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Elon Musk addresses Twitter staff about free speech, remote work, layoffs and aliens

Elon Musk attends the 2022 Met Gala in New York City. The billionaire addressed Twitter staff for the first time since striking a deal to buy the social network.
Dimitrios Kambouris
Getty Images for The Met Museum
Elon Musk attends the 2022 Met Gala in New York City. The billionaire addressed Twitter staff for the first time since striking a deal to buy the social network.

Elon Musk addressed Twitter employees on Thursday for the first time since striking a deal to buy the social network for $44 billion.

The billionaire Tesla CEO touched on a wide range of subjects, from his ideas for improving Twitter's finances to the platform's rules about speech to musings about life, the universe and the existence of aliens, according to a person who listened.

Musk dialed in remotely to the meeting, which was livestreamed internally. Twitter's chief marketing officer, Leslie Berland, posed a selection of questions submitted by staff.

Asked about his vision for the company, Musk said he wanted a billion people a day to use Twitter. That's ambitious. Just 229 million people use Twitter daily right now.

He deflected a question about whether he planned to become the CEO, saying he doesn't care about titles, but plans to give a lot of input about the direction of the platform. (Musk is already CEO of two companies: Tesla and SpaceX.)

He floated ideas for broadening Twitter's business beyond its current dependence on advertising, suggesting it could charge people to get "verified" with those blue check marks – a way of confirming their identities.

What was not directly addressed, either by Musk or in the questions Berland asked, is whether the billionaire entrepreneur remains committed to buying Twitter.

In recent weeks Musk has cast doubt over the deal, tweeting that it was "on hold" while he looked into the prevalence of fake accounts and automated bots on the platform. He's also suggested he might seek to lower the price he's agreed to pay. (Global markets have fallen sharply since Musk agreed to buy Twitter for $54.20 a share, and some observers say Musk may feel like he's overpaying.)

Last week he threatened to walk away entirely, saying Twitter wasn't handing over information about the issue. Since then, Twitter has agreed to give Musk access to its so-called firehose, a real-time stream of more than 500 million tweets posted every day.

At Thursday's meeting, Musk reiterated that bots are a big concern for him – but didn't give any hint that he might be changing his mind about the purchase.

Since Musk struck his deal to buy Twitter in April, his comments about how he would tackle the company's hardest challenges have rattled some employees.

Musk has framed his interest in Twitter as being about protecting free speech. He's criticized the company's rules against misinformation and other legal but harmful content. And he's said he'd reinstate former President Donald Trump, whom Twitter banned after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Asked on Thursday about his views on Twitter's speech rules, Musk reiterated his stance that the platform should allow all legal speech – a definition that critics say would open the floodgates to hate speech, spam and propaganda.

But Musk also seemed to acknowledge that some content moderation is necessary, saying that people won't want to use Twitter if they fear they may be harassed.

He said Twitter shouldn't promote harmful speech, and users should be able to filter their own feeds. He said people want to see "entertaining" content, pointing to the wild popularity of the short video app TikTok.

Asked how his political views might affect his leadership of Twitter, Musk described himself as a moderate who has previously voted for Democrats. He said he'd voted for a Republican for the first time this week in a special election for a congressional seat in Texas. (The candidate he voted for, Mayra Flores, won the race, but has drawn criticism for social media posts using Qanon hashtags and casting doubt on the 2020 presidential election results, according to the Texas Tribune.)

The future of the company under Musk's leadership was a big focus. Asked about layoffs, Musk implied they were likely, saying Twitter's costs currently exceed its revenues. The company needs to "get healthy," he said, adding that he would focus on employees' performance.

He was also asked about the future of remote work at Twitter, which was one of the first tech companies to allow staff to avoid the office at the outset of the pandemic, and has since said employees can choose where they want to work "forever." Earlier this month, Musk told Tesla employees they had to return to the office full time or be let go.

Musk said Twitter is a different company than Tesla and while he favors in-person work, he's open to letting "exceptional" employees work remotely.

Near the end of the meeting, Musk went on a tangent about Twitter's role in improving civilization and consciousness, according to the person who listened.

When Berland cracked a joke about extraterrestrial life, Musk said he's seen no evidence that aliens exist.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond
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.