After decimating Twitter’s workforce, imperiling its infrastructure and emptying its ad coffers all within his first month at the company, it’s on to the next thing for Elon Musk.
The erratic billionaire picked a fight with Apple in a series of tweets on Monday, bracing for a battle — or perhaps just another volley of tweets — that would comfortably position the perpetually aggrieved Twitter owner as the David to Apple’s Goliath.
Musk is now claiming that Apple threatened to “withhold” Twitter from the App Store, implying that the iPhone maker might take action against the social app over changes under its new ownership without offering any evidence. TechCrunch has reached out to Apple for clarification, but for now we don’t know if Apple really contacted Twitter over content moderation concerns or something else entirely.
Twitter’s new owner also claims that Apple has pulled most of its advertising on the platform, which seems possible or even likely considering how many other major ad buyers have done the same since Musk’s takeover, citing concerns about brand safety and content moderation changes.
Whatever is really going on here, a few things are true. For one, Twitter needs to stay in the App Store and to do so it needs to clear Apple’s low bar for content moderation, which Truth Social and Parler — apps with far less mature algorithmic content moderation systems — have managed to do. Even with Musk’s threatened policy changes and his deep cuts to moderation teams, Twitter would likely still remain on Apple’s good side if those apps pulled it off.
It’s also true that Apple’s rules for what gets an app get kicked out of the App Store are vague and arbitrarily enforced. Apple warns against “content that is offensive, insensitive, upsetting, intended to disgust, in exceptionally poor taste, or just plain creepy,” which would seem to rule out a lot of social apps, pre-Musk Twitter included, if it really came down to it.
At the same time that Musk is portraying Apple as a censor, he’s also railing against the fees the company charges apps that operate in its ecosystem. Musk calls this a “secret 30% tax” but in reality Apple’s cut is well-documented and much discussed. Epic Games and Apple went to court over Apple’s fees in 2020, with Epic arguing that the iPhone maker wields monopoly power in the software market.
Whether intentional or not, Musk reigniting the App Store antitrust battle is timely. Epic’s ongoing fight with Apple is kicking off again in appeals court and Congress could be poised for another push to pass the Open Markets Act, a bipartisan bill that would crack open the App Store and “tear down coercive anticompetitive walls in the app economy,” according to its sponsors.
It’s also possible that Apple actually has cautioned Musk that reinstating thousands of accounts banned for stuff like hate speech and harassment might nudge the app afoul of the App Store’s actually quite lenient content moderation requirements. In that case, Musk could position himself as a high-profile champion of the anti-Apple crowd, joining Epic’s whole thing and making nice with regulators who are rightfully concerned over Musk’s Twitter plans (or lack thereof).
But even then, Twitter needs Apple in both the short- and long-term and Apple certainly doesn’t need Twitter. And fighting on yet another front would stretch Musk’s attention even more when he should probably be focused on the basics, like running his myriad other companies or, say, not bankrupting Twitter. You can be mad that Apple takes 30% of what you make on the iPhone, but 30% of zero is still zero.
At the end of the day, Musk, the world’s richest man and maker of luxury cars and spaceships, generally seems to enjoy portraying himself as a scrappy upstart fighting against larger powers that be. If Musk wants to re-create that dynamic at Twitter, Apple is arguably one of the only entities that can still make the hugely influential social media company look like the little guy. Musk might be the Twitter boss now, but he knows that turning everyone against the big boss is a good way to maintain the approval of the miscellaneous internet devotees who affirm his existing beliefs and vote in his deeply unscientific tweet polls, so maybe it’s just about that.
Whatever inspired his anti-Apple tirade, waging a war on Apple is probably a losing fight. But it’s a fresh conflict that diverts attention from Musk’s embarrassing and seemingly endless parade of catastrophes as he fumbles Twitter’s policy, personnel and product alike, possibly running one of the world’s biggest social networks into the ground in the process.