to be the case. There certainly have been tons of other media companies owned by individuals or owners with competing interests and it's mostly legal for them to do what they want. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post while still having a strong interest in Amazon (though he's no longer CEO). Comcast owns NBC Universal. And, there are certainly arguments that lots of these conglomerates or billionaire-owned media companies pull their punches on criticizing their own owner or related companies, or that they put extra attention on competitors. But, generally, people call that out. I don't think there's been much evidence that anyone has taken it to extreme levels.

In theory, Musk absolutely could do that, but I imagine it would likely backfire tremendously and make him look quite bad.

Q: Could Musk now have access to Twitter user data that could help him sell Teslas?

Masnick: Sure, absolutely. I'm not quite sure which user data would be that useful here, but he has access to that data. There are certain limitations in how he can use data based on different laws (GDPR in the EU, CCPA/CCPR in California) but, not sure that any of those existing laws would limit him from trying to use the data to sell Teslas. There are some legal proposals that would suggest he can only use data for *necessary* purposes, and in theory, those could limit the "sell Tesla" hypothetical, but I don't think any of those laws are set in stone yet.

Of course, perspective is necessary here -- there are bigger fish to fry, societally speaking, when it comes to Twitter than how the automotive industry and the automotive press will be affected. We're quickly approaching a midterm election in which democracy itself is arguably on the ballot, and we're in an era in which misinformation and disinformation are huge problems. I'm more worried about how Twitter will handle lies about election security (yes, Biden won), misinformation/disinformation about COVID (Musk himself had some problematic positions), and general racism and bigotry than if Musk will throttle our traffic should we call the Cybertruck into question again.

That said, I am not paid to write about those things, at least not at TTAC, and if you want to read about those topics there are plenty of other outlets giving them coverage. I'll let the Masnicks and Charlie Warzels and Ryan Brodericks of the world write about the bigger picture -- for the purposes of this post, I am curious as to how the car world will change on Twitter, if it even changes at all.

I am also curious as to how, the average Twitter user, will be using the platform going forward. Will you use it less? More? The same? Will Weird Car Twitter, which is home not to automotive journalists but plenty of car enthusiasts who aren't members of the media, change?

What say you, B and B? Is this a seismic change for Twitter, or much ado about nothing? Or somewhere in between?

One last thing: I know this is a divisive subject. Please keep the comments civil. You know the Six Rules, obey them or face the banhammer.

[Image: Sergei Elagin/Shutterstock.com]

Become a TTAC insider. Get the latest news, features, TTAC takes, and everything else that gets to the truth about cars first by  subscribing to our newsletter.

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

More by Tim Healey

Join the conversation
3 of 55 comments
  • FreedMike FreedMike on Oct 31, 2022

    Here's an excellent opportunity for Musk to put his money where his mouth is on an issue that directly affects his pocketbook.

    GOP seizes on voter hesitancy to attack EVs as costly to US | AP News

    • EBFlex EBFlex on Oct 31, 2022

      "GOP seizes on voter hesitancy to attack EVs as costly to US"

      Then they say this in the third paragraph:

      "EVs cost $65,000 on average, a fact GOP candidates cite." Huh...weird

      "He described early Democratic messaging suggesting that EVs were an immediate solution to rising gasoline prices as a mistake." Kinda like when they said covid stops with every vaccinated person. They just lie.

      "California set a goal for all new vehicles to be electric or plug-in hybrid by 2035 — and grappled with questions over how to pay for charging stations and road upgrades as gasoline tax revenue begins to decline."

      "Even with higher gasoline prices, the inexorable march to an all-electric future faces challenges, none of which will be resolved before the midterm elections that will decide control of a closely-divided Congress."

      "Hindered by supply chain shortages and manufacturing that currently depends on battery parts made mostly in China, electric vehicles are in the cost range of luxury cars and remain out of reach for most U.S. households." But I thought it was the GOPs fault?

      "In an interview, White House infrastructure adviser Mitch Landrieu said the high price of EVs — including up to $400,000 for an electric school bus — is “a legitimate criticism,″ but added: “The more of these we make, the cheaper they are going to get.″ Another lie. We have more EVs now than ever and prices are rising dramatically

      "Gregory Barry, 45, a Republican father of two in Audubon, Pennsylvania, says he’s open to electric vehicles once they become more affordable and take less time to charge but says it’s a mistake for the U.S. to ignore oil and other energy sources in the meantime." Oh my God look at how unreasonable this guy is!!!

      "Meg Cheyfitz, a 67-year-old self-described progressive in Columbus, Ohio, worries about climate change and believes the government isn’t doing enough to tackle the problem. But she has no intention of buying an EV, saying she and her husband can’t easily install a charger at home since they park their cars on the street. Cheyfitz also believes EVs remain a relatively unknown technology with potentially mixed effects on the environment." Yikes, cant even convince the base that EVs are the way to go. Maybe she is just a PINO.

      And at last, the cherry on top. These utter fools still think that EVs are part of some sort of climate agenda. They're not. They have nothing to do with the climate just like the entire green nonsense. It's the next attempt at total control. If this was about the environment, they would be pushing hybrids and PHEVs recognizing that EVs are FAR from being acceptable alternatives to ICE transportation:

      "Katherine García, director of Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All campaign, said the U.S. is “at a turning point for electric vehicle adoption,″ adding that the new climate law “is going to be a game changer for climate action.″

    • EBFlex EBFlex on Oct 31, 2022

      The DHS (and the FBI) have been weaponized. This is China/North Korea type stuff. Soon the US will intentionally release a virus on the world that upends everything.

      Thank God some sanity is only a week away. Time to vote these adult children out.

  • Mike Some Evs are hitting their 3 year lease residual values in 6 months.
  • Tassos Jong-iL I am just here for the beer! (did I say it right?)
  • El scotto Tim, to be tactful I think a great many of us would like a transcript of TTAC's podcast. 90 minutes is just too long for most of us to listen. -evil El Scotto kicking in- The blog at best provides amusement, 90 minutes is just too much. Way too much.
  • TooManyCars VoGhost; I was referring more to the Canadian context, but the same graft is occurring in the US of A and Europe. Political affiliation appears to be irrelevant.
  • The Oracle Going to see a lot of corporations migrating out of Delaware as the state of incorporation. Musk sets trends, he doesn’t follow them.