At a moment in our history when there is so much scorn heaped upon once revered political, intellectual, cultural and religious leaders, Mr. Musk has harnessed that distrust and wooed the cynical and unmoored to join forces with him. He requires nothing more of them than their fealty. And he offers in return not only his wisdom but also his humor, which they, surprisingly, perhaps, find to their tastes. Unlike other social media users, particularly those in politics and government, he offers his pearls of wisdom, his likes and dislikes, with a wink, not a scowl — an emoji rather than a lecture.
After delivering near-apocalyptic prophecies, he dons his superhero/savior cloak to rescue the world from the dangers he warns us it faces. His electric cars will save the climate; should the climate not be rescuable, his rocket ships will transport human beings to Mars. His Starlink satellites provide “internet to the most remote areas,” including boats on “waters all around the world.” Twitter will give us the unvarnished, uncensored news that the mainstream press quashes. His yet-to-be-developed A.I. platform, TruthGPT, will be a “maximum-truth-seeking A.I.” and protect civilization from the dangers of the now popular chatbot ChatGPT, which, he warns us, is “being trained to be politically correct, which is simply another way of saying untruthful things.”
Mr. Musk insists that he purchased Twitter because he believes in free speech and in citizen journalism. While other news sites edit and fact-check items, a Twitter-connected citizen journalist can post his or her “news” without any research or evidence. The result, which Mr. Musk champions, has been an outpouring of individual truths on the site. Chief among the citizen journalists tweeting forth their truths is Mr. Musk himself. The danger here is that he has conflated soapboxes and news organizations. Twitter is a soapbox, an amplifier; it is not, and can never be, a substitute for a news organization with reporters, editors and fact checkers.
Promoting Twitter-style “free speech,” Mr. Musk eschews debate, dialogue, argument. Because he controls the site and his engineers have adjusted the algorithms to amplify his tweets, he has converted Twitter into his own private trolling machine. Convincing his supporters that every other news source is biased, unbalanced and feeding the “woke mind virus,” he diminishes the quality and scope of public debate, and this at a time when we need to talk to one another, as a nation and as a people, about our priorities, our values and our policies at home and abroad.
Instead of promoting the dialogue across ideological boundaries that we require, Mr. Musk sows mistrust, which deepens the divide. He has built a silo around his soapbox and locked himself and his followers inside. Every utterance from the outside can, from this vantage point, be dismissed as meaningless noise, “woke” propaganda, mischievous, misleading, dangerous lies. His truths alone stand inviolate, his genius intact, his products honored and selling.
For better or worse, Mr. Musk is now the face of 21st-century capitalism, a world in which hype and image and endless publicity reign supreme. His antics are not a sideshow: They are inherent to his business, amplifying his wealth and his power.