ANDCome while hammering out the final details of his £35bn ($44bn) purchase of Twitter, Elon Musk took some time out this weekend to tweet. He likes tweeting, does the world’s richest man, usually from what he calls his “porcelain throne” (that detail disclosed on Twitter, naturally enough). This one was a Photo of Bill Gates, zeroing in on the 66-year-old’s modest lunch and placing it next to a cartoon of a pregnant man. To that ensemble, Musk added this sentence of supreme wit: “in case u need to lose a boner fast.”
You’ll read many titbits about Twitter’s new owner over the next few days. That he is worth some $265bn. That at his electric car company, Tesla, he is not titled chief executive or any other such mustiness, but “technoking”. That his youngest son of him is called X Æ A-Xii, which is obviously pronounced “X”, while his baby girl 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 to upset, purely to get the world’s attention. Except Musk is not only better at trolling than anyone else, it is a vital part of both his business model and how he treats the world. And it is what makes his purchase of Twitter so dangerous.
Trolls lurk below videos on YouTube, underneath articles on websites and on your social media feeds. They don’t wait on your invitation to respond, they couldn’t care less about your feelings, and they certainly won’t clear 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 instance, was retweeted more than 130,000 times.
When Bernie Sanders tweeted, “We must 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 to save 12 Thai schoolboys trapped inside a cave “pedo guy”, then shrugged it off as a bad joke. That wasn’t how Vernon Unsworth saw it. “I feel humiliated,” said the 64-year-old hero. “Ashamed. Dirty.”
There are no good defenses of such vile bullying – and Musk has no good defense. Instead, he paints himself as a “free speech absolutist”, and claims it’s why he is shelling out so much for a website. This moral crusade I have defined as “if someone you don’t like says something you don’t like, that is free speech”, which is an offering so flimsy a primary-school child might flinch from making it. How does such a rule sit alongside hate speech, libel, downright lies? But then the king of trolls has never had to consider such arguments – until this week, that is, when he bought himself the kingdom.
Now Musk has all the free speech that money can buy, he will find these are not just abstract debates but are absolutely critical to the future of his most high-profile business venture. For a glimpse of the problem, consider the Massachusetts Institute of Technology study showing that false stories on Twitter are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth. What Musk today pitches as “the digital town square”, an agora for the era of globalisation, is often a machine to amplify lies. Droning on about the first amendment won’t solve that problem and it’s one that he will find induces much misery.
The classic mistake made by analysts of Musk is to treat his trolling as a regrettable diversion from his real business of electric cars, space missions and all the rest. But the two seem to be essential to each other. Constant tweeting to more than 85 million followers is what allows the Tesla boss to spend next to nothing on advertising, while Toyota spends well over $1bn a year in advertising in the US alone. Making a noise and creating a stink also helps to keep Tesla stock so popular with small investors, who ensure it remains massively overvalued. The cliche goes that we all live in an attention economy, yet few ask who is raking in the dividends. It turns out that one of the biggest profiteers is Musk.
Just as trolls love to trash digital commons they abhor institutions, those roomy 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 troupe that hates our most renowned institutions. Boris Johnson can’t abide the BBC, pretends he loves the NHS and is about to sell Channel 4.
Musk fits right into this era. He constantly attacks government, carps at stimulus spending and derived some of the public-health measures taken by Washington to limit the damage from Covid. And he has sometimes paid less as a proportion of his income from him to the US government than the typical teacher or factory worker. In 2018, the world’s richest man paid nothing in income tax at all, according to ProPublica. At the same time, his companies have taken all the government subsidies they can get – to open new factories, to explore space and to help its payroll.
Don’t feed the trolls, one is sometimes advised. Well, one troll has been fed many billions of American taxpayer dollars. Yet Tesla has been accused of running factories more dangerous than a sawmill or a slaughterhouse. It responded in 2017 by saying: “We may have had some challenges in the past as we were learning how to become a car company, but what matters is the future.” Allegations about its treatment of African-American workers has put it on the receiving end of the biggest racial-discrimination lawsuit ever launched by California state government (accusations it vigorously denies). All of this is in the public domain and has been reported, yet publications from Time magazine to the FT keep making him man of the year. Of all the tech billionaires, Musk is the guy who has been least scrutinized and most lionised. Perhaps now that may change.
The interesting parallel is with Jeff Bezos, who nearly a decade ago paid $250m for the Washington Post – a fraction of what Musk has just handed over for Twitter. The first man – for whom I do not have much love – bought an institution and invested in it. Few would dispute that the newspaper has flourished under his ownership of it. What is the most obvious thing Musk will probably do with his new toy from him? Reinstate 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 that, take a look in the mirror.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism