Citizen Musk | The nation
Elon, we knew you all too well. Elon Musk, the failed emperor of Twitter, is apparently set to step down from his high seat after he issued a user survey asking whether he should stay on as head of the company. The poll emerged after yet another series of confused miscommunications and abuses on the site — from the random suspension of the stories of Musk-critical journalists on the trumped-up charge of doxxing Musk’s real-time whereabouts to an abrupt ban on advertising links to other social media platforms — that alienated even his former supporters. It was hardly surprising that the vote ended up well in the “Leave” column.
Musk being Musk – i.e. a Silicon Valley manchild who has deluded himself into thinking of himself as an intergalactic genius – he could very well reverse his position in a matter of days, or hire a few more journalists who are about to revive his fantasies about space. -cum-Internet conquest. In the short term, however, digital plebs are left to ponder some variation of “What the hell our that?” as they sort through the rubble of Musk’s six-week tour as Twitter boss.
Much of the concern over Musk’s stewardship of Twitter hinged on a fallacy: the starry-eyed belief that Twitter and allied social media platforms are an inherently leveling force in public discourse. Lamenting the old Twitter order, users were heard praising its ability to put ordinary people in touch with the powerful, rich and influential on a more or less equal playing field for debate. Some evoked the memory of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 – a kind of founding myth for the preachers of the gospel of social media-as-democracy, although old-fashioned union organizing played a much more prominent role in the protests, and the global order after the Arab Spring has not matured into a summer of democratic self-rule.
While the exercise of online democracy may unseat Musk himself, the apps that monitor our identities while we trade jokes and pet videos have certainly not created a surge in social democracy. The acute limits of a theoretically democratic Internet are already marked by Musk and the leadership he occupies in Silicon Valley. In the year 2000, Musk got in on the ground floor of PayPal (his claim to be a co-founder of the app, like many Musk statements, 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-genocentric models of political economy. Thiel stated capitalism and democracy are incompatible, arguing that all markets naturally evolve toward monopoly; he has proved as good as his word in supporting the reactionary campaigns of former President Donald Trump and 2022 Senate candidates JD Vance and Blake Masters.
In recent months, Musk has reconstructed his belief system into an all-purpose vulgar Thielism, using Twitter as his custom 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 quickly began touting the contents of internal company documents he dubbed the “Twitter files.” These were supposed to provide smoking gun evidence that the former ownership regime buried revealing material in Hunter Biden’s laptop — though pro-Trump news organizations like Fox News also dismissed the story based on the sketchy source. The central act of alleged censorship in this ideological opera buffoon—the suppression of the New York Post’s account of the laptop saga—took a full two days before it was finally published. Nonetheless, Musk breathlessly touted the document cache as a damning indictment of the news-distorting mindset of the woke. “If this is not a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution,” he asked“what is?”
The answer, of course, is a speech-suppressing act by the government, as the language of the First Amendment clearly establishes. But Musk isn’t held back by the formal definition of First Amendment abbreviations, any more than he might care to learn what doxxing actually is and isn’t: like Thiel, his politics are largely built around a mogul’s attitude of being eternally offended by that which fails to bend to his will. Tellingly, Musk’s pet crusade against all things woke seems to be rooted in his frustration with various casts sci-fi series on Netflix-a quintessential Silicon Valley strain of bro-reluctance. 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 vexing sense of entitlement. He has translated it into the rhetoric of culture warfare and continued to whip it up in a quasi-parodic fashion reminiscent of the tantrums of Charles Foster Kane.
IMusk’s purchase of Twitter may find its closest analogy in Kane’s decision to build an opera house in Chicago to showcase the ambiguous vocal talents of his mistress, Susan Alexander—a vain attempt to launch himself into the role of cultural arbiter based solely on a obscene accumulation of wealth. The obvious difference, however, is that while Kane scandalized opera lovers, he also gave them a civic monument. Musk has only a further tarnished public discourse—thanks to his stunt management and the truth-telling corps of right-wing agitprop users he’s happily brought back to the site—to show for his heroic work.
Musk’s civic legacy, such as it is, will be a social media sphere even more inclined than before to bolster the grievance-driven right he has so relentlessly courted since becoming owner of Twitter. “He absolutely 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 somebody who has control over the world’s most influential real-time global communications platform. So when you close off access to speech, and when you disproportionately penalize speech for arbitrary reasons, that’s a serious abuse, even when you’re talking about a private company. It is a company whose operations have real-time consequences for democracy in the United States—and by extension, democratic movements around the world.”
What should be the clarifying lesson from Musk-run Twitter is that it is something of a category mistake to hand over a medium of mass communication to a proprietor who is little more than a glorified grievance peddler. “The great vulnerability of American democracy is the dream image of its citizens, says journalist David Beers, a long-time musk-watcher. “It can be so easily hacked, we see now. After Trump’s primer, Musk offers the master class in how to do it. His way in – our fundamental belief in techno-progress.” The guileless trust in technology as a defining force for improvement gave Musk cover from the start. “He presented himself as the Silicon Valley savant committed to using his powers for good,” says Beer. “The rebel who wants to 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 clear where his mind is stuck. He’s just the teenager who read every comic in store and learned like an AI program. Learned what? How to run a late capitalism cult to feed his adolescent ego.”
While Musk relinquishes formal day-to-day management responsibilities over the site he owns, there’s little reason to believe he — and the Twitterverse at large — won’t remain fatally locked into this sci-fi narrative. “He’s one hell of a gamer,” says Beers, “gathering the attention he wants while turning Twitter into a superweapon that threatens to blow up the entire American experiment.”