Elon Musk has always been obsessive about free speech, or at least his conception of it, on Twitter.
Perhaps all those instances of tweeting things that got him into trouble with investors and the Securities Exchange Commission left a bitter taste in his mouth. Or maybe it’s just because Musk always got a kick from trolling the hell out of people on the platform, and now feels under attack in the American Culture War® over acceptable speech and “woke” interventions.
Over the years, Musk had few tools as useful as Twitter — a megaphone that helped influence his kingdom and legacy: “A word from him — on anything from crypto to meme stocks — turns retail investors into slobbering Pavlovians. With millions of adoring fans, he is an idol of modern capitalism,” as the Economist’s Shumpeter column recently observed.
Now, Musk has seemingly achieved what he always dreamed of: On Monday, the “world’s richest man” struck a deal to buy Twitter for approximately $44 billion. Musk has stated that he wants to take the company private, and his list of potential changes includes rolling back certain forms of moderation, authenticating human users and making Twitter’s algorithm open-source.
Naturally, he also tweeted about the takeover, crowing that “the extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all.”
If that sounds like a familiar bit of pithy political rhetoric, it’s because it is. But Musk’s obsession with censorship and speech isn’t just a calculated way to bend public discourse and influence the future of Twitter — an asset that could make Musk even richer. Instead, it’s emblematic of the 50-year-old’s desperate desire to be the good guy — the protagonist and hero in the story of a civilization hanging on a precipice. It’s a savior mentality that informs his biggest successes and stupidest mistakes, all fed by man-child insecurities.
There have been many reactions in the aftermath of Musk’s takeover, much of it focusing on speculation of how Musk would roll back the monitoring and filtering of speech on Twitter and enable a new era of excessively toxic, violent or otherwise problematic rhetoric thriving on the site in the name of “free speech.” Some fear that he’ll reinstate Trump just in time for a 2024 campaign push, though Trump himself claims he’s sticking with his garbage “Truth Social” app. Others just fear an alt-right assault on sensitive subjects, emboldened by the presence of Musk’s laissez-faire leadership.
Meanwhile, his biggest stans are treating the Twitter takeover as a coronation, literally claiming that his ownership will “save lives.” Then there were the plaudits from his fellow plutocrats, including Tyler Winkelvoss — you know, one of the rich twins that beefed with Mark Zuckerberg back in the day — who noted that Musk’s announcement marked “a great day for free speech.”
Odds are, Musk has been scrolling through Twitter all day in masturbatory gluttony, soaking in the positive reactions to his $44 billion gambit (even with lingering questions of how he’s going to find the cash). He’s always been desperate to play the hero, after all. Musk has claimed that SpaceX holds the key to saving humanity (or at least the International Space Station); he’s talked big about Tesla being crucial for confronting climate change; tried to wedge himself into the rescue of Thai kids stuck in an underground cave, ultimately embarrassing himself after accusing an innocent diver of being “a pedo”; and tweeted some heinous misinformation about COVID-19 while framing himself as an edgelord pursuer of truth. At one point, he even dared an NGO that he would donate $6 billion if they could draw up a plan to solve world hunger with those funds.
This is a man that refuses a billionaires’ tax, perhaps out of misguided notion that he built his empire by hand, thanks to a heart and brain simply larger than others’. On the contrary, it matters that he’s a white man who grew up rich in South Africa, got richer off the lottery known as the dot-com boom and now advocates for private control over projects he claims can only benefit humankind.
But what Musk wants us to think is something else entirely: That he is an all-powerful arbiter of communication and technology, able to protect the masses (and fistfight Putin) thanks to his philosophy and giant, throbbing mind. This is a powerful mythology, and one that’s basically been adopted by his fandom. Now, even his biggest critics are taking the threat to Twitter’s status quo seriously — this week’s headlines depict a real fear over his control.
The reality will likely be a lot less dramatic, on Twitter and otherwise. It’s a terrible business model to take over, and moderation on the site is already chaotic; odds are that things stay the same for quite some time. Musk is, despite the building of his legend, a man-child that displays the traits of an ego trip, fueled by the power of endless funding and random bouts of ignorance (this a reminder that his Boring Company wants to revolutionize transportation by… making inefficient subways).
He exists on a spectrum of oligarchs with massive egos, all of whom fear the loss of “free speech,” want less regulation in business and view mass communication as key to their power. It’s these priorities that have fueled the tragic rise of Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley ghoul who shuttered Gawker out of spite and has built a profitable kingdom on right-wing causes, all while claiming a defense of American hegemony. Jeff Bezos keeps marketing himself as a world savior, too, angling Amazon as a climate-change leader and going to space for humankind (on taxpayers’ dime) via his pet project, Blue Origin.
These are grandiose men who see themselves on the vanguard of humanity, rather than the forces that are worsening democracy and inequality amid a capitalist nightmare. It’s a different kind of leadership and agitation than that of the old guard, such as the Koch Brothers, who preferred to seed their influence quietly and pull strings from a distance.
Will Musk really make a difference at Twitter? Maybe, but it’s too soon to tell. Ironically, it’s hard to even parse whether Musk understands his own complaints when it comes to our culture of “free speech.” “A good sign as to whether there is free speech is: Is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like? And if that is the case, then we have free speech,” he told the crowd at the TED Conference in Vancouver, earlier this month.
Doesn’t that sound like Twitter as we already know it? Someone who’s spent as much time on the platform as Musk has should know, but it’s not surprising that Musk has little creativity for the future of the site. He’s joined the fray, ready to bask in the glow of being a hero.
It’s just how he wanted it, criticism and all.