Elon Musk took to Twitter early Friday to say that his takeover of the company was "temporarily on hold pending details supporting the calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users."
Musk might be serious about this. Or he might be joking and just using his vast social media reach to have fun with the investors, Twitter Inc. employees, journalists, free-speech advocates and others who have been watching this garbage fire ignite. (A couple hours later he tweeted he was still committed to the deal.)
I'm in the camp of: "Musk is serious about this but he's finding the most unserious of reasons to explain why he's bailing." As in: "I was thinking about buying that mansion, but the deal is on hold pending details about whether there are termites in some of the planters on the patio. I still have plenty of cash and can get a mortgage from the bank, believe me. It's not about the money."
I suspect Musk's jitters about buying Twitter are all about the money and has nothing to do with how many bots are zooming around the platform. He just doesn't want to say that. If the richest guy in the world wanted to be more honest about what's going on, he might have to acknowledge that his primary credit card — his shares in Tesla Inc. — doesn't have the buying power it once did.
Musk said last month that he wanted to buy Twitter for $43 billion — when he only had about $3 billion in cash on hand. Most of the fortune of the world's richest man, which added up to some $259 billion at the time, was tied up in his Tesla shares. Since then, Tesla's shares have lost about 36% of their value, and Musk's net worth has fallen to about $215 billion.
Musk originally said he would put $21 billion of his own money into the deal, presumably by selling a chunk of Tesla stock. He has sold about $8.5 billion in Tesla shares since then. Banks were going to provide him with a $12.5 billion margin loan, secured by an additional $62.5 billion of his Tesla shares. And the rest of the purchase price and other costs would be funded by the $13 billion in debt that Twitter will take on.
The terms have changed since then. Musk has reportedly found investors willing to put in another $12.5 billion so he doesn't have to take out that big margin loan and tie up more of his Tesla stake. But still, the stock market has been withering recently and pricey growth darlings such as Tesla have fallen out of favour. All of that could change, of course, but I have to imagine that market realities, disgruntled Tesla investors and an emptying wallet were wake-up calls for Musk.
After all, Musk's tweet about how many fake accounts there are on Twitter linked to a Reuters news article that is 11 days old. If this was a possible deal-breaker for him, he could have said so then. But the stock market wasn't unwinding as rapidly at the time, either.
Musk has been able to use his Twitter bid to secure more attention for all of the things he doesn't like about it. He tweeted yesterday that although he would prefer "a less divisive candidate" for president in 2024, he thinks that Twitter should end its ban on former President Donald Trump.
In that context, "less divisive" appears to be a polite way of saying "someone who hadn't torched the Constitution and tried staging a coup." But Musk doesn't appear to be bothered by those nuances – which, of course, makes him a questionable steward of Twitter's future.
Musk has also routinely noted that he considers himself a "free-speech absolutist" and wants Twitter to have a more freewheeling approach to content. He has a track record of trampling free speech, though. He also recently said that if "there are tweets that are wrong and bad, those should be either deleted or made invisible, and a suspension — a temporary suspension — is appropriate, but not a permanent ban."
That all gets tricky. Is the real reason Musk has said he's a free-speech absolutist is so he doesn't have to take on the burden and expense of better content moderation on Twitter? Is the real reason he says he's an absolutist because he wants Twitter to be friendlier territory for some of the far-right disinformation specialists he's developed an affinity for? If he's serious about tracking "tweets that are wrong and bad," how would he go about doing so?
Those are complex issues, and perhaps they also played a part in convincing Musk to step back from his Twitter bid. But I think it's all about the money.
Timothy L O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.