There’s a line from the tech analyst Benedict Evans that has been making the rounds recently. Evans says that Elon Musk is “a bullshitter who delivers.” It’s a good line because it is (1) true enough, and (2) that contradiction is what makes lots of people pay attention to Elon’s every move. This, of course, means that people are also paying attention to a lot of bullshit. Evans’s axiom isn’t foolproof. Musk is a bullshitter who also sometimes simply bullshits. There are full websites dedicated to Musk’s broken promises. The man not only changes his mind quite frequently but is also prone to acting out—in part because it garners a lot of attention but also because, as Bloomberg’s Matt Levine put it recently, he “infuriatingly refuses to comply with the basic expectations of law and society” and he “is too impetuous and doesn’t really believe in rules or social norms.”
And so, Musk has been tweeting quite a bit about his new company ever since Twitter approved his offer on Monday. The tweets have mostly been, well, shitty. He’s twice called out Twitter’s top lawyer, Vijaya Gadde, suggesting that Twitter’s content-moderation decisions have a left-wing bias. (The tweets led to a predictable pile on directed at Gadde and all kinds of racist language and threats; Musk feigned ignorance about the harassment when Twitter’s former CEO called him on it.) His vitriol has led to about a dozen Twitter employees being harassed. He’s been doing a lot of replying to right-wing/anti-SJW/MAGA or MAGA-adjacent Twitter pundits like Dave Rubin, Mike Cernovich, and Ben Shapiro, signaling agreement with their “the left is unhinged” speech critiques.
A theme of Musk’s recent tweets has been restoring Twitter to a kind of political neutrality, one he argues will anger the right and the left equally. So far he doesn’t seem to have signaled any ways that his tenure might frustrate the right flank. On Thursday, Musk tweeted a meme that suggests that the left has shifted dramatically further left since 2008 while the right has more or less stayed the same, leading centrists to identify more closely with the right. The tweets attacking Twitter staff sound, as Casey Newton remarked, “less like Twitter’s future leader and more like a special counsel appointed by House Republicans to identify Bias in The Algorithm.”
Musk’s tweets reflect bad leadership and shitty behavior. But they also reveal a shallow understanding of speech principles and a wrongheaded or at least obtuse analysis of our current politics. That meme chart? It is, as dozens have pointed out, wrong, and the reality is certainly far more complicated. Similarly facile is Musk’s notion that Twitter's free speech will comply with U.S. law, nothing more or less. In that case, Musk should be ready for Twitter to host virtual child-pornography videos (acceptable, via Supreme Court ruling) and all kinds of spam (which he purports to want to remove). Content moderation and speech laws: Combined, they’re a mess … and not often how they seem!
Watching this saga play out over Twitter, where each hastily composed Muskism is met with long, detailed debunks from people who mean well and know better, but who should probably also know better, has been frustrating. Researcher Renée DiResta captured the dynamic perfectly.
It is both heartening and disappointing to watch lawyers, political scientists, historians, and experts in fields like content moderation and First Amendment law battle Musk’s missives in the replies. The spectacle represents the best and worst of Twitter, the platform. On one hand, you have people publicly putting their various esoteric bits of deep knowledge to use; if you follow enough threads and have the ability to identify the people with trustworthy credentials, there’s a good chance you’ll learn quite a bit about moderation, speech law, and mergers and acquisitions, and even something about political-polarization trends. On the other hand, you have a very wealthy boob speculating and bloviating with extreme confidence and attracting enough attention to force others to parachute in and mop up his rhetorical messes.
I understand why people are putting a lot of time and energy into bringing their stats to the meme fight. Elon has a great deal of money and power and a large audience that hangs on his words. When he says something dumb or wrong, it makes sense to want to correct the record. For an academic or journalist or servant of the law, it very well might be the proper thing to do. But for a denizen of Twitter dot com, it is a mostly fruitless endeavor, and one that gives Musk what he wants—proof of outrage.
Note that since the purchase, Musk only seems to reply to those already in agreement with him—in this case, people who believe that Twitter’s speech is heavily biased toward the left, or that liberals on Twitter seem to be freaking out way too much over his potential acquisition. So far, I haven’t seen him respond to the tweets from journalists and academics asking him to clarify his points or offering evidence that contradicts his claims. Given that it’s clear he’s reading at least the verified portions of his mentions, it’s safe to assume he’s not very interested in engaging with those arguments. Maybe that’s because his mind is made up for now. And so we get the memes, which are reductive. But that’s the point! The meme—unlike the nuanced, information-laden tweetstorm rebuttals—is immediately legible to a wider audience, and also more engaging. By the time the claim is debunked, Musk and his fans have moved on, but the meme has created enough backlash that Musk can point to it and go, “See?! They’re going nuts … over a meme! They’ve lost it!”
We went through this with Donald Trump. (Though Musk knows how to use a computer, so unsurprisingly he engages in a more responsive, shitposty way.) Trump’s tweets not only enraged legions, prompting a backlash that Trump and MAGA influencers would then use to rile up their bases, they also created their own little (mis)information economy. Both Trump haters and lovers would race to be among the first people to reply to one of his tweets in the hopes that Twitter’s weighted reply algorithm would put them in the valuable engagement real estate directly below his original message. Scammers, pundits, trolls, and even media companies tried to surf the Trump wave of engagement for a little amplification, which meant, of course, directing attention at Trump himself. There is an enticing but very slim upside to engaging with an attentional black hole like Trump or Musk on Twitter. You probably won’t get what you want, but they will.