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Why Elon Musk is going to war with Apple

Declaring war on Twitter’s top advertiser and gateway to the App Store? This should go well.

Elon Musk loves starting fights. It’s been a hallmark of his brief, omni-shambolic tenure as the owner of Twitter. From the legal battle waged before the purchase was even completed to the waves of disruption that his management choices sparked to his disdain for federal regulators to his ongoing campaign to be the troll king of the internet, Musk has done nothing but gleefully antagonize his supposed enemies, inside and outside Twitter.

But on Nov. 28, Musk decided to pick a fight with one of — if not the — the biggest companies in the world: Apple, Inc. And this is a fight that he absolutely cannot win. There is no legal gambit he can pull, public shaming he can inspire or money he could set on fire in the pursuit of either, that could force Apple to save Twitter from the corporate devastation Musk has unleashed.

Musk’s latest fight began, as so many have in the last two months, with bad news about advertising. Musk tweeted that Apple had “mostly stopped advertising on Twitter,” an unwelcome development for a social media platform that’s already seen a major hit to the $5 billion in annual revenue that advertising has provided. According to The Washington Post, “Apple was the top advertiser on Twitter, spending $48 million on ads on the social network” in the first quarter of 2022, accounting for “more than 4 percent of Twitter’s revenue” in those months. That makes any pullback from Apple a big problem for Twitter and Musk.

There is no legal gambit he can pull, public shaming he can inspire or money he could set on fire in the pursuit of either, that could force Apple to save Twitter.

Normal CEOs would have their top advertising executives call up their contacts at Apple to smooth things over. Unfortunately, the person who would have been expected to do that at Twitter resigned soon after Musk’s takeover. Over half of his in-house legal team has left as well. Those departing attorneys would likely have advised against Musk concluding his tweet about Apple with: “do they hate free speech in America?” Musk then tagged Apple CEO Tim Cook in a tweet that asked, “What’s going on here?”

See if you can spot the flaw in this plan. From where I’m sitting, Musk appears to be trying to force Apple to buy more advertising on Twitter by tagging the company’s CEO and thereby encouraging his most toxic fans to flood Cook’s mentions with vitriol. And that will do what? Show Apple how great a place Twitter is under his leadership? To which I say: “Good luck with that.”

Musk later said Apple hasn’t just spent less advertising on Twitter, but that the company has also threatened Twitter’s access to the App Store. There’s been no evidence produced that Apple has made such a threat. There is evidence, though, that Apple and Google were concerned about Twitter’s moderation of hate speech and other content even before Musk took over and reduced the platform’s moderation of hate speech and other harassment.

Yoel Roth, who was Twitter’s head of trust and safety before resigning earlier this month, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that representatives from Apple and Google “regularly raised concerns about content available on our platform.” Roth also noted that “failure to adhere to Apple’s and Google’s guidelines would be catastrophic” and he explained that getting booted from the app stores would make “it more difficult for billions of potential users to get Twitter’s services.”

Despite declarations to the contrary from Musk and his fans, the changes he’s made so far have only made it more likely that the App Store reviewers would want to remove Twitter. What was a team of employees responsible for blocking child porn on Twitter is now reportedly down to one person. And Musk’s widespread amnesty for previously banned accounts has opened the floodgates and let racist trolls return to their old habits.

This salvo against Apple is an example of Musk leaning into a favorite right-wing claim: that Big Tech is inherently biased against conservatives.

Musk’s continued musing about Apple’s “censorship” comes as he claims to be preparing to release Twitter’s files on “free speech suppression.” He’s also expressed faux shock at a claim that the vast majority of Apple’s employees donated to Democrats in the midterms — “wow, they don’t sound biased at all!” — while failing to note the same source showed Tesla’s own employees did at nearly as high a rate. He also doesn’t mention that before those same midterm elections, he encouraged Twitter users to vote for Republicans. He’s continuing to play the “I’m just a moderate asking questions!” card, but we can detect an increase in his interactions with far-right figures who say nice things about him.

This salvo against Apple is also an example of Musk leaning into a favorite right-wing claim: that Big Tech is inherently biased against conservatives. And Republicans are starting to pick up on his cues. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Tuesday that banning Twitter from Apple's App Store “would be a huge, huge mistake, and it would be a really raw exercise of monopolistic power that I think would merit a response from the United States Congress.” (Musk also just so happened to say the other day that he’d back a DeSantis run for president, something that surely had no influence on the governor’s position.)

This isn’t a defense of the level of control Apple and Google wield over the internet via their respective app stores, which is truly a baffling amount of power for two companies to hold. Musk is even right that it’s wild that Apple gets a 30% cut of in-app purchases on iOS, something that Epic Games took the company to court over. But, again, let’s be clear here: There’s no evidence that Apple threatened Twitter with an App Store ban. But even if it did, it would be more about the choices Musk has made while running Twitter than any sort of partisan or ideological censorship on Apple’s part.

In effect, Musk has decided to make Apple his new scapegoat for his failures at the helm of Twitter. In doing so, he’s channeling the energy of the “break up Big Tech” movement. But Musk doesn’t seem to realize — or care — that he is Big Tech. The culture war he’s trying to invoke in this crusade is a double-edged one. It’s also not a war that he’s poised to win, not when Apple has the power to break Twitter even faster than Musk is managing to do by himself.