Elon, we knew ye all too well. Elon Musk, the failed emperor of Twitter, will apparently be stepping down from his lofty perch after issuing a user poll asking whether he should remain head of the company. The poll appeared after yet another series of deranged miscalls and abuses on the site—from the random suspension of the accounts of Musk-critical journalists on the fabricated charge of doxxing Musk’s real-time whereabouts to an abrupt ban on promotional links to other social media platforms—which alienated even his previous supporters. It was scarcely surprising that the vote landed firmly in the “Leave” column.
Musk being Musk—i.e., a Silicon Valley man-child who has convinced himself that he is an intergalactic genius—he could well reverse his position in a few days, or hire a few more on-the-make journalists to revive his fantasies of space- cum Internet-conquest. In the short term, though, digital plebs are left to ponder one variation or another of “What the fuck was that?” as they sort through the rubble of Musk’s six-week tour as Twitter CEO.
Much of the concern over Musk’s stewardship of Twitter had hinged on a fallacy: the starry-eyed belief that Twitter and allied social-media platforms are an inherently leveling force in public discourse. In lamentations for the old Twitter order, users were heard praising its ability to put ordinary people into contact with the powerful, rich, and influential on a more or less level playing field of debate. Some roused the memory of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings—a foundation myth of sorts for the preachers of the social-media-as-democracy gospel, even though old-fashioned union organizing played a much more prominent role in the protests, and the post–Arab Spring global order has not ripened into a summer of democratic self-rule.
While the online exercise of democracy may come to unseat Musk himself, it’s decidedly not the case that the apps that monitor our identities as we trade pet videos and jokes have produced a surge in social democracy. The acute limits of a notionally democratic Internet are already marked by Musk and the leadership caste he occupies in Silicon Valley. In the year 2000, Musk came in on the ground floor of PayPal (his claim to be a cofounder of the app, like many Musk pronouncements, is decidedly overblown), teaming up with Peter Thiel, the intellectual godfather of the Silicon Valley hard right. Like Musk, Thiel has embraced the professional disruptor’s scorn for traditional accountability and non-genius-centered models of political economy. Thiel pronounced capitalism and democracy incompatible, claiming that all markets naturally evolve toward monopoly; he’s proved as good as his word in backing the reactionary campaigns of former president Donald Trump and 2022 Senate candidates J.D. Vance and Blake Masters.
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The “Harvard Law Review” Refused to Run This Piece About Genocide in Gaza
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In recent months, Musk has reengineered his belief system into an all-purpose vulgar Thielism, with Twitter as his customized outlet for provocation. After issuing a blanket endorsement of Republicans in the 2022 midterms—based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how congressional governance works—Musk briskly began touting the body of internal company documents he dubbed “The Twitter Files.” These were supposed to furnish smoking-gun proof that the previous ownership regime buried revelatory material found in Hunter Biden’s laptop—even though Trump-serving news organizations like Fox News also shunned the story because of its sketchy sourcing. The central act of alleged censorship in this ideological opéra bouffe—the suppression of the New York Post’s account of the laptop saga—lasted all of two days, before its ultimate publication. Nevertheless, Musk breathlessly touted the document cache as a damning indictment of the news-warping mindset of the woke. “If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s first amendment,” he asked, “what is?”
The answer is, of course, a speech-suppressing act of government, as the language of the First Amendment clearly stipulates. But Musk isn’t detained by the formal definition of First Amendment infringements any more than he can be bothered to learn what doxxing actually is and isn’t: Like Thiel’s, his politics is built largely around a mogul’s posture of being perennially affronted by that which fails to bend to his will. Tellingly, Musk’s pet crusade against all things woke appears to be rooted in his frustration at diverse casting in sci-fi serials on Netflix—an ur–Silicon Valley species of bro-resentment. But because of the outlandish influence Musk enjoys as a beneficiary of the Belle Epoque era of overcapitalization in Silicon Valley, he has erected an entire worldview out of that petulant sense of viewer entitlement. He’s translated it into the rhetoric of culture warfare and continued flogging away at it in a quasi-parodic fashion that calls to mind the tantrums of Charles Foster Kane.
Indeed, Musk’s purchase of Twitter might find its closest analogue in Kane’s decision to build a Chicago opera house to showcase the decidedly equivocal vocal talents of his mistress, Susan Alexander—a vanity bid to launch himself into the role of culture arbiter based solely on an obscene accumulation of wealth. The obvious difference, though, is that while Kane scandalized opera lovers, he also bestowed them with a civic monument. Musk has only a further defiled public discourse—thanks to his stunt management and the truth-averse corps of right-wing agitprop users he’s gleefully ushered back onto the site—to show for his heroic labors.
Musk’s civic legacy, such as it is, will be a social media sphere even more prone than before to empower the grievance-driven right he has so relentlessly courted since coming into the ownership of Twitter. “He fully wants to limit who has access to the marketplace of ideas,” says Christoph Mergerson, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “We’re talking about someone who has control over the world’s most influential real-time global platform of communication. So when you close off access to speech, and when you disproportionately punish speech for arbitrary reasons, that’s a serious abuse, even when you’re talking about a private company. It’s a company whose operations have real-time consequences for democracy in the US—and by extension, democratic movements around the world.”
What should be the clarifying lesson of Musk-run Twitter is that it’s something of a category error to entrust a medium of mass communication to a proprietor who’s little more than a glorified grievance merchant. “American democracy’s great vulnerability is the dreamscape of its citizenry,” says journalist David Beers, a longtime Musk-watcher. “It can be so easily hacked, we now see. After Trump’s primer, Musk offers the master class in how to do it. His way in—our fundamental faith in techno-progress.” That guileless trust in tech as a definitional force for betterment gave Musk cover from the outset. “He presented as the Silicon Valley savant committed to using his powers for good,” Beers says. “The rebel who will save us all. His hero costume accessories included sleek cars, phallic rockets, cannabis cigars, and black T-shirts. But the Twitter fiasco, layer by layer, has stripped Musk of his disguises. Now it’s obvious where his mind is stuck. He’s just the teen who read every comic book in the store and learned like an AI program. Learned what? How to lead a late-capitalism cult to feed his adolescent ego.”
As Musk relinquishes formal day-to-day management responsibilities over the site he owns, there’s little to reason to believe he—and the Twitterverse at large—won’t remain fatally locked into this sci-fi narrative. “He’s a hell of a gamer,” Beers says, “racking up the attention wins he craves while turning Twitter into a super weapon that threatens to blow apart the whole US experiment.”