Watching what’s going on at Twitter is like watching a guy losing his mind in slow motion. The guy in question is Elon Musk, who once upon a time was the world’s richest man and now isn’t. (That slot is apparently occupied by Bernard Arnault, the luxury goods mogul.)
Musk is in a hole but apparently doesn’t know Denis Healey’s First Law of Holes: when you’re in one, stop digging. The funny thing is that he dug the hole himself. First, he paid way over the odds for Twitter. Then, when Tesla shares (the main source of his wealth) tanked, and Twitter’s share price dropped, he tried to get out of the deal. That failed, so he was forced to borrow a lot of money – incurring interest payments of around a billion dollars a year – thereby becoming the reluctant owner of a loss-making company. And he hasn’t the faintest idea of how to make it work.
So he’s thrashing around, doing one contradictory thing after another. He started by firing half of the staff, including quite a few key people who knew how hard it is to run a social media platform. He demanded that highly skilled software engineers print out their code on paper so that he could give it the once-over. He rescinded the bans that the company had imposed on legions of rightwing nutters and then discovered that many advertisers, who are the company’s main source of revenue, pulled out, anxious lest their corporate brands get tainted by proximity to lunacy, hate speech and white supremacist cant. He even rescinded the ban on Donald Trump, only to find that Trump was no longer interested in being on the platform.
He took to sleeping on a sofa in Twitter’s San Francisco HQ, babbling about a “code red” crisis, the need to “clear the decks of any prior wrongdoing and move forward with a clean slate” and describing the company as a “crime scene”. To find some evidence for this, he commissioned two journalists to go through stacks of internal records of moderation decisions made long before he owned the company. Reports suggest that the documents merely show staff panicking about the radicalisation of the US right before and after the election and trying to react to events such as the storming of the Capitol building in Washington on 6 January 2021 – in other words, no smoking gun.
And all the while, Musk has continued his maniacal tweeting. He tweeted a white rabbit, for example, which the QAnon crowd interpreted as a sign of support. He misread a blog post by the former head of trust and safety at Twitter and insinuated he was a paedophile, prompting others to label the man a “groomer”. (This chimed with his 2018 accusation that one of the team that rescued a group of children from a cave in Thailand was a “pedo guy”.) The other day, he tweeted that “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci” – a multipurpose and daft insult revealing, among other things, that Musk doesn’t actually know how this “pronouns” business works.
One could go on, but you get the point. The guy is flailing around and Twitter has become “The Musk Experience”, as the blogger Helen Lewis puts it. Meanwhile, the world’s media watch in morbid fascination. How can the world’s second richest man – the guy who transformed the automobile industry and built rockets that can deliver payloads into orbit and return to land accurately and safely on ocean-going rafts – be making such a mess of reforming a mere social media platform. After all, that doesn’t require rocket science, right?
For the answer, we need look no further than Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Elon Musk is our contemporary gothic horror story. On the one hand, we have Dr Elon, a restless genius who transformed PayPal and used the proceeds to build two world-changing companies. Nobody who has seen him at work in these outfits doubts that he is fully on top of the technology and the business. Watch him on a tour of a SpaceX installation, for example, talking to the engineers who are building the kit and you see a CEO who really knows what he – and they – are doing. Likewise, ask him what’s special about the electric motors in the Tesla Model 3 or the Model S Plaid and you’re in for an interesting hour’s tutorial. In that sense, Dr Elon is the spiritual heir of Henry Ford, the genius who invented a new way of manufacturing complicated products at scale and, in doing so, changed the world.
And then, on the other hand, we have Mr Musk, a narcissistic man-child with a pathetic craving for attention, the attention span of a newt and a maximalist interpretation of what is meant by “free speech”. This creature now controls a platform that plays a small but significant role in the global public sphere. Run properly and with a viable business model, Twitter could continue to play a useful role in our lives. But for that to happen, Dr Elon would have to be in charge. And at the moment he’s missing in action.
• John Naughton chairs the advisory board of the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at Cambridge University
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