Were there not a deadly coronavirus spreading across the globe, I suspect more of us might be talking about a different disruption to life as we know it: the potential end of Jack Dorsey’s latest tenure as the CEO of Twitter.
Dorsey cofounded Twitter, was its first CEO, and returned in 2015 as its fourth. Throughout that time, he has been one of the more unconventional leaders in business. As recounted in Nick Bilton’s history of the company’s early years, Hatching Twitter, Dorsey was forced out of the job initially because he spent too much time doing yoga and attending fashion design classes.
When he returned as CEO in 2015, replacing Dick Costolo, it was just as improbable. The board had said initially it would consider only a full-time employee to run the company. By that point Dorsey had founded a second successful business, the payments company Square, and was leading it as CEO. But after a search, Twitter’s board — of which Dorsey was then chairman — settled on him anyway, and he has led it ever since.
It has been a rocky tenure. For most of Dorsey’s time as CEO, Twitter has been unprofitable. It has not offered much product innovation, nor has it acquired its way to significant user growth. Like other tech platforms, it was exploited productively by Russia during the 2016 election. The company has made many, many promises about what it might do eventually, starting with its unyielding problem with users harassing one another, and then mostly under-delivered.
Then there is the question of stock price — the metric that, for good and bad, all CEOs are ultimately held accountable to. Since he returned, Twitter shares are down 6.2 percent, Bloomberg reported last week, while Facebook’s are up 121 percent.
(Also Dorsey plans to decamp to somewhere in Africa at some point this year, for an unspecified length of time. Lot going on with this man!)
It is not difficult, in short, to make a case against Jack Dorsey, and now someone has. The activist investor Elliott Management Corp. has taken a roughly 4 percent stake in Twitter and has now put forth four nominees to the company’s board, with the goal of replacing Dorsey as CEO.
In Axios, Dan Primack argues Elliott’s case:
- Dorsey only can devote part of his attention to Twitter, given that he also runs payments company Square (in which he has a larger financial interest). And this is only exacerbated by Dorsey’s plans to spend much of 2020 in Africa, to better understand the continent’s fintech revolution (i.e., something that is much more pertinent to Square than to Twitter).
- Twitter under Dorsey has experienced consistent executive turnover and has repeatedly dropped the product innovation ball (particularly in mothballing Vine, which was TikTok before TikTok).
What is this Elliott Management Corp.? It’s a hedge fund led by the billionaire Paul Singer. Sheelah Kolhatkar profiled him in the New Yorker in 2018. Kolhatkar described Singer as ...
one of the most powerful, and most unyielding, investors in the world. Singer, who is seventy-three, with a trim white beard and oval spectacles, is deeply involved in everything Elliott does. The firm has many kinds of investments, but Singer is best known as an “activist” investor, using his fund’s resources—about thirty-five billion dollars—to buy stock in companies in which it detects weaknesses. Elliott then pressures the company to make changes to its business, with the goal of improving the stock price. Elliott’s executives say that most of their investment campaigns proceed without significant conflict, but a noticeable number seem to end up mired in drama. A signature Elliott tactic is the release of a letter harshly criticizing the target company’s C.E.O., which is often followed by the executive’s resignation or the sale of the company. One of Singer’s few unsuccessful campaigns, to block a merger within Samsung, eventually led to the impeachment and imprisonment of the South Korean President after Singer’s opponents became so desperate to fend off his attack that they allegedly began bribing government officials. From the outside, it can seem as if Elliott is causing the drama, but the firm argues that it simply identifies preëxisting problems and acts as a check on the system.
Activist investing is controversial: critics believe that it can force companies to lay off workers and curtail investment in new products in favor of schemes that boost short-term profits, while proponents view it as a useful source of pressure on C.E.O.s to reduce waste and manage their companies more effectively. In the press, Singer and similar investors have been compared to vultures, wolves, and hyenas. Bloomberg has called Singer “aggressive, tenacious and litigious to a fault,” anointing him “The World’s Most Feared Investor.” Singer’s ventures have been consistently successful, with average annual returns of almost fourteen per cent, making him and his employees enormously wealthy. The mere news that Elliott has invested in a company often causes its stock price to go up—creating even more wealth for Elliott. Singer has been deploying his riches in Republican politics, where he is one of the G.O.P.’s top donors and a powerful influence on the Party and its President. According to those who know Singer, in politics, as in business, he is intent on doing whatever it takes to win.
To reiterate: the world’s most feared investor now has Jack Dorsey in his sights. What happens next?
In the short term, employees and allies have rallied around Dorsey. On Monday, internal pro-Dorsey discussions bubbled onto Twitter itself, where a few dozen employees tweeted with the hashtag #WeBackJack. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recently appeared via FaceTime at Twitter’s annual employee conference, tweeted his support as well, posting that Dorsey has “a good [heart emoji].”
In the long term, Bloomberg’s Matt Levine speculates that the move might push more founders to seek dual-class voting stock to insulate them from activist investors like Singer. That’s what Mark Zuckerberg did at Facebook, and later Evan Spiegel did at Snap. Noting that Snap is in a far worse financial position than Twitter — and facing zero consequences from investors over it, because they have no real means of legal resource — Levine writes:
An Elliott-led ejection of a public-company CEO is not a pretty sight. (One CEO deposed by Elliott memorably commented that “when he began to research Elliott online, the experience was like ‘Googling this thing on your arm and it says, “You’re going to die.”’”) If you’re a public investor and you bought shares of Snap in its IPO, the experience might lead you to object to dual-class stock in future IPOs. But if you’re a tech founder and you watch Elliott wage an ugly proxy fight to get rid of Jack Dorsey for the venial sin of working half-days at his company, the experience might lead you to insist on dual-class stock in your own IPO. Twitter is a little bad, and its founder is in the crosshairs of big scary Elliott; Snap is worse, and its founders are fine because they had the foresight to prevent this. The whole point of dual-class stock is to protect tech founders from Elliott so that they can follow their bliss in a long-term visionary way!
But the most interesting question is the least answerable question, and that’s what happens in the medium term. Which is to say: can Dorsey survive this? The experience of previous CEOs whom Singer has put through the ringer suggests that the answer might well be no. The case against Twitter leadership over the past decade is thick and damning, and promising it will all get better in the future won’t play as well with a hedge fund as it has on the podcast circuit.
At the same time, it’s at least a little curious that Singer is making his move now, when Twitter has become consistently profitable, returned to user growth, and finally started to pick up the pace of product development. It’s still easy to make the case that Twitter can and should be much bigger and better than it is — it just feels a bit rude to make that case when the company finally, and to the surprise of many of those of us who have covered it for the past decade, begins to turn it around.
But business ain’t beanbag, and “good enough” clearly isn’t cutting it for Paul Singer. Unless something changes dramatically, it would appear that Jack Dorsey is in for the fight of his life.
Yesterday in the newsletter I wrote “Today Facebook is arguably the entry point to technology for most people. In some parts of the world, it’s said that Facebook is the internet itself. And it’s operating at a much larger scale than Facebook ever did.” Thank you to my mother for writing to ask whether I meant that Facebook is operating at a larger scale than Microsoft ever did. In fact, I did. Thanks mom.
Also apologies to Drew Harwell and Erin Cox, whom we mistakenly identified as reporters for the New York Times. In fact they are distinguished reporters for the Washington Post.
The Verge Guide to the 2020 Election
Fourteen states are voting in the Super Tuesday primary. While you wait for the results to come in, I invite you to look at our package on what’s at stake for Silicon Valley in the months leading up to the general election and beyond. Start with this essay from our editor-in-chief, Nilay Patel, on why and how we’re covering the race. From there, you can look at four “living guides” to key issues facing the technology industry:
- Makena Kelly is keeping an up-to-date guide of all the big bills and other legislative proposals Congress is considering.
- Zoe Schiffer is keeping this guide of moves to weaken encryption.
- Russell Brandom is keeping this guide of all the big state and federal investigations into the big tech platforms.
- And I am keeping this guide to the debate around Section 230 and other efforts to regulate speech online.
Our hope is that you find these guides useful in the coming months and will keep them bookmarked. On our end, we’ll update them whenever events warrant. Let us know what you think — and, if you have an idea for another guide, please send it my way.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
A computational biologist is arguing that Washington state could be about to see an explosion in cases. (Helen Branswell / STAT News)
Bipartisan negotiators on Capitol Hill are closing in on a $7.5 billion emergency spending bill to fight the coronavirus. The legislation is likely to be announced Tuesday and pass the House later this week, before moving to the Senate. (Erica Werner / The Washington Post)
On the conference front:
- Emerald City Comic Con will go ahead as scheduled despite rising fears over the spread of coronavirus. The event is taking place as planned March 12-15 at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle, drawing criticism from people worried about the likelihood of spreading disease. (Thomas Wilde / GeekWire)
- The security firm Kaspersky canceled its spring conference.
- Canceling South by Southwest would be a devastating blow for the Austin economy — which helps to explain why it hasn’t been canceled yet. (Dan Solomon / Texas Monthly)
- Intel and TikTok were among the companies that pulled out of SXSW today, joining Facebook and Twitter.
On the travel front:
Elsewhere in the outbreak:
Airbnb planned to IPO in 2020. But those plans could be put on hold if the travel market continues to struggle with the spread of the coronavirus. (Olivia Carville / Bloomberg)
Fake cures and coronavirus conspiracy theories are flooding WhatsApp. The app is encrypted, making it difficult to stop viral messages since even Facebook can’t always see what they say. (Tony Romm / The Washington Post)
⭐ Congress is expected to introduce new legislation on Wednesday that would force tech companies to take aggressive steps to stop child sexual exploitation online, or risk losing their legal protections under Section 230. The Earn It Act is also widely seen as a way to stop tech companies from using encryption on their messaging platforms. This bill is awful. Tony Romm at The Washington Post reports:
The industry has grown especially apprehensive about lawmakers’ latest political salvo, fearing it is unworkable and could pave the way for the Justice Department and other law enforcement agents to burrow into their networks, devices and services to aid their investigations. Doing so could undermine end-to-end encryption, security technology that makes it so that only the sender and recipient of a message can see its contents.
On Tuesday, Facebook aired early doubts about the bill before it had even been released. The fate of encryption is critical for the company, given that its messaging service, WhatsApp, is secured this way, and Facebook aims to deploy encryption further across its chat tools.
Venture capitalists and tech executives are voicing their support for moderate presidential candidates like Mike Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg (before he dropped out). They’re increasingly worried about a Bernie Sanders win, although many of their employees are campaigning for him. (Nellie Bowles and Erin Griffith / The New York Times)
Mike Bloomberg is spending far more money on ads promoting gun control than on his ability to beat Trump in Texas. It’s a surprising move in a deep-red state — but also shows how candidates are sharing different messages with different voters on Facebook using microtargeting. (Jeremy B. Merrill / Quartz)
The US government has reached out to TikTok to talk about political misinformation. The Chinese-owned app has grown increasingly popular in the US, and has frequently been used for sharing political memes despite the company’s attempt to not becoming a platform for talking politics. (Alfred Ng / CNET)
Reddit has a reputation as a toxic rumor mill. But the site has become an unlikely home for passionate users who aim to call out disinformation as it spreads. (Steven Melendez / Fast Company)
Facebook removed networks of accounts engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior originating in India, Egypt, Russia, Iran, Myanmar and Vietnam. The news comes as part of the company’s first monthly report on coordinated inauthentic behavior.
The right-wing media ecosystem is distinct and insular from the rest of the mainstream press, says Harvard professor Yochai Benkler. This asymmetry will play a major role in 2020 — but the primary drivers are mass media, business, and domestic political actors, not Russians, Facebook, algorithms or bots. (Mathew Ingram / Galley by CJR)
TurboTax’s parent company Intuit just acquired Credit Karma for $7.1 billion. The deal raises serious antitrust concerns, according to legal experts, since Credit Karma was a TurboTax competitor. It’s Facebook buying Instagram all over again, but will regulators notice? (Eric Newcomer / Bloomberg)
⭐ Facebook said it would support existing government-backed currencies in addition to the Libra token when it releases its Calibra wallet later this year. That will include the US dollar and the euro. The move is being seen as a direct response to the intense regulatory pressure Facebook faced since announcing Libra last year. Here’s The Information’s Alex Heath:
The external Libra Association, which is made up of companies Facebook courted to help govern the project, intends to introduce a Libra token along with the collection of digital government-issued currencies, another person familiar with the plans said. Facebook is expected to emphasize the digital versions of existing government currencies in its own wallet.
Facebook has pushed the planned release of its digital wallet, dubbed Calibra, to October of this year rather than June as previously planned, the three people said. The wallet’s release will coincide with the launch of the digital currencies. The initial rollout of the wallet, which Facebook hopes to have available in WhatsApp and Messenger, could be restricted to certain countries based on the local currencies that it ultimately supports. Facebook’s new strategy could meet less resistance from financial regulators, who fear the social network’s influence over the direction of Libra.
Drug companies are growing bolder about advertising on Facebook. The practice is exposing loopholes around the way data can be used to show consumers relevant ads about their personal health. (Nitasha Tiku / The Washington Post)
Facebook has built a fleet of robots to patrol its data centers. The high-tech initiative could boost the firm’s profits and help revolutionize the data center industry — and potentially prompt some job losses. (Rob Price / Business Insider)
A breast cancer advocate says she discovered a loophole in Facebook’s privacy settings that could put the health data of millions of people at risk. She’s filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, saying that Facebook had an obligation to protect membership lists for health groups and failed to disclose the alleged vulnerability to users. The loophole has since been closed. (Ryan Prior / CNN)
To make Messenger lighter and faster, Facebook rewrote the app from the ground up. The new version is 30MB, less than a quarter of its peak size. It’s also gone from 1.7 million lines of code to 360,000.
In a new study published in American Economic Review, deactivating Facebook was shown to free up 60 minutes of time for participants. It also had a small but significant impact on improving their overall well being. (Cal Newport)
WhatsApp is finally getting a new dark mode on iOS and Android today. After months of beta testing on both mobile operating systems, the WhatsApp dark mode will be available for all users. (Tom Warren / The Verge)
Let’s go full-on prepper to close out the day.
Here, from Business Insider, is how to clean your smartphone of germs without damaging the screen.
And here, from The Verge, is how to make your own hand sanitizer.
Have a wonderful evening.