Elon Musk’s Event With Ron DeSantis Exposes Twitter’s Weaknesses
Hosting Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, in a Twitter audio event on Wednesday to announce his presidential run was supposed to be a triumphant moment for Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter.
Instead, the event began with more than 20 minutes of technical glitches, heated mic moments and drowned-out and half-said conversations before the livestream abruptly cut out. Minutes later, the livestream restarted as hundreds of thousands of listeners tried to tune in. Mr. DeSantis hadn’t said a word at that point.
“That was insane, sorry,” Mr. Musk said.
Behind the stop-start Twitter Space, an audio-only livestream on the social network, was a company that has undergone major changes in recent months. Since mr. Musk bought Twitter last year for $44 billion, he has reshaped it by cutting more than 75 percent of its work force, changing the platform’s speech rules and reinstating suspended users. Outages have been on the rise, as have bugs that have made Twitter less usable.
The technical problems on Wednesday showed how Twitter is operating far from seamlessly, turning what was supposed to be a crowning event for Mr. Musk into something of an embarrassment.
Mr. DeSantis’s announcement had been an opportunity for Mr. Musk, an unpredictable executive with interests in many fields, to promote his multiple agendas. Those included a political coming-out for the billionaire, who has flirted with right-wing accounts and politics for years on Twitter but has never embraced a presidential candidate the way he has the Republican governor. And it was supposed to be a way for Mr. Musk to advance his business interests by highlighting Twitter, which he is trying to turn around.
Yet as the Twitter audio livestream faltered, the reaction — including on Twitter itself — was shock and scorn that what should have been a carefully choreographed announcement of a presidential run had stumbled so badly. The hashtag #Desaster appeared on many posts. Others took potshots at the failure, with President Biden’s personal @JoeBiden account tweeting a donation link with the words, “This link works.”
David Sacks, a tech executive who moderated the audio event with Mr. DeSantis and who is a confidant of Mr. Musk’s, tried downplaying the technical problems.
“We got so many people here that we are kind of melting the servers, which is a good sign,” he said during the first livestream, which sputtered out.
Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.
Inside Twitter, employees had been alarmed by Mr. Musk’s turn into politics and whether the social media site could handle the influx of traffic, three employees said. There was no planning for what are known as “site reliability issues” for the event with Mr. DeSantis, two of the people said, and workers were prepared to do whatever they could to keep the social network running.
When the audio event began at about 6 p.m. Eastern time, more than 600,000 listeners joined, causing Twitter’s mobile apps and website to sputter or crash, two employees said. Mr. Musk later said that his account, which has 140 million followers and which promoted and launched the livestream, had brought in too many listeners and that Twitter’s systems had been unable to handle them.
Twitter’s systems recovered, the employees said, but the restarted livestream with Mr. DeSantis had a smaller audience, with about 275,000 listeners.
Even before the glitches, the event had drawn criticism, especially since Mr. Musk has said Twitter is a politically neutral platform. Michael Santoro, a professor of management and entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University, said the event “undermines” the claim of impartiality.
“As the owner of the company, he’s using major resources and power and outreach of the company to express any view,” Mr. Santoro said of Mr. Musk.
But others said they were not surprised that Mr. Musk was trying to mold the social platform in his own image and beliefs.
A self-proclaimed moderate, Mr. Musk voted for Democratic presidential candidates like Barack Obama and Mr. Biden. But in recent years he has taken a rightward turn, which has been laid out in full on his Twitter profile. He has posted critically about what he calls the “woke mind virus” affecting Democratic politics, has shared right-wing conspiracy theories and has repeatedly praised Mr. DeSantis for nearly a year.
Jason Goldman, a former vice president of product at Twitter, compared Mr. Musk’s moves with Twitter to the creation of an echo chamber where he has put his own interests front and center.
“He is the moderator, and the content surfaced and promoted is that which is most pleasing to him,” Mr. Goldman said.
In recent months, fears about Twitter’s reliability have surfaced repeatedly. After mr. Musk began laying off thousands of its employees last year, many users were so alarmed by the cuts that #RIPTwitter and #GoodbyeTwitter began trending. The company staved off any shutdowns and continued operating, but outages rose.
In February alone, Twitter experienced at least four widespread outages, compared with nine in all of 2022, according to NetBlocks, an organization that tracks internet outages.
The company’s technology operations have become more precarious since November, current and former employees have said. Mr. Musk also ended operations at one of Twitter’s three main data centers, slashed the teams that work on the company’s back-end technology such as servers and cloud storage, and eliminated leaders overseeing that area.
On Wednesday after the Twitter Space restarted, Mr. DeSantis finally got the chance to speak. He made his stump speech, then complimented Mr. Musk for buying Twitter. He also praised Mr. Musk, who often declares his support for free speech, made that commitment and said the Twitter owner would surely make money off his investment in the company.
Mr. Musk is “a good businessman,” Mr. DeSantis said. And Twitter Spaces, he later added, “is a great platform.”