What does Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest mid-life crisis, want with Twitter? It has cost him $44 billion to buy, much of it raised from investment banks like Morgan Stanley, yet is scarcely profitable. Some have speculated that he wants to use Twitter’s personal data to market his company, Tesla.1 But it would have been cheaper and less extravagant to buy access, like any other advertiser. As Musk has said, for once being entirely truthful and accurate, “this isn’t a way to sort of make money.”
It is a given that Musk is hooked on Twitter’s product. The attention economy makes attention-seekers of us all, and Musk embraces the ethic wholeheartedly. In Twittering terms, he is a success with his 87.9 million followers (even if roughly half of those are bots or spammers). While Tesla spends nothing on advertising each year, Musk’s tweets cause tremendous storms of publicity. A loose tweet from him can send Tesla’s share price plummeting, and one senses that he is delighted with such destructive power. If nothing else, relentless controversy over the trivialities of Musk’s online performance is, for him, vastly preferable to controversy about children working in the lithium mines that provide raw materials to Tesla batteries, or the company’s racism toward its black employees,2 or the fact that its cars have an autopilot mode that kills, or the reality that his tunnel projects are a massive boondoggle.
No plutocrat has ever so drastically de-sublimated his own mystique as has Musk, merely by tweeting his thoughts into the eternal void. His online persona—variously dull, boorish, self-pitying, whimsical and exuberantly vainglorious—has an ambiguous impact on a credulous business and tech culture: on the one hand, his armies of online sycophants defend everything he says; on the other, he just doesn’t cut the figure of a genius. Not, of course, that he hasn’t been feted by the usual obsequious outlets, from TED to Charlie Rose. Not that his achievements aren’t routinely inflated: even a critical article in The Economist explains that he “invents things that are changing the world, from electric cars”—already in commercial use by the end of the nineteenth century—“to space rockets”—first fired into space in 1957.3 But his addiction to social media, where he epitomizes so thoroughly the Twitter try-hard who thinks he’s funnier than he is, relentlessly sabotages the myth.
Yet there are reasons, beyond well-funded narcissism, why Musk might want to own his favorite platform. Twitter has always been far more culturally and politically salient than its commercial performance would suggest. Much of its cultural cachet derived from its early association with popular movements, from its roots in the successful activist app, TXTmob, to its role in putative “Twitter revolutions.” As a marketing platform, it has been used by celebrities, CEOs and PR agencies to extend their commercial reach. As a news platform, it has been used by activists and articulate opinion-formers like journalists and politicians to consolidate their audiences. As a source of viral storms, it has been used by trolls, Islamic State propagandists and cyberwarriors to game the mass media, and force attention to their cherished controversies, from #birthergate to QAnon. From the Obama administration, whose State Department was close to Twitter bosses, to Trump, who had a genius for manipulating Twitter storms, the platform has enjoyed political influence outweighing its economic value. In short, Musk, having leveraged his Twitter addiction to the benefit of his brand, gains a lot of clout from owning Twitter.
To what end will he use this clout? The implications of an oligarchic takeover of Twitter, enabled by some of the biggest banks in the world, are potentially serious. It has been speculated that Musk, who claims to be a “free speech absolutist,” would reinstate Trump’s account, shut down since the Capitol riots, and liberate the purveyors of hate speech. Certainly, Musk’s record of using Twitter to spread self-serving lies about his business—which resulted in a court ruling against him—suggests that a lax editorial regime would be beneficial for Musk himself. But ownership can’t protect him from legal action, and it can’t change what Twitter is. “Free speech” is a meaningless ideal on a privately owned platform that dictates how users can interact and monopolizes the resulting data. We users are not citizens of a representative democracy, but lab rats governed by incentives and controls: Musk is simply the first such rodent to take over the laboratory.
Alleging to defend free speech, of course, has a commercial advantage. Social media bosses claiming to support “free speech” are in practice defending their monopoly over their content against the infringements of regulators and public opinion. When Twitter bosses used to claim that the best remedy to “bad” speech was simply more “good” speech, they were articulating that their cardinal value is more engagement—and more data—with any social or political costs externalized. The commercial nihilism of this sort of logic was made clear when Mark Zuckerberg, in 2018, stridently defended Holocaust denial on Facebook. He later volte-faced under political pressure, but Facebook’s relationship with far-right users has been profitable for both sides. Musk, who evidently loves the chaos of Twitter, and has a penchant for distributing “fake news” and smears, may well find it convivial to restore that status quo.
Yet Musk, despite his aleatory persona, is not primarily interested in hate speech. His politics appear to be banally center-right, typical of present-day Silicon Valley. If he reinstates Trump, it will most likely be out of instinctive sympathy with another billionaire blowhard “outsider” or “disruptor” who uses the platform to form a parasocial relationship with a credulous fanbase. His suggested changes on Twitter, however self-contradictory,4 are not implicitly right-wing: for example, making the algorithm open-source and content-moderation more transparent. And he is not even a “free speech absolutist” after all: clarifying his position, he says that he supports free speech “which matches the law.” This, given his censorship of his own employees for criticizing Tesla, is all he can say. In practice, ownership might give him the chance to steer Twitter’s culture in a particular odious direction, but it can’t protect him from federal pressure or regulators, it can’t rescue him from the problems that have besieged Twitter moderators for years, and he would be hard-pressed to defend any moves that would cause users to abandon the platform or damage its share value.
Allowing that Musk might have a commercial objective that he is keeping close to his chest, the overall impression of his attempted takeover is incoherence. His criticisms of Twitter’s moderation regime are platitudinous, his thoughts on free speech sophomoric, and his decision to immediately start criticizing Twitter staff appears to be in stark contrast with the agreement he reached in buying the platform, which requires that his tweets do “not disparage the Company or any of its representatives.” One gets the impression, in short, that Musk wants the clout, and as the richest man in the world thinks he should have it—but that, once achieved, has no coherent idea of what to do with it.
Musk is, in his way, a perfect epitome of what Twitter was always destined to become. As former Microsoft researcher Alice Marwick has documented, social media platforms are devised by adherents of a north Californian tech scene deeply committed to the values of competition and social hierarchy. Twitter’s protocols, governing user behavior, treat us as wannabe celebrities, striving to produce cyclonic storms of admiration and rage. It is like a complex evolutionary system that selects for the vacuous grandstanding and sniggering boorishness of adolescent personalities like Musk: engagement driven by hate or disgust is still engagement, just as an addiction to distress and outrage is still an addiction. This isn’t unique to Twitter, or to social media. Television, talk radio, and newspapers have a tremendous penchant for titillating and scandalizing us with personalities who regularly exchange controversial opinions for money. So much the better if, like Musk, they have a track record of sociopathic behavior, or a litany of controversies to their name.
What Twitter has done, perhaps more successfully than any other platform in history, is automate this tendency.5 No one has to be paid for their stupid jokes or contrarian takes. Indeed, ambitious personalities can practically intern as Twitter users, auditioning for the attention of bigger audiences and more profitable media. And it removes certain traditional professional or bureaucratic pressures that constrain what news and entertainment can do: editors must have some sense of news values, while Twitter’s algorithms don’t share these constraints. A public sphere dominated by this sort of lurid publicity mechanism, regularly soliciting our knee-jerk, somatic responses to pseudo-events created at the level of the spectacle, actively disincentivizes intelligent analysis. It is structurally committed to stupidity. And in that world, Musk is king.