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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Arwa Mahdawi

What’s that going up in flames? Why, it’s Elon Musk’s reputation

Elon Musk in Washington earlier this year.
Elon Musk in Washington earlier this year. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Elon Musk is a man of many talents including, it would seem, resurrecting people from the dead. Over the weekend, a number of notable but no-longer-alive figures, including Anthony Bourdain, Hugo Chávez and Jamal Khashoggi had “blue checkmarks” suddenly appear on their dormant Twitter accounts. When you clicked on the checkmark you were informed that they’d provided their phone numbers to the platform and agreed to pay $8 a month to subscribe to Twitter Blue. The afterlife must be dire if people are signing up for Twitter’s paid features from beyond the grave.

It wasn’t just dead celebs being mysteriously verified. The rollout of Twitter Blue was a spectacular mess. Once upon a time, having a blue tick by your name was a status symbol: a sign someone at Twitter HQ thought you were “notable” enough to verify. (Reader, I was not.) Then Musk came along, stripped people of their blue ticks, and said they’d only get the badge back if they paid up. Obviously only a complete loser would do that and the blue tick quickly became a scarlet letter. So when the checks mysteriously reappeared on the accounts of a number of high-profile – and very much alive – figures, including the author Stephen King and basketball star LeBron James, said figures swiftly announced that they hadn’t paid for the badge and wouldn’t be caught dead doing so. All of which would be incredibly embarrassing for Musk if he had any sense of shame. (Reader, he does not.)

A consummate multitasker, Musk was busy juggling his Twitter fiasco with not-quite-intergalactic explosions. On Thursday, Musk’s SpaceX launched Starship, the largest, most powerful, and – possibly – most phallic-looking rocket ever built. It exploded after just a few minutes, raining debris down on to the Texas coast. While the layperson might consider this a failure, Musk and his minions assured us all that anyone who knew anything about complex space matters would realise his exploding rocket was a resounding success. And, while we’re at it, don’t call it an “explosion”. “As if the flight test was not exciting enough, Starship experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation,” read SpaceX’s tweeted statement.

Also experiencing a rapid unscheduled disassembly? Musk’s longstanding assertions his success has nothing to do with family wealth deriving from a Zambian emerald mine. A large part of Musk’s brand is the idea that he’s self-made and the billionaire has repeatedly hit back at assertions his family jewels gave him a head start in life. “[T]he fake emerald mine thing is so annoying (sigh),” he tweeted in January. He touched on the subject again earlier this month. “I will pay a million Dogecoin for proof of this mine’s existence!” Musk announced. (Roughly £63,000 at the time of writing.)

Enter Errol Musk: the billionaire’s father. Last week, Musk Sr told the Sun US that there absolutely was an emerald mine, albeit an “under the table” one that was the result of an informal arrangement with an Italian man back in the era when “Zambia was a free for all”. Which, um, doesn’t sound dodgy at all. According to Errol, all the Musk kids knew about the emeralds and they helped fund Elon’s studies in the US. Now, just so you can assess this information properly, I should point out that Errol and Elon have a fraught relationship; in a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, during which he reportedly cried, Elon described his dad as a “terrible human being”. One reason for the rift might be the fact that Musk Sr has had two kids with his stepdaughter, Jana Bezuidenhout. Errol is 42 years older than Bezuidenhout and raised her since she was four.

While I can’t speak to the veracity of Zambian emerald mines, I can say that Elon hasn’t been having the best time of it lately. For years the billionaire convinced an embarrassing number of people that he was a visionary who was going to save the world. Increasingly, however, he is being revealed as an incompetent narcissist who is doing his best to set his brand on fire. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, it’s the rapid unscheduled disassembly of Elon Musk’s reputation.

• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

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