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ABC News
technology reporter James Purtill

Elon Musk will soon own Twitter. Who is he, and how did he get to be the world's richest person?

Elon Musk has been living in what he calls a "technology monastery" near SpaceX's Texas launch facility. (Getty Images: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP)

He's a space rocket mogul, an electric car salesman, a purveyor of satellite internet, and a madcap inventor.

He's also a celebrity entrepreneur, Twitter troll, and the guy who once dated Canadian musician Grimes. 

Oh, and he's the world's richest person.

Elon Musk has done, or become, all these things in the space of a decade.

If Google Trends is any guide, he came to the attention of many Australians in February 2018, when he launched a Tesla sports car into space, using a rocket from another of his companies, Space X.

Founded in 2002, SpaceX is now worth more than $US100 billion. (Reuters: Steve Nesius)

Attention spiked again in May 2020, when he and his then partner Grimes confirmed they had named their baby X Æ A-12.

Now it's trending once more, with news that the longtime critic of Twitter has clinched a deal to buy the social media platform for $US44 billion ($61.4 billion).

The price tag was just a sixth of his net worth.

Often courting the profile of an irreverent trickster or troll, (he recently sold $US5 billion in Tesla stock after polling Twitter for advice), Mr Musk is now one of the most powerful people in the world.

With the purchase of Twitter, he has direct control over a platform populated by millions of users and global leaders. And the move comes as the world is keenly aware of the potential for data mining, election hacking, and other campaigns of disinformation and influence.

So, who IS Elon Musk, what are his political beliefs, and how does he have so much money?

Born to wealth and bullied at school

Elon Reeve Musk was born in 1971 in South Africa to a wealthy family.

His Canadian mother was a professional dietician and model (her image graced cereal boxes) and his South African father was an engineer who once co-owned a Zambian emerald mine.

Elon Musk and mother Maye Musk at a film premiere in 2011. (Getty: Charles Eshelman)

Mr Musk's grandfather, Joshua Haldeman, was the Canadian leader of the original technocratic movement, which believed in replacing politicians with whoever had the most expertise.

(As an adult, Mr Musk would show a similar belief that scientists and engineers can solve political problems that others cannot).

His parents separated when he was nine, and around this time he developed a keen interest in computer programming, even coding a video game that he sold to a magazine for $500 — you can still play it online.

An awkward and introverted child who was severely bullied at high school in South Africa, he moved to Canada in 1989 with his mother, sister, and brother.

Here's a brief timeline of his subsequent career:

  • 1995: Receives Bachelor in Physics and Economics from the University of Pennsylvania
  • 1995: Moves to California to attend Stanford University, but after only two days defers admission to test his luck in the emerging dot-com boom
  • 1995: Starts a software company Zip2 with his brother Kimbal, using $US28,000 of his father's money
Zip2 helped newspapers like the New York Times design online city guides. (Supplied)
  • 1999: Hits the jackpot. Compaq acquires Zip2 and Musk receives 7 per cent, or $US22 million from the sale
  • 1999: Co-founds an online banking company,, which two years later will merge with another company, Confinity, and become PayPal
  • 2000: Fired as CEO of PayPal for pushing to move the company's servers from the Unix operating system to Microsoft Windows
  • 2002: Another jackpot. eBay acquires PayPal for $US1.5 billion in stock, of which Musk receives $US175.8 million.
Elon Musk with Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, who would later pour money into Donald Trump's 2016 presidential election campaign. (Supplied: Paul Sakuma)
  • 2002: Founds SpaceX (or Space Exploration Technologies) with a goal of making spaceflight cheaper by a factor of 10, and making colonising Mars affordable
  • 2004: Joins Tesla's board of directors as its chairman after investing an initial $US6.5 million in the company 
  • 2006: Co-founds SolarCity, which later becomes the second-largest provider of solar power systems in the United States
  • 2008: Becomes CEO and product architect of Tesla after staging a boardroom coup that ousts Martin Eberhard, who co-founded the company in 2003 with Marc Tarpenning
  • 2008: With Tesla losing money and SpaceX having trouble launching its Falcon1 rocket, Mr Musk nearly goes broke
  • December 2008: His fortunes turn. SpaceX lands a $US1.5 billion contract with NASA to deliver supplies into space, and Tesla finds more outside investors
  • 2010: Tesla holds a successful initial public offering, raising $US226 million
Tesla was the first US automaker to go public since Ford Motors in 1956. (Getty: Bloomberg)
  • 2018: Mr Musk's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. He tweets that he is considering taking Tesla private and has secured funding (he hadn't). The US government watchdog charges him with making false and misleading statements, costing him and the company $20 million. Mr Musk also agrees to step down as chairman of Tesla's board.
  • 2018: Calls British diver Vernon Unsworth, who is helping rescue Thai schoolboys trapped in a cave, a "pedo guy" on Twitter (Mr Musk later won a defamation trial brought against him by Mr Unsworth)
  • 2018: Tesla board members express concern regarding Mr Musk's use of sleeping pills and recreational drugs
  • 2020: Tweets that panic over COVID-19 is "dumb" and calls US stay-at-home orders "fascist"
  • 2020: SpaceX completes its first operational human space flight
  • 2021: Top economists accuse Mr Musk of market manipulation by using his Twitter presence to pump up the price of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies
  • 2021: Mr Musk surpasses Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to become the world's richest person
Elon Musk and Grimes, seen here at a New York fashion show in 2018, are now "semi-separated". (Getty Images: Jason Kempin)
  • 2021: Even as his fortune surges, troubling allegations emerge. Approximately 100 former Tesla employees submit signed statements alleging that Tesla discriminates specifically against African Americans and "allows a racist environment in its factories"
  • 2021: Seven women come forward with claims of having faced sexual harassment and discrimination while working at a Tesla factory
  • 2022: California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sues Tesla for "discriminating against its Black workers" 
  • April 2022: Mr Musk Becomes Twitter's largest shareholder and then makes a successful offer to buy the social network

Where did Elon Musk get his money?

On January 1, 2020, Elon Musk's net worth was $US28 billion. Just a year later it was $US170 billion.

The reason for this increase is the Telsa share price, which has tripled in value to more than $US1 trillion over the past 18 months (his shares are worth about $US170 billion).

Mr Musk's 48 per cent stake in the $US100 billion firm SpaceX makes up most of the rest of his fortune.

What are his politics?

Elon Musk to buy Twitter for $61.4 billion

Mr Musk has donated to both Democrats and Republicans while declaring himself a "moderate" and a "socialist".

According to data gathered by the non-profit lobbying watchdog Open Secrets, Elon Musk has given a total of $US1.2m to politicians, parties, political action committees (PACs), and referendum campaigns since 2002.

That money went almost equally to Democrats, with $542,000, and Republicans, with $574,500.

Some have described him as "socially liberal and fiscally conservative".

Mr Musk, for instance, has advocated for releasing people imprisoned in the US for cannabis offences before the drug was legalised.

Others say he's best described as a libertarian, meaning he advocates for only minimal government intervention in the free market and the private lives of citizens.

He's proposed that future Martian colonies should allow any law to be overturned by a vote of 40 per cent of the citizens.

On economic matters, he's campaigned against government subsidies to boost electric vehicle sales and opposed trade unions, especially in his own companies, as barriers to efficient operations.

Tesla has tried to sabotage union efforts at its factory, and, in 2018, Mr Musk tweeted that Tesla employees who attempted to unionise would lose their stock options, which the courts have ruled was illegal.

Mr Musk also sometimes seems to flirt with social conservatism, recently telling followers to "take the red pill" (a phrase used by white supremacist, anti-feminists, and conspiracy theorists in general) while engaged in a crusade against California's COVID lockdown policies.

On climate issues, Mr Musk has argued for a carbon tax to better reflect the cost of fossil fuels to the environment, and publicly criticised then president Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement.

In 2021, he rethought his support for bitcoin, due to the currency's carbon emissions.

Though sometimes critical of President Joe Biden, Mr Musk has also shown support:

"I'm super fired up that the new administration is focused on climate," he said after the president's inauguration. 

"I feel very optimistic about the future of sustainable energy with the new administration."

From dot-com coder to internet prankster

There's also another side to Elon Musk — one that is less predictable and doesn't easily fit the usual categories of political and economic theory.

This is the side that courts controversy and enjoys the adulation of his numerous followers, who appear to like his edgy, irreverent persona and are inspired by his bold visions for the future.

It's the side that, for instance, tweeted an April fool's joke that saw billions knocked off the market value of Tesla.

Some see Mr Musk's purchase of Twitter as the ultimate trolling of the social media platform.

In a statement, Mr Musk said it was about "freedom of speech":

Ironically, given how cutting edge Mr Musk is, that vision of the internet is old fashioned.

It harks back to the days before misinformation and election hacking, when the internet could be freer and unmoderated.

Either way, from EVs to Twitter, we're all living in Elon Musk's future now.

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