Leave it to Elon Musk — the richest man in the world right now and one of the most controversial figures ever to appear in the technology or media landscape — to cause a whole news and commentary cycle with a single move: the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX purchased, back on March 14th, almost $3 billion worth of Twitter stock. That was enough to buy him 9.2% of the service’s pool of shares, making him Twitter’s single biggest shareholder. The confirmation came yesterday, just 24 hours after Musk publicly asked on Twitter whether “a new platform for free speech” is needed. It’s safe to say that he had an answer in mind for that question more than three weeks ago.
Elon Musk’s relationship with Twitter is complicated, to say the least. On one hand, he uses it almost every day and has amassed a staggering amount of followers (around 80.5 million at the time of writing), comparable only to that of two ex-US Presidents and a handful of pop stars. On the other hand, the Tesla CEO often causes a lot of negativity when he’s using his considerable reach to do things like mock gender pronouns, promote chloroquine as a true COVID-19 medicine, compare Canada’s Justin Trudeau to Adolf Hitler, accuse journalists of targeting him because of gas companies’ advertising dollars or challenging Vladimir Putin to single combat. The list of Musk’s tweets that are provocative, childish, and absurd in equal measure is practically endless.
Many think of Elon Musk as a real-life asshole who can’t help himself on Twitter, while others think that it’s the nature of this particular social network — its speed, virality, and “snap” responses — that paints him as a figure who thrives on controversy and thoroughly enjoys it. Whatever the case may be, his Twitter profile regularly invites toxic comments and targeted harassment, as his millions of blindly loyal fans waste no time pouncing on anyone brave enough to point out weaknesses in Elon Musk’s thinking. It’s the closest thing to a legal online cult, which seems to entertain Musk immensely.
The problem is not just Musk’s regular shitposting on Twitter per se, although that’s certainly been discussed at length in the past. It is also how he apparently thinks of the service as his personal plaything, very much like how another rich narcissistic individual, Donald Trump, treated Twitter for years. Like the (now de-platformed) ex-US president, Musk seems to tweet in an impulsive, random fashion, either not taking into account the consequences a single tweet can bring about with such a large following or simply not caring enough about such details… or both (he proved as much during the infamous SEC case). He’s often trolling his detractors, he seldom posts meaningless stuff just to get his minions stirred, while other times he’s just being controversial for the fun of it. Trump knowingly and systematically abused Twitter to his benefit and Musk does pretty much the same by not respecting its power and reach one bit. Which is, of course, what Musk is really all about.
If that sounds like a remark fueled by some kind of personal bias, this is Elon Musk’s first tweet right after his purchase of 9.2% of Twitter became public…
…and this is exactly why rich brats like Elon Musk should not be meddling with social media of Twitter’s influence and reach: because they think of it as a kind of toy, there for their amusement.
Had Musk just purchased almost 10% of Twitter out of context or as an investment — no matter how unlikely that would be — few would mind. But in less than a day after that purchase was announced, he has already made his intentions of being actively involved in Twitter’s operation clear: he posted a poll about the much-talked-about “edit button” (a way that would allow tweets to be edited after being posted), causing even the current CEO of Twitter to humorously acknowledge it and many people to even take it as confirmation that the service will be offering that function in the future (despite vehemently resisting doing so in the last half-decade or so). It’s just one example, but it is telling: thousands of people have asked Twitter for the fabled “edit button” in the past, but now that Musk does, it suddenly seems like a given that he’ll get it (even if it’s still not up to him).
Whatever anyone thinks of Elon Musk — sharp entrepreneur, marketing genius, serial overpromiser, narcissistic sociopath — one thing is certain: his power and following are more than enough to challenge how the most influential social network of our times, Twitter, operates. It’s important to remember, though, that when Elon Musk talks about “free speech” he’s not talking about everyone’s freedom to express themselves on Twitter or online in general. No. He’s talking about his own freedom to just post whatever it’s in his chaotic mind at any given moment — no matter how provocative, toxic or even borderline illegal that might be — without the consequences the rest of us would face by doing the same.
Not a few people among those commenting on Musk’s purchase of 9.2% of Twitter think that he made that choice so as to be pretty hard for the service to de-platform him as it did with Trump. If that does not sound like cause for alarm, then nothing will.