There is no escaping Elon Musk. Having thrust himself, uninvited and often unwanted, into public consciousness, he is everywhere at once — an omnipresent, Orwellian Big Brother whose smirking visage is inescapable, a jokester, entertainer, troll, provocateur. Commenters lampoon his antics and question his business acumen, even his sanity, but what they don’t recognize — or perhaps what they don’t care to admit to themselves — is that there is a method to his clownish madness.
Mr. Musk has become one of the world’s richest individuals by deploying a business model that relies on social media not simply to sell products but to sell the once-in-a-generation innovator who created them — the hyperactive, unconventional and very cool genius whose inventions are as smart, up-to-date and ingenious as their inventor. An essential ingredient in this model is the digital ingathering of an army of supporters who hang on his every word, promote his electric cars, cheer his rocket ships, take on his critics and in that way help keep the value of his Tesla shares, a major source of his wealth, elevated to the heavens.
Past captains of industry, with few exceptions, carefully cultivated and projected images of stability, consistency, maturity — because that was what their customers and the markets and the public expected of them. Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller avoided public scrutiny because there was no real upside to calling attention to their monopoly-building schemes, the union-busting violence that had kept wages low and workdays extended, and the often corrupt government favors and funding that had added immeasurably to their fortunes. Mr. Musk has no need to project such probity because he inhabits a world in which it is almost taken for granted that great fortunes are built on attacks on competitors, the employment of nonunion labor and favorable deals with Washington.
That’s not to say Mr. Musk can’t play the role of a staid captain of industry. When interacting with jittery analysts, or when he’s trying to assure advertisers threatening to bolt from Twitter, he can be soft-spoken, articulate, genial — even rather boring. He reacted nonchalantly when the right-wing firebrand Tucker Carlson announced he is bringing his show to Twitter. And Mr. Musk’s selection of Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal’s former advertising chief, as the next chief executive of Twitter makes sense for a company that has been bleeding advertising revenue.
But Mr. Musk has another side that usually shows itself in the Twittersphere, where his army resides — the Mr. Musk who loves poop emojis and likened the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to Adolf Hitler.
Mr. Musk freely admits that he paid “at least twice as much” for Twitter as he should have, that his timing was “terrible,” that his $44 billion investment has since fallen to about $20 billion. Yet that loss is a fraction of the value of his $180 billion net worth, much of which comes from his stake in Tesla. Even though Tesla’s profits fell in the last quarter and its share price has dropped roughly one-third from its peak in the past 12 months, it still trades at a rich sum. In a December newsletter devoted to trying to figure out why Tesla was worth as much as it is, the Times Opinion columnist Paul Krugman concluded that investors had fallen “in love with a story line about a brilliant, cool innovator.” On that day in December, Tesla shares were trading at $109.10; they are now trading at around $170. According to its shareholders, Tesla’s equity is still worth more than five times as much as that of Ford and General Motors combined.
What Mr. Musk lost with his Twitter purchase also came with a significant gain of followers and, thus, influence. A year ago, Mr. Musk had about 90 million Twitter followers. He now claims 139 million, with millions more users being force-fed his tweets.
Mr. Musk’s purchase of Twitter makes perfect sense given his business model. The platform provides him with a guaranteed, controlled, uncensorable, unedited outlet to market himself and his products. On Twitter he can freely promote his genius and his companies, advance his libertarian credos and conspiracy theories, troll his growing list of enemies, tell his bad jokes and feed the daily fears and doubts and hatreds of the not-so-merry band of fans who, very much like him, have lost faith in all other sources of intellectual, moral and cultural authority.
He freely, almost joyfully, tweets, retweets and responds to critics and fans with the all-knowing self-assurance of a manic Dear Abby or a digital Delphic Oracle, dispensing his wisdom on electric cars, rocket ships, social media, A.I. and myriad unrelated subjects. In a recent interview with Mr. Carlson, he cautioned that “if we don’t make enough people to at least sustain our numbers or perhaps increase them a little bit, civilization is going to crumble.” He’s offered scant evidence, statistics or facts to back up his warnings of population decline — but then, as a genius, he doesn’t have to.
At a moment in our history when there is so much scorn heaped upon once revered political, intellectual, cultural and religious leaders, Mr. Musk has harnessed that distrust and wooed the cynical and unmoored to join forces with him. He requires nothing more of them than their fealty. And he offers in return not only his wisdom but also his humor, which they, surprisingly, perhaps, find to their tastes. Unlike other social media users, particularly those in politics and government, he offers his pearls of wisdom, his likes and dislikes, with a wink, not a scowl — an emoji rather than a lecture.
After delivering near-apocalyptic prophecies, he dons his superhero/savior cloak to rescue the world from the dangers he warns us it faces. His electric cars will save the climate; should the climate not be rescuable, his rocket ships will transport human beings to Mars. His Starlink satellites provide “internet to the most remote areas,” including boats on “waters all around the world.” Twitter will give us the unvarnished, uncensored news that the mainstream press quashes. His yet-to-be-developed A.I. platform, TruthGPT, will be a “maximum-truth-seeking A.I.” and protect civilization from the dangers of the now popular chatbot ChatGPT, which, he warns us, is “being trained to be politically correct, which is simply another way of saying untruthful things.”
Mr. Musk insists that he purchased Twitter because he believes in free speech and in citizen journalism. While other news sites edit and fact-check items, a Twitter-connected citizen journalist can post his or her “news” without any research or evidence. The result, which Mr. Musk champions, has been an outpouring of individual truths on the site. Chief among the citizen journalists tweeting forth their truths is Mr. Musk himself. The danger here is that he has conflated soapboxes and news organizations. Twitter is a soapbox, an amplifier; it is not, and can never be, a substitute for a news organization with reporters, editors and fact checkers.
Promoting Twitter-style “free speech,” Mr. Musk eschews debate, dialogue, argument. Because he controls the site and his engineers have adjusted the algorithms to amplify his tweets, he has converted Twitter into his own private trolling machine. Convincing his supporters that every other news source is biased, unbalanced and feeding the “woke mind virus,” he diminishes the quality and scope of public debate, and this at a time when we need to talk to one another, as a nation and as a people, about our priorities, our values and our policies at home and abroad.
Instead of promoting the dialogue across ideological boundaries that we require, Mr. Musk sows mistrust, which deepens the divide. He has built a silo around his soapbox and locked himself and his followers inside. Every utterance from the outside can, from this vantage point, be dismissed as meaningless noise, “woke” propaganda, mischievous, misleading, dangerous lies. His truths alone stand inviolate, his genius intact, his products honored and selling.
For better or worse, Mr. Musk is now the face of 21st-century capitalism, a world in which hype and image and endless publicity reign supreme. His antics are not a sideshow: They are inherent to his business, amplifying his wealth and his power.
David Nasaw is an emeritus professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author, most recently, of “The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons From World War to Cold War.”
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