Twitter employees reacted with shock and dismay Monday as a new reality sank in: Elon Musk - the world's richest man, free speech defender and strong critic of Twitter - would be the company's new owner.
On Twitter, in private messages and in interviews with The Washington Post, employees expressed fear about Musk's $44 billion takeover. Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, along with board chair Bret Taylor, held an internal town hall on Monday afternoon in which the leaders tried to assure anxious staff but offered few direct answers. A central concern was that Musk would attempt to break down safeguards to protect everyday users that staff had built over many years, according to the interviews and tweets, as well as audio from the town hall obtained by The Post.
Some tweeted tear-filled emoji and memes of people having emotional breakdowns, while others told The Post they were too in shock to speak. At Monday's town hall, leaders were vague in response to questions about future layoffs, changes to the company's approach to free speech and safety, and whether the company will continue to make money from advertising.
"Totally understand that this is entertainment for some," one employee tweeted. "But please understand that this is certainly not entertainment for me."
"The news today is so crazy I literally forgot I have Covid," another tweeted.
To many observers and employees, Musk's acquisition bid looked unlikely at first. Musk didn't appear to have enough funds to make the offer on his own, and Twitter's board appeared to attempt to derail the deal. But in recent days, Musk said he secured the financing through loans, and on Monday, the company announced in a news release that the acquisition had gone through. The acquisition, which would rank among the largest-ever activist takeovers of a publicly traded company, would take the company private over the course of three to six months, executives said in the town hall.
Musk's involvement in Twitter, which began this month when he made public that he had acquired a large stake in the company, had already produced outcries from employees. In dozens of internal messages obtained by The Post, workers expressed worries that the firebrand Musk could inflict damage to the company's culture and make it harder for people to do their jobs. Observers and misinformation researchers echoed the criticism.
The company, which is based in liberal San Francisco and has more than 5,000 employees, has spent years building a progressive corporate culture that allows employees to say just about anything they want and to live anywhere they choose. Twitter was the first company to take action against former president Donald Trump for his tweets supporting Capitol rioters on Jan. 6, 2021, and engineering teams have spent years building tools to fight spam, disinformation and hate speech under an initiative known as healthy conversations.
"I don't know any non-engineer who works on health issues who sees how this helps," said a Twitter employee in an interview in response to questions about Musk's ownership, referring to the company's health division that enforces rules against harmful content such as hate speech and misinformation. "Most find it dispiriting."
Musk, on the other hand, has used his Twitter account - which has more than 84 million followers - to champion free speech and question content moderation decisions such as the banning of Trump and has appeared to mock gender pronouns. He has also been known as a harsh manager who will seek to fire people on the spot when they are not onboard with his way of thinking, including at one point disbanding his entire public relations team.
In the town hall, Twitter executives and board chair Taylor acknowledged emotions were running high for people. But they insisted that the deal was financially good for Twitter and that Musk could unlock the company's untapped potential, while offering few details on what that meant.
Taylor said the merger received a unanimous vote from the board, and Agrawal said there would be no immediate layoffs or changes to the business while the deal goes through. Once the company goes private, employees' shares would be paid out to them in cash.
But Agrawal was far less clear about the future, particularly on questions about whether Musk would change how the company polices speech and enforces its rules online - and even whether the company would maintain its business model of running advertising long term.
Agrawal said leadership "will continue to spend time with Elon to learn more, and as we learn more, we will share it will you." He also said his team would seek to better understand what Musk's "aspirations and ambitions might be" so that executives could figure out how to "best collaborate" with the new owner.
Employees appeared unsatisfied, according to chats during the town hall that an employee described to The Post. A group of employees created a document of "questions for Elon Musk," while others asked during the town hall whether he would restore Trump's Twitter account. Some asked whether leadership was concerned about an employee exodus.
The company also said it would prevent employees from making any changes to Twitter's service until Friday, according to Bloomberg News, a move that could keep employees from retaliating by doing damage to Musk's Twitter account.
The concern has precedent: Years ago, a Twitter employee temporarily took down Trump's account.