EEven while hammering out the final details of his £35 billion ($44 billion) purchase of Twitter, Elon Musk took some time off this weekend to tweet. He likes to tweet, makes the richest man in the world, usually from what he calls his “porcelain throne” (this detail revealed on Twitter, naturally enough). This one was a picture of Bill Gates, focusing on the 66-year-old’s modest paunch and placing her next to a cartoon of a pregnant man. To this set, Musk added this phrase of supreme spirit: “in case you need to lose a goof quickly”.
You will read a lot of information about the new owner of Twitter over the next few days. That he is worth some $265 billion. That in his electric car company, Tesla, he’s not appointed CEO or any other such mold, but “technology”. That her youngest son is called X Æ A-Xii, which is obviously pronounced “X”, while her granddaughter is nicknamed “Y”. But the most important thing to know about Musk is that he is a troll. Like all trolls, he sets out to offend and upset, only to get the world’s attention. Except Musk isn’t just better at trolling than anyone else, it’s an essential part of both his business model and how he treats the world. And that’s what makes his purchase of Twitter so dangerous.
Trolls hide under videos on YouTube, under articles on websites, and on your social media feeds. They don’t wait for your invitation to respond, they don’t care less about your feelings, and they certainly won’t clean up the mess they create. And a good day at the office is one where they leave a mountain of mess. Musk’s post about Bill Gates, for example, has been retweeted over 130,000 times.
When Bernie Sanders tweeted, “We need to demand that the extremely wealthy pay their fair share,” Musk shot back, “I keep forgetting you’re still alive. He dubbed a British cave explorer who helped rescue 12 Thai schoolchildren trapped inside a cave “pedo” and then brushed it off as a bad joke. That was not how Vernon Unsworth saw it. “I feel humiliated“said the 64-year-old hero. “Shameful. Dirty.
There are no good defenses against such vile bullying – and Musk has no good defense. Instead, he describes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” and claims that’s why he pays so much for a website. This moral crusade he defines as“If someone you don’t like says something you don’t like, it’s free speech,” which is such a flimsy offer that an elementary school kid might be hesitant to do it. How does such a rule sit alongside hate speech, defamation, outright lies? But the troll king never had to consider such arguments – until this week, that is, when he bought himself the kingdom.
Now that Musk has all the freedom of speech that money can buy, he will find that these are not just abstract debates, but absolutely essential to the future of his most high-profile business venture. For insight into the problem, consider the Massachusetts Institute of Technology study showing that fake stories on twitter are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth. What Musk presents today as “the digital town square,” an agora for the age of globalization, is often a machine for amplifying lies. Droning on the First Amendment won’t solve that problem, and it’s one that he says induces a lot of misery.
The classic mistake made by Musk analysts is to treat his trolling as a regrettable diversion from his real business of electric cars, space missions and everything else. But the two seem indispensable to each other. The constant tweet to more than 85 million followers is what keeps the Tesla boss spending almost nothing on advertising, while Toyota spends more than $1 billion a year on advertising in the United States alone. Making noise and creating a stink also helps keep Tesla’s stock so popular with retail investors, who ensure it remains massively overvalued. The cliché says that we all live in an attention economy, but few wonder who is reaping the dividends. It turns out that one of the biggest profiteers is Musk.
Just as trolls like to trash the digital commons, they abhor institutions, those spacious places with rules and norms and a variety of people with their own interests and traditions. We live in an age of troll politics, with a Westminster gang that hates our most renowned institutions. Boris Johnson can’t stand the BBC, claims he loves the NHS and is set to sell Channel 4.
Musk fits perfectly into this era. He constantly attacks the government, criticizes stimulus spending and mocks some of the public health measures Washington has taken to limit the damage from Covid. And he sometimes paid less in proportion to his income to the US government than the typical teacher or factory worker. In 2018, the richest man in the world paid nothing in income tax at all, according to ProPublica. At the same time, his companies took all the government grants they could get – to open new factories, to explore space and to help payroll.
Do not feed the trolls, we are sometimes advised. Well, a troll was fed billions of dollars from American taxpayers. Yet Tesla was accused of run more dangerous factories than a sawmill or a slaughterhouse. He responded in 2017 saying, “We may have had challenges in the past as we learned to become an automotive company, but what matters is the future.” Allegations about his treatment of African-American workers have put him at the end of the largest race discrimination lawsuit ever launched by the California state government (charges he strenuously denies). This is all in the public domain and has been reported, but posts from Time magazine to the FT continue to make him Man of the Year. Of all the tech billionaires, Musk is the guy who’s been the least scrutinized and most revered. Maybe now that can change.
The interesting parallel is with Jeff Bezos, who paid almost a decade ago $250 million for the Washington Post — a fraction of what Musk just gave to Twitter. The first man – who I don’t have much love for – bought an institution and invested in it. Few would dispute that the newspaper flourished under his ownership. What’s the most obvious thing Musk is likely to do with his new toy? Restore Donald Trump’s account just in time for the US midterm elections. A troll president for the troll king. And who exactly is being trolled? If you have to ask this, look in the mirror.