Following a tumultuous 12 days of negotiations, billionaire Elon Musk reached an agreement with Twitter’s board, including former CEO Jack Dorsey and current CEO Parag Agrawal, on April 25 to purchase Twitter for approximately $44 billion. The world’s richest man pledged to overhaul the platform’s content moderation tactics in a move that would promote what he considers free speech.
As owner of the company, Musk will have the power to transform the board and fire key individuals who don’t align with his vision for the platform. In a securities filing April 13, Musk said he did not “have confidence in [the company’s] management”.
That puts Twitter’s CEO, Parag Agrawal, at risk. But what is Agrawal’s background and what could happen to him following Musk’s takeover?
Who is Parag Agrawal?
Agrawal had only been in the role of CEO for 5 months before the announcement of Musk’s takeover. Before being appointed to the lead role in November, Agrawal maintained a low profile.
The Indian-born tech expert moved to the U.S. in 2005 to study for a doctorate in computer science at Stanford University. After brief stints in research at Microsoft, AT&T and Yahoo, Agrawal joined Twitter as a software engineer in 2011. With under 1000 employees, the company was in the early stages of leveraging machine learning to create targeted advertising, according to the New York Times.
Agrawal built a reputation as one of the platform’s top engineers, and was appointed to a team that transformed Twitter’s developing projects. He was also instrumental in focusing the platform’s efforts on the “timeline” structure of tweets on users’ homepages.
When he was promoted to Chief Technology Officer in 2017, Agrawal moved Twitter onto cloud computing services to address engineering problems that had caused sluggish growth.
In 2019, Twitter’s founder and then-CEO, Jack Dorsey, announced that Twitter would fund an open-source project to create decentralized social media, with Agrawal at the helm. Known as Project Bluesky, it would create technology and protocols that would allow seamless sharing of content across multiple social networks. According to the Times, it would allow users to make their own moderation decisions and apply their own algorithm to promote content.
Agrawal also oversaw Twitter’s effort to incorporate cryptocurrencies into the platform, letting users send tips to each other, according to the Times.
When did Agrawal become CEO of Twitter?
It had already been a rocky 6 months for Twitter before Musk’s takeover bid. The platform’s founder Jack Dorsey stepped down as CEO in November 2021 after facing scrutiny from investors over the amount of time he spent on other projects. Slow to catch up with other social media giants during its 16 year existence, Twitter reported a net loss of $221 million last year.
In a tweet on Nov. 29, Dorsey announced his resignation and said that Agrawal had been chosen as his successor after a “rigorous process”.
“He’s been my choice for some time given how deeply he understands the company and its needs,” he said. “Parag has been behind every critical decision that helped turn this company around…He leads with his heart and soul, and is someone I learn from daily.”
According to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Agrawal receives a $1 million annual salary plus bonuses and stock awards.
What has Agrawal said about free speech?
Agrawal shares Dorsey’s vision for a future of decentralized social media platforms, according to CNBC. When developing Project Bluesky in 2019, Agrawal commented that Twitter’s moderation softwares would be guided by algorithms, not company executives.
“Our role has shifted from ‘we host a bunch of content’ to ‘we guide people toward what they are interested in,’” he said in November. “We are thinking about this in terms of, ‘How does something get attention and in what context?’ What do you host or not host is a problem of 10 years ago.
Twitter’s content moderation policies landed the company at the center of free speech debates when it suspended Donald Trump’s account following the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, citing concerns that his tweets risked “further incitement of violence.” The company has a hateful conduct policy that explicitly bans tweets meant to cite fear of, or violence toward, protected groups.
Musk, who described himself as a “free speech absolutist”, wants to overhaul Twitter’s content moderation procedures.
“I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy,” Musk said in an SEC filing. “However, since making my investment I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”
Agrawal’s views on free speech on Twitter, which he shared in an interview with MIT Technology Review in 2020, seem antithetical to Musk’s views.
“Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation,” he said. “The kinds of things that we do about this is, focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.
“One of the changes today that we see is speech is easy on the internet…The scarce commodity today is attention.” The then-CTO said the platform’s main struggle is making sure its algorithms are pointing to content which “lead[s] to a healthy public conservation.”
What has Agrawal said about Musk’s deal?
Following news of Musk’s deal April 25, Agrawal tweeted: “Twitter has a purpose and relevance that impacts the entire world. Deeply proud of our teams and inspired by the work that has never been more important.”
At a company-wide town hall meeting the same day, which was heard by Reuters, the CEO told employees that the future of Twitter under Musk is uncertain.
According to Reuters, Agrawal deferred many questions including those about the board’s rationale for the deal, instead directing to Musk. The company told employees that Musk will participate in a Q&A session at a later date. Agrawal did, however, say that there were no plans for lay-offs.
Asked whether Trump will be allowed back on the platform, Agrawal said: “Once the deal closes, we don’t know which direction the platform will go…I believe when we have an opportunity to speak with Elon, it’s a question we should address with him.”
In an email to employees earlier in the day, Agrawal said that he realized the deal would be a “significant change and you’re likely processing what this means for you and Twitter’s future.”
What could happen to Agrawal once Musk takes over?
Agrawal and Musk’s views on content moderation clearly clash, but the question remains over whether the owner-to-be will keep the CEO on board. In his SEC filing, Musk did not specify who he does not have confidence in within Twitter’s management.
In the town hall meeting reported by Reuters, Bret Taylor, chair of Twitter’s board of directors, reassured employees that the agreement with Musk prioritized “operating continuity” until the deal was closed. He didn’t say what this means for the company’s chief executives, however.
Twitter’s founder Dorsey tweeted that while he supported Musk’s takeover, he believed the Tesla CEO’s vision for Twitter aligned with that of Agrawal.
“Elon’s goal of creating a platform that is ‘maximally trusted and broadly inclusive’ is the right one,” he said. “This is also @paraga’s goal, and why I chose him. Thank you both for getting the company out of an impossible situation.”
According to research firm Equilar, Agrawal would get an estimated $42 million if he were terminated within 12 months of a change in control of Twitter.
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