Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
On April 25, after Elon Musk announced that he would be buying Twitter for $44 billion and pledged to run the social media platform as a “free speech absolutist,” Wikipedia’s volunteer editors knew that they had a lot of work ahead of them—and they were right. One contributor soon added the words “Owner of Twitter” to Musk’s Wikipedia page, language that another editor promptly deleted with the comment, “He does not yet own Twitter!” At press time, a precautionary banner on the Musk Wikipedia article warns readers about the likelihood of speedy revisions. “This article is about a person involved in a current acquisition. Information may change rapidly as the event progresses, and initial news reports may be unreliable,” the banner reads.
Since 2015, the English language version of Musk’s Wikipedia page has received more than 110 million direct page views. Snippets from Musk’s Wikipedia article also appear in the Google search results for “Elon Musk,” a term that has been searched 479 million times in the past 30 days, according to Google Trends, with a pronounced spike in searches following Musk’s announcement about purchasing Twitter on April 25.
Since the page was created in 2004 (here’s what it looked like then, when it was fewer than 100 words), some 3,240 Wikipedia editors have collaboratively written the Musk Wikipedia article, which covers the billionaire’s early life in South Africa and Canada; his leadership roles with PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla; and his proposed acquisition of Twitter. Over the course of about 8,600 words, the Wikipedia page outlines Musk’s career highlights—like the 2020 launch making SpaceX the first private company to place a person in orbit and dock a crewed spacecraft with the International Space Station, and how the Starlink network of satellites has provided some internet access to Ukraine during the 2022 Russian invasion. The article also lists Musk’s controversies, including a 2018 lawsuit brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that Musk’s tweet about having “secured” funding to take Tesla private at $420 per share was false and damaging to investors. (Musk settled the SEC lawsuit in 2018.)
Reading the “personal life” section of a celebrity’s Wikipedia’s page has always been one of the internet’s greatest pleasures, and in Musk’s case, that portion is a total trip. It recounts Musk’s marriages, remarriage, and divorces, together with his relationships with Amber Heard and the Canadian musician Grimes. There’s also a somewhat convoluted paragraph explaining the naming process for Musk’s son—originally named “X Æ A-12,” the child is now “X AE A-XII” Musk because California regulations prohibit the use of any characters not in the modern English alphabet.
Overall, Musk’s Wikipedia page has been designated as a “good article” by the site’s volunteer reviewers, meaning that it’s noteworthy for being well-written, containing factually accurate information, providing broad coverage, and adopting a neutral point of view. According to Wikipedia, only about 0.5 percent of articles on the site are awarded with this recognition. Then again, not every Wikipedia editor thinks the Musk Wikipedia page is up to snuff. More than once, Wikipedia editors have had to remind one another that the page should provide only previously published information and should not be influenced by any opinions that the editor holds about the controversial celebrity. On the article’s talk page, a place for editors to chat with one another and raise proposed changes, many of the discussions revolve around whether the article is biased. As the user Warbayx put it, “literally 1/4 of Musk’s front page is dedicated to criticism, how can anyone think this is unbiased and fair?” To which the user PraiseVedic replied, “I would say that more than 1/4 of the coverage Musk receives in the media is critical of him, so if anything Wikipedia is under-criticizing him, if that’s a thing.” One suspects the balance of criticism might never feel right to so-called Musketeers, a group that Wikipedia sums up as “Fans of Elon Musk, usually in the pejorative sense.”
But there is in fact someone who cares more about Musk’s Wikipedia page than even his most diehard fanboy—Elon Musk himself. All signs indicate that the world’s richest man is obsessed with how he is described on the free internet encyclopedia.
Back in December 2019, Musk tweeted, “Just looked at my wiki for 1st time in years. It’s insane! Btw, can someone please delete ‘investor’. I do basically zero investing.” In a follow-up tweet, Musk suggested that his Wikipedia page should focus on his leadership of Tesla and SpaceX rather than his investing activity.
Following Musk’s tweets, editors sprang to action, first deleting the word investor from the page and then reinserting it. Molly White, a volunteer Wikipedia administrator (username GorillaWarfare), said that tweets like Musk’s put the Wikipedia community in a difficult position. “It’s challenging when someone with a large public following makes public calls for people to edit the Wikipedia article about them because typically the people who see those requests are not familiar with Wikipedia or its policies,” White said. “Although we love when new editors join us, trying to learn to edit while also jumping into a dispute where an article subject disagrees with the content of their article is not an easy task, and can result in challenges both for those new editors and for experienced editors trying to handle the dispute.”
After Musk tweeted this out, Wikipedians engaged in an extended debate about whether Musk’s request was “based more on his desired branding than the facts,” and whether it set a bad precedent for a public figure to call on their “legion of fans” to make requested changes. As a reminder, Wikipedia rules state that the encyclopedia should reflect the information published in reliable, published sources. In this case, hundreds of third-party sources ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the Hindustan Times described Musk as an “investor” given his early history with Tesla. (More on that in a second.) Musk himself had talked for years about investing in DeepMind to track the progress of artificial intelligence, which he is on record as calling the greatest threat to humanity. Against the backdrop of these secondary sources, it would not be proper for Wikipedia editors to remove the word investor simply because Musk tweeted—read: self-published—a contrarian point of view. (At press time, Musk’s Wikipedia page still describes him as an “investor” in the first sentence, which also calls him an “entrepreneur” and “business magnate.”)
Recently, Musk has upped the volume of his Wikipedia grumbling. In April, Vaibhav Sisinty, the CEO and founder of GrowthSchool, tweeted a reminder that “Elon Musk was not the founder of Tesla. He acquired it.” Musk replied to the tweet stating that when he funded Tesla in 2004, Tesla was a “shell corp with no employees, no IP, no designs, no prototype” and “Even the name ‘Tesla Motors’ was owned by others!” Afterward, Musk lashed out specifically at Wikipedia, tweeting, “They say history is written by the victors, but not on Wikipedia if the losing party is still alive & has lots of time on their hands!” Many people interpreted this as Musk attacking Martin Eberhard, a person Wikipedia (citing several sources) describes as one of the two original co-founders of Tesla in 2003 and who stayed on as the company’s CEO until 2007.
Although it’s notoriously hard to read Musk’s mind, his tweets indicate that he would prefer that Wikipedia name him as a “founder” of Tesla because of his relatively early contributions to the company and popular associations with the EV brand. But notice how, once again, Musk is asking Wikipedia editors to set aside years of third-party reporting that documents how Musk purchased shares to become Tesla’s majority shareholder and was not one of the individuals involved since Tesla’s scrappy beginnings.
Thankfully, Musk cannot decree what information about him should appear on Wikipedia, nor can he mandate that Wikipedia use his preferred nomenclature. For instance, Musk said in 2021 that he believed CEO was a “made-up title” and that he prefers to be called the “Technoking” of Tesla. A March 2021 regulatory filing showed that Tesla had officially given him his requested “Technoking” title. (According to a Tesla spokesperson at the time, Musk remained the company’s chief executive officer.) But so far, Wikipedia editors have reverted the many attempts to replace all references to “Tesla CEO” with “Tesla Technoking” on Musk’s Wikipedia page. A notice on the Musk talk page makes a simple case for using traditional language: Musk’s position at the company is still effectively the CEO, and “Technoking” would likely be confusing for readers. The current version of the article states, “In 2021, Musk nominally changed his title to ‘Technoking’ while retaining his position as CEO.”
On the talk page behind Musk’s Wiki page, there is also an editorial note discouraging users from changing the words “business magnate,” meaning captain of industry, to “business magnet,” a pun that Musk has joked about on Twitter.
One subject that has been passionately debated among Wikipedia editors is whether Musk’s page should quote people who describe him as a “sociopath.” Several former Musk employees and associates have claimed that Musk exhibits pathological sociopathy and is severely lacking in empathy. But so far, Wikipedians have been reluctant to include that verbiage on Musk’s article. “We have to be cautious with these terms so that we don’t inaccurately imply that a person has been diagnosed with a medical condition,” White told me, noting that a similar discussion often crops up when editors consider using the word narcissist.
Some Wikipedia editors have proposed a rewrite of the old Goldwater rule, arguing that someone’s Wiki page should not provide a mental health diagnosis unless it is supported by a clinical psychiatrist who has examined the subject personally. Although Wikipedia has not yet formalized a standard policy in this area, it seems that the site’s editors have generally decided to use caution. At press time, there is no language on Musk’s Wikipedia page describing him as a “sociopath” or having any sort of maladaptive personality disorder.
Since announcing his plans to purchase Twitter, Musk has promoted himself as a “free speech absolutist” who intends to restore the value of free speech to Twitter. Critics are understandably concerned that Musk’s interpretation of “free speech” will mean an uptick in misinformation and harassment, which will quickly turn Twitter into a cesspool of lies, racial attacks, and antisemitism.
At a time when all sides are batting around the term free speech, it seems worthwhile to mention that Wikipedia has never billed itself as a free speech platform. The information is free, yes; the project also firmly resists government censorship, including recent threats from Russia. But the internet encyclopedia has never been a free-for-all. Instead, the ability to post lasting content has always been restricted by the system of peer production and the encyclopedia’s policies; free expression is limited by rules and requirements, such as citing to a credible source. That matters because nonprofit Wikipedia occupies what appears to be an increasingly rare internet niche: a place where billionaires cannot purchase their preferred version of events, nor own the means of conversation.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.