Here is a question that has perhaps crossed your mind over the past few weeks as we have witnessed the unending drama of Twitter: Just how much like Donald Trump has Elon Musk become? Without a doubt Musk has been Trumpified. He has transformed himself from a somewhat enigmatic billionaire with a reputation for genius and a weird love life into the main character of the daily discourse. He cranks out ridiculous pronouncements (“My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci”) and incitement (a former Twitter executive was driven from his home by harassers after Musk baselessly implied that the man condoned pedophilia) almost as copiously as the onetime resident of the White House.
Furthermore, media coverage of Musk works in much the same way that the deluge of Trump stories once did. Depending on the partisan leanings of the news outlet, Musk is either perpetually piling on the last straw that will lead to Twitter’s total collapse—or is doing whatever it takes to “drain the swamp.” Either way, Musk occupies a disproportionate space in the heads of those who cover him, and his very public outbursts make the news of the day all about his latest shenanigans. This has spurred familiar conversations about whether Musk is distracting attention from more concrete matters. Journalists who regret their own unwitting complicity in Trump’s spotlight hogging worry that they’re repeating that mistake with Musk.
Well, are they? Yes and no. Trump, after all, was the actual president of the United States, a position he acquired because he commanded a significant base of voters. Musk … owns Twitter. He is also at least close to being the richest man in the world, a status Trump could never even hope to approach. But that’s not why Musk has captured his current level of media attention. Had he taken over Instagram, the fuss would be cut in half at the very least. Twitter, though, that’s journalism’s home turf, a combination of clubhouse, networking venue, and reality surrogate for the nation’s reporters and commentators. Musk taking it over feels a bit like having a boorish stranger move into your house and start redecorating. (To extend the comparison, this is also how it felt when Trump suddenly became the person who was supposed to give unifying speeches in the wake of national tragedies.)
But Twitter is a niche service. In total users, it ranked 16th among social media platforms in 2022, a market share dwarfed by Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, and TikTok among others. Most media professionals are aware intellectually that Twitter has a small audience, but because everyone they know is on it all the time, it still feels like the world to them. It wasn’t until I moved from a big city, where most of my friends were writers, to a small town that I grasped how marginal Twitter is to just about everyone else. No one I know here, young or old, is on Twitter or ever looks at Twitter. They only find out about an outrageous tweet or beef when the media reports on it, meaning journalists’ fears that their obsession with Trump’s tweets ended up boosting his messages were well-founded.
Nevertheless, Trump was the president of the United States. His statements were news, even if they captured a disproportionate amount of media attention relative to his actions. Musk? He’s more like the king of Luxembourg (who, OK, is technically a grand duke). Paying attention to him is optional, and the amount of play Musk has gotten for climbing atop Twitter, scratching his armpits, jumping up and down, and hooting like an ape is purely a function of journalists’ vast overvaluing of Twitter.
It’s true that Musk also has an extensive record of real-world misconduct. He is a notoriously volatile and vengeful boss who has fired employees for raising safety concerns in product design and once told a reporter that a Tesla whistleblower was on his way to the company’s factory with a gun, a complete lie. He moved Tesla’s headquarters from California to Texas so that he could force his employees to come in to work during the pandemic. Both Tesla and SpaceX are workplaces notorious for their climate of sexual and racial harassment, where the groping of women employees and habitual use of racial slurs go unpunished. Most recently, Musk’s medical device company Neuralink has been accused of conducting substandard and therefore invalid experimentation on brain implants in animals, gratuitously torturing and killing monkeys and pigs. Musk says Neuralink will advance to human trials within the next six months—although it’s hard to imagine why anyone would trust this guy to put implants in their brain. Nevertheless, it is Musk’s outrageous tweets that capture the lion’s share of the attention—because that’s exactly what they’re designed to do.
Both Trump and Musk are trolls, but of two distinct varieties. Trump is a natural troll. His only talent is for celebrity, and he has an animal cunning that long ago informed him that conflict is the best way to drum up attention. He dislikes being criticized, but it’s the cost of doing his kind of business, and his instinctive response is to fight back in spectacular fashion, turning the dispute into a show. Furthermore, despite the infamy of his Twitter account, Trump was not truly online. He used Twitter to broadcast his pronouncements, but there’s little evidence that he read anyone else’s tweets, let alone responded to them. The medium that created and shaped Trump is television, and when he felt attacked anywhere, he wanted his proxies to go on TV to fight for him.
Musk, on the other hand, is extremely online, having apparently been redpilled in the various internet hangouts favored by the medium’s edgelords. When this happened and just how trollish Musk was beforehand is not clear, as he is secretive, granting few candid interviews. Even Ashlee Vance’s authorized biography of Musk, published in 2015, has little information about his childhood in South Africa and his apparently abusive father (another experience Musk shares with Trump). Both Trump and Musk have fragile egos made more fragile by years spent in cocoons built of wealth and yes men. Unlike Trump, though, when Musk is criticized, he doesn’t see it as part of the game, or an opportunity to commandeer the spotlight with a fight. He wants to erase the insult. His trumpeting about the return of “free speech” and “comedy” to Twitter was immediately followed by a crackdown on accounts parodying him. It often seems that Musk paid $44 billion for the ability to delete other people’s tweets.
Surely the richest man in the world, hailed as a visionary technological futurist, has better uses for his time and energy? The particular flavor of dad-ish 4chan trollery that Musk indulges in, while nasty, also always seems a bit sad, redolent of men going nowhere, feeling powerless, raging at a screen in their basement and lashing out at their perceived foes because at least the rise they get out of others makes them feel like they exist.
Trump, a true sociopath, isn’t really affected by what people think of him (only what they say about him). But Musk behaves like someone who has been rejected and feels it, and masks that feeling in belligerence in order to regain a sense of his own invulnerability. The fact that one of his children is transgender and has changed her last name because she no longer wishes to be related to him seems especially pertinent to what is playing out here.
Of course people with normal human emotions are just as capable of doing damage as those without, and the Twitter employees Musk has bullied and fired, along with the creditors he’s currently stiffing (a classic Trump move), are made miserable by his actions regardless of the motives behind them. The rest of us, however, are another matter. It’s overheated to claim that “people will die” as a result of Musk’s regime, a symptom of internet poisoning almost as extreme as Musk’s own.
Twitter is not a nation. It’s not even a particularly sizable portion of the internet, where platforms rise and fall all the time. Going back nearly four decades, the same pattern has repeated itself: in Usenet, in AOL chatrooms, in the early blogging platforms, in comments threads, and in various forms of social media.
At first, an internet forum feels idyllic because its early adapters tend to be people with similar values and interests. They sing its praises. But as the community gains new members, discord begins to simmer, whether it’s the work of trolls and other bad actors or simply the friction generated by a greater diversity of viewpoints and manners coming into contact with one another. Some people call for more top-down control while others protest the potential loss of freedom that would bring. Then the whole community gets sucked into endless arguments about what should and shouldn’t be allowed. Every internet platform has to walk this line between openness and “safety,” a balance that’s ultimately unresolvable, until it topples over to one side or the other. One of the camps departs, the debate that has subsumed the platform collapses in their absence, and the whole thing withers away.
That moment has come for Twitter. The most embarrassing aspect of Musk’s takeover is how utterly dependent he is on the “woke virus” he’s constantly decrying. As with most trolls, the point of his vapidly provocative tweets is to offend and alarm his ideological enemies, whose outrage only serves to boost his signal to the great big world beyond Twitter. In this, he is very much like Donald Trump, and the smartest thing journalists can do—for their own sanity and even for his—is deprive him of that audience by walking out.