The Misunderstanding of Elon Musk
His hypocrisy isn’t the real problem. But the real problem with Elon is a very big problem.
I think people are overdoing the Elon-Musk-is-a-hypocrite thing. I’m not saying he’s not a hypocrite. It’s true that he promised to make Twitter a haven for free speech and then, once he was running the place, started stifling speech he found threatening—speech about where his private jet is, about rival social media platforms, and so on.
But to dwell on this irony is to focus on a misdemeanor while a felony is unfolding in plain view. The biggest crime Musk is committing against the Twitter community (and against the American community and even, in a way, the whole world) isn’t in his role as chief of Twitter but in his role as Tweeter in Chief. His ownership of Twitter has made him its most prominent user, and he’s putting that prominence to destructive use. And this destructiveness is ominous in what it says about how he’ll wield his power over Twitter policy.
Musk’s approach to tweeting is roughly the approach you’d encourage everyone to adopt if your goal was to carry America’s political polarization to new and horrifying levels. His Twitter feed is a case study in the psychology of tribalism, the psychology that is tearing the country, and to some extent the world, apart.
Obviously, his Twitter feed isn’t the only Twitter feed that fits this description. Twitter has long been a machine that rewards the people who most egregiously exemplify this psychology; it gives the most tribal tweeters bigger and bigger followings and more and more clout. Its algorithm is a recipe for turning assholes into Alphas.
So why single this one Alpha out for special condemnation? In large part because, as the guy who’s running Twitter, Musk is in a position to do something about the problem.
First, he could make structural reforms—re-engineer Twitter’s algorithm with the tribalism problem in mind, and make other wholesome changes in the way Twitter works. Second, he could use his prominence to encourage a more civil ethos. Of course, this kind of social engineering—changing norms—is famously hard, but Musk is uniquely positioned to try, not just because he now occupies Twitter’s center stage but because there are millions of Elon fans who see him as a true hero and role model.
Sadly, he has spent his first two months as Twitter czar illustrating how ill-inclined and ill-equipped he is to seize these opportunities. It’s now evident that expecting Elon Musk to fix what’s most wrong with Twitter is like expecting Sam Bankman-Fried to clean up the crypto business.
In retrospect, the clearest early sign that Musk wouldn’t put his new pedestal to anti-tribal use was his decision to put it in the service of his political ideology. This actually surprised me. Under the influence of what now seems like remarkable naivete, I had thought that Musk might set aside his political tweeting once he was running the place—somewhat as a newly installed NFL commissioner would refrain from rooting publicly for his favorite team. Certainly I’d expect as much of any Twitter owner who was seriously concerned about the tribalism problem. So when, shortly before the midterm elections, Musk tweeted that undecided independent voters should vote Republican, my hopes for a new and better Twitter started to fade.
In fairness to Musk: One reason it’s hard for him to set aside his ideology as he performs his duties at Twitter is that his ideology is tightly intertwined with those duties as he sees them. His ideology is in some ways vague, but one of the better defined—and certainly one of the most heartfelt—parts of it could be described as anti-woke. He sees the woke crowd (as he defines it) as, among other bad things, a threat to free speech and to vigorous discourse. And he sees his mission at Twitter as making the platform a place for free speech and vigorous discourse. So it’s natural that his politics and his professional duties are, in his mind, hard to separate. Still, it’s unfortunate.
In case you’re curious about how intensely invested Musk is in his war on wokeness, here’s a tweet of his: “The woke mind virus is either defeated or nothing else matters.” Here’s another: “The woke mind virus has thoroughly penetrated entertainment and is pushing civilization towards suicide.”
You may be thinking, “But Elon’s just being hyperbolic for the sake of effect!” Guess again. Here’s a follow up to the previous tweet: “That the mind virus is pushing humanity towards extinction is not hyperbole.”
That last tweet includes what Musk considers supporting evidence. The tweet links to a New York Times profile of a man named Les Knight, founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement, which aims to persuade all humans to forego reproduction so that our species will go extinct—human extinction being, in Knight’s view, a blessing for Earth’s ecosystem.
The Times piece, after mentioning some other people who are concerned about our impact on the ecosystem, says, “But it is rare to find anyone who publicly goes as far as Mr. Knight.” Yeah, that’s because it’s rare to find someone who privately goes as far as Mr. Knight—which in turn is because Mr. Knight is a nut! Yet Elon Musk is depicting Knight’s mission—the extinction of the entire human species—as a straightforward expression of wokism.
If you had to rank tribal Twitter moves in order of perniciousness, the one Musk employed here would have a shot at the number one slot. It consists of finding an example of extreme and atypical behavior in the other tribe and depicting it as typical of the other tribe. So, for example, at the height of the pandemic you might see a tweet featuring a video of someone either (1) screaming about having to wear a mask in a supermarket or (2) screaming at someone who isn’t wearing a mask in a supermarket, along with a comment about how crazy “Republicans” or “Democrats” are—even though one thing almost all Republicans and Democrats have in common is that they never scream in supermarkets.
A responsible steward of Twitter would spend his time trying to minimize this kind of destructive dynamic, not illustrating it. But illustrating destructive Twitter dynamics is a favorite Musk pastime.
Consider his comment only two days ago about a policy at Stanford University. He tweeted: “Stanford disapproves of saying you’re proud to be an American? Whoa.”
What was he talking about? Well…
The Wall Street Journal had written an editorial condemning guidelines issued by Stanford about words that should be avoided on official Stanford University websites because they might offend someone.
Now, I personally find the guidelines a bit much—even comical in places—but the question for now isn’t their merit, or how amusingly hyperwoke they are, but rather how Elon Musk managed to depict them as discouraging expressions of patriotism. Here’s the answer:
The guidelines say that “US Citizen” is to be used in preference to “American.” Given that Stanford has students from various countries in North, South, and Central America, and some people in these countries do find it annoying that the term “America” has been appropriated by their powerful neighbor, I’m personally not shocked to see this guidance in Stanford’s website style guide.
However, a professor at Stanford (who was on Musk’s radar screen as a result of having been “shadow banned” by the previous Twitter regime) found the guidance upsetting. He linked to the Wall Street Journal article and tweeted, “I remember how proud I was when I became a naturalized American citizen. I'm still proud to be an American, and I don't care that @Stanford disapproves of my using that term.”
It was in reply to this that Musk posted his tweet suggesting that Stanford “disapproves of saying you’re proud to be an American.” His tweet got 8,000 retweets and 70,000 likes and convinced God-knows-how-many people that one of America’s most elite universities has issued some kind of official pronouncement condemning patriotism.
This may seem like a small thing—a minor distortion that has the effect of gratuitously deepening America’s tribal divide by just a hair. But these little distortions, these incremental contributions to the morphing of truth into falsehood, happen zillions of times each week on social media, and they do as much damage to (if Stanford will pardon the expression) America as the big fat lies do. In an ideal world, the head of Twitter would be someone who is mindful of this problem, not part of it.
It’s hard to say whether Musk is consciously dishonest or just careless and reckless. Consider this weird tweet, which came out of the blue a couple of weeks ago: “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci.” Pressed to elaborate, Musk tweeted that Anthony Fauci had “funded gain-of-function research that killed millions of people.”
Musk seems to be conflating two things: (1) gain-of-function research that was done in the Wuhan lab with NIH funding but was done on viruses that weren’t closely enough related to the Covid virus to have started the pandemic; and (2) gain-of-function research that may have been done in the Wuhan lab and could have led to the pandemic but didn’t have NIH funding (and in fact was denied US government funding by the Pentagon research agency that was approached for funding).
Granted, this issue is complicated, and it has all kinds of weeds you can get into. (For example, Fauci contends that the research NIH did fund—the research I just called gain-of-function research—wasn’t technically gain-of-function research, a contention that led to a big dustup between him and Rand Paul.) And it may be that Musk, if pressed, could come up with some obscure defense of his allegation. Like: “Well, NIH, by funding and green-lighting some gain-of-function research on viruses, fostered an atmosphere in which researchers felt it was OK to do other such research without government funding, and I think this research was done at Wuhan and the resulting virus escaped and caused the pandemic.”
My own view is that if you’re going to accuse someone of being criminally responsible for the deaths of millions of people, you have a moral obligation to spell out your indictment in at least that much detail. Instead, Musk engages in the kind of drive-by character assassination that there’s way too much of on Twitter—and that is particularly indefensible when you’ve got more than 100 million Twitter followers and, by the way, own Twitter.
My personal theory of Elon has two parts: (1) He’s a troll; like Trump, he enjoys outraging people, and he likes the attention that outrage can bring—at least, so long as he’s got enough vocal supporters to drown out the outraged. (2) He genuinely doesn’t understand human beings very well, so he sometimes underestimates how damaging the outrage will be to his reputation.
A good example of these two factors apparently working in tandem was Musk’s tweet two months ago amplifying a crackpot conspiracy theory about the man who assaulted Nancy Pelosi’s husband with a hammer. That the tweet came as a reply to Hillary Clinton (who, naturally, had condemned the attack and expressed sympathy for Mr. Pelosi) is evidence that there was a trolling impulse behind it. That Musk later deleted the tweet is evidence that he’d underestimated the blowback—blowback that anyone with a sound understanding of human psychology and human social dynamics would have foreseen.
This last point is kind of a sad one. As I’ve written before, Musk describes himself as being on the autism spectrum, and people on that spectrum often have deficits in cognitive empathy—trouble reading other people (or, put another way, they have an impairment of what psychologists call the brain’s “theory of mind” system).
Musk has talked about how much trouble he had as a child understanding the intentions of other people, and he’s suggested that he was bullied as a result. It’s possible to see his Twitter conduct as a reaction to all that—the boy they laughed at now commands the allegiance of millions and wields his power with macho swagger!—but a reaction that is still, after all these years, lacking in the kind of social calibration that comes naturally to most people.
Viewed in this light, Musk’s endless online quest for attention and adoration is poignant. But that doesn’t make it any less destructive.
If you’ve been on Twitter for very long, you’ve probably seen glimmers of its promise: moments when “elites”—journalists or scientists or social scientists or businesspeople or whatever—have good-faith, civil arguments, airing their disagreements in an illuminating and productive way. If this kind of discourse became common on Twitter, that could reduce the chances that America, and even the world, will fracture along tribal lines; elite cohesion can facilitate broader social cohesion.
The challenge of making this kind of constructive discourse more common on Twitter is a stiff one. Certainly Twitter’s previous proprietor didn’t manage. There’s some truth to Musk’s apparent belief that the old regime’s ideological leanings, as reflected especially in its content moderation, made some people in the other tribe—in Musk’s tribe—feel unwelcome on the site.
But Musk, rather than play peacemaker as he tries to undo that damage, has launched an ideological counterattack so fierce that it could have the same effect except in the opposite direction and in greater magnitude, driving lots of influential people on team blue off the site. And Twitter can only fulfill its promise if it’s broadly representative of the ideological landscape.
My critique of Musk is partly a reflection of the fact that he and I have different theories about what Twitter’s big problem has been. He sees its big problem as failing to serve free speech, and I see its big problem as fostering tribalism. Maybe someday I’ll take the time to argue that he’s wrong about that and I’m right, but for present purposes it doesn’t matter, because the point I’m trying to make right now is that there was no need for him to choose between these theories. It would have been possible for him to advance his free speech agenda without being so gratuitously and destructively tribal. (Tip #1: Maybe don’t accuse Anthony Fauci, a hero to many on team blue, of mass murder during your first six weeks on the job.)
Musk says he’ll step down as CEO before long, but even if he does he’ll remain the face of Twitter and its ultimate architect. So it’s hard to be optimistic about the near term. Maybe in a year or two owning the company will have become such a professional and personal burden that he’ll unload it. And maybe someone better suited to the moment will wind up running it. Maybe they’ll even turn it into what Musk promised to make it—a “digital town square” where healthy, broad-ranging discourse takes place. But for the time being that’s not happening, and one reason is that the town has a mayor who is the very definition of a bad citizen.
Image of Elon Musk: By Clark McGillis using Stable Diffusion.
Spot on analysis.
"First, he could make structural reforms—re-engineer Twitter’s algorithm with the tribalism problem in mind, and make other wholesome changes in the way Twitter works. Second, he could use his prominence to encourage a more civil ethos."
I agree that this is what he could, in fact should, do. But I think you'd have better luck convincing a crocodile to see the errors of its carnivorous ways and start a diet of tofu and fresh vegetables.
Musk has no interest in the common good (unless it means lots of goodies for him) and uses Twitter in the same way as other rich and powerful people have used misinformation, rumours, and dissembling for ages--to divide and conquer. His populist verbiage of "the people have spoken" is a big tell.
I'm genuinely hoping that I'll be proven utterly wrong or at the very least that he won't succeed. Too much is at stake.