Tesla billionaire Elon Musk has flung yet another metaphorical grenade into the global digital village square he just bought. Barely 24 hours before the US midterms, Musk went on his new plaything, Twitter, and told his 114 million followers to vote Republican, raising, as The Economist noted, the issue of whether it’s right for the world’s richest man to own such an important public-debate forum.
Musk is going all-in on his new acquisition, awarding himself a brand-new Twitter handle: “Twitter Complaint Hotline Operator” — arguably an improvement on his earlier “Chief Twit.” But Musk’s focus on his latest toy has greased a meltdown in his wealth. In November 2021, Musk’s riches were estimated at $320 billion. But the last 12 months have been tumultuous even by Musk’s chaotic standards. His wealth had slid to $202.6 billion by late Monday — he lost $5.7 billion just on the weekend.
Some of the Tesla’s stock plunge reflects investor worry about how Musk is destroying his $44-billion Twitter purchase through his desire to inflict his ideas, however zany, on a global audience. But of more concern is about Musk taking his foot off the accelerator at Tesla, his globe-beating electric vehicle giant. And that’s even though it’s still ahead of the storied auto giants who haven’t come up with anything to match Tesla.
Gary Black of the Future Fund ETF, which has Tesla as its largest holding, made his unhappiness clear Monday, saying the “news keeps getting worse. Elon’s top engineers shouldn’t be running” Twitter.
There’s no doubt Musk is a brilliant engineer with a fertile mind. But he is also wildly eccentric and not all his projects convert into reality. His much-hyped Hyperloop was about de-pressurised tunnels in which vehicles could be transported at up to 1,223 kmph. A few days ago, a 1-mile-long test Hyperloop track at a Space X office was dismantled and turned into a car park. One US publication commented acerbically: “As Elon Musk spends more time being a troll on his newly acquired social network, some projects are apparently falling by the wayside.”
Twitter appears to have become Musk’s new day-and-night job. He’s been tweeting voluminously and has also performed a dizzying string of actions and quick U-turns. First, he tom-tommed he’d sack three-quarters of Twitter’s employees. Over the weekend, he finally fired just under half — 3,500 of Twitter’s 7,500 staff globally. (In India, he’s said to have axed 180 out of 230 employees). Shifting into reverse a day later, he recalled many key staffers dismissed “by mistake”.
The sudden lack of content moderation people — he jettisoned the ethics team — has resulted in a flood of hate speech and election misinformation. Says the Financial Times: As a result, the site “is awash in election conspiracy talk that could make the already fraught job of calmly counting (midterm) ballots Tuesday much harder.”
Musk’s been telling Twitter users to like-it-or-lump-it. “Trash me all day, but it’ll cost $8,” he insisted about the blue verification ticks he is planning to charge for. But he’s nothing if not inconsistent. In April, he pledged Twitter would remain “politically neutral” to earn “public trust” and now has endorsed the Republicans.
He also raged about advertisers deserting the site while, as Ford Motor put it, they “evaluate the direction of the platform” under Musk’s self-proclaimed “free-speech absolutist” leadership.
Can Musk influence the way the world thinks? The answer is, sadly, yes. Social media sites like Twitter have allowed conspiracy crackpots, white nationalists, misinformation peddlers and other extremists to find each other in ways impossible in an earlier era. The US House of Representatives could be about to be filled with climate deniers, pro-gun advocates, anti-abortionists and their ilk, many of whom have spread their views on Twitter. The first political beneficiary of Twitter was Donald Trump whose account Musk is reinstating. India is also not immune to people using Twitter to spread their own narratives.
Nevertheless, Twitter has its positive sides too as a mine of information and social interaction. Simon Kuper in the Financial Times says in March 2020 he first read an article that warned him that, “The coronavirus is coming to you. It’s coming at an exponential speed: gradually, and then suddenly. Your healthcare system will be overwhelmed…” The article got 40 million views. It might be an unpopular view, says Kuper, but he insists: “Twitter is the best global information and exchange ever. It’s also very funny.” Let’s hope the good is preserved along with the evil now that Elon Musk is the world’s chief twit.