The Crumbling of Elon’s Little Digital Dictatorship

The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, has officially purchased the social media platform Twitter for the astronomical sum of $44 billion. It’s one of the most high-profile business transactions in recent memory, and the ensuing chaos has steadily unraveled both the myths Musk built up around himself and the myths we tell ourselves about billionaires and capitalist excellence.

Musk, age 51, was born into wealth. His father famously owned significant shares of an emerald mine, among other business and real estate ventures, while his mother was a fashion cover model. After college, the young Musk made a series of very savvy business decisions, helping to found PayPal and SpaceX and becoming the largest shareholder in Tesla. In the years since, Musk has invested heavily in his public relations, branding himself as a forward-thinking, genius inventor.

Until recently, that image largely held. But gradually, as Musk began making more peculiar and immature statements and as journalists dug deeper into his business practices and personal history, a different picture emerged. Now, with his acquisition of Twitter and all the ensuing, very public drama that’s entailed, it’s become clearer than ever that Musk isn’t a transformative savior who will guide mankind to a brighter future. He may not even be much of a businessman. He may, actually, be kind of a dunce.

Musk overpays for Twitter and scrambles to recoup his investment

For months after making his initial offer, Musk tried to back out of his deal to buy Twitter. The $44 billion price he paid for it is more than the GDP of most nations, and some $30 billion more than Twitter’s estimated value. Musk’s own net worth is estimated at around $180 billion, but it fluctuates dramatically as his unpredictable actions leave investors and stockholders in turbulence. To seal the Twitter deal, Musk put together $46.5 billion through a combination of personal financing, including by selling Tesla stock, and loans from a number of banks and investors.

Now that Musk is the owner, Twitter is delisted from the stock exchange. One of the world’s largest social media platforms, with some 240 million monetizable daily active users, is now Musk’s own privately held fiefdom. The company is no longer accountable to the usual bylaws or ethics, limited though they may be, of public corporations. And all that user data — pictures, direct messages, financial and personal information — is now in the hands of a man with utter contempt for the privacy and security of others, as is the platform itself.

Immediately after taking over, Musk began making big changes, all of which appear aimed at recouping his investment and paying off his creditors. He fired half the staff, ordered the other half to work 84 hours a week, and ended remote work. When it looked like Musk had laid off too many people, he tried to recall some of them. Senior people at Twitter have been resigning left and right.

Conservatives applauded much of this, viewing Musk as a decisive man of action and accusing Twitter employees of spreading left-wing propaganda. Musk had previously complained that Twitter censored conservative voices in favor of liberal ones. Many of the laid-off workers were responsible for Twitter’s moderation of hate speech, communications, ethics, and advertising. Instances of the n-word skyrocketed 500% immediately after Musk’s takeover and right-wing conspiracy theories surged.

Shortly after taking over, Musk proposed an $8 monthly fee for verified users, apparently haggled down by Musk himself from an initial $20 in a Twitter thread with author Stephen King. Verification comes in the form of a blue check mark next to an account’s username that signals to readers the account is official. Charging for it is apparently an attempt to monetize Twitter’s users and sort of invert the site’s long-running business model. Before, Twitter’s users were the product and advertisers were the customers, paying for users to see their ads. Now, Musk wants users themselves to pony up as well.

Comedy is now legal on Twitter — except for this, this, and this

Musk has often branded his decision to buy Twitter as an attempt to restore free speech to the platform, proudly tweeting, “Comedy is now legal on Twitter.” Trolls and other users very quickly tested the limits of that theory.

After Musk began selling verification, a rash of phony verified accounts began impersonating official accounts, posting satire and parody from them. Many of these pretended to be Musk himself, posting about his association with convicted child sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell, his dodging of taxes, and offering to give away cryptocurrency. Musk quickly clamped down on these accounts and suspended them, but in some cases, not before they had significant, real-world consequences.

On November 10, an account impersonating pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly tweeted, “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” The real company quickly put out a tweet correcting the information — they are not giving away insulin, despite the fact that its creators gave it away and wished it to be affordable for all — and Twitter suspended the phony account, but the damage had already been done. Eli Lilly’s stock, along with two other pharmaceutical companies, took a significant hit by the time the market closed.

In many ways, these parody accounts are laudable. They have given high-profile spotlights to corporate misdeeds. But the companies themselves certainly don’t like them. And Musk’s own behavior can’t be reassuring — he posted laughing emojis under a tweet spotlighting parody accounts of Nintendo mascot Mario giving the middle finger and President Joe Biden talking about self-fellatio. Especially at first, it seemed to be primarily his own image that he’s dedicated Twitter’s resources to upholding.

All the chaos has sown distrust and made advertisers wary of Twitter. In addition to the brand risks they face from impersonations and less-regulated hate speech, there is Musk’s personal brand, now inextricably linked to Twitter as a platform, which has slowly morphed from visionary savior of humanity through capitalism to right-wing, anti-woke, sophomoric man-child and reckless business tyrant.

Musk’s behavior at Twitter is high-profile because of the nature of the platform and his own inability to keep quiet on it. But it’s perfectly in line with his practices elsewhere. His companies have committed a litany of labor and product safety violations, including active union-busting, illegal retribution, unsafe work spaces, and flammable solar panels. It’s tempting to buy into his hype, and believe that he is a benevolent billionaire who offered the market cleaner, more sustainable choices. But that doesn’t seem to be who Elon Musk is at his core.

The future looks chaotic

No one knows what will ultimately happen with Twitter. Musk himself has already floated the idea that it could go bankrupt next year. All the dumb decisions — to amplify voices that pay over those that don’t, to fire employees responsible for curating a minimally decent public space — are Musk’s own. The average user experience hasn’t dramatically changed yet, but if the company can’t pay its workers or its bills, anything could happen.

Twitter has always had issues. Social media itself is inherently problematic. But it’s still remarkable to watch Musk transform a potentially viable digital town square into a wasteland, at enormous financial expense to himself and his investors. So far, the whole debacle has been a spectacular illustration of just how far the myth of the genius billionaire is from the reality. And, just maybe, it should give us cause to reexamine how we exalt rich people in general.

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