Good Luck Getting Elon Musk to Stop Tweeting

Nov 18, 2022 9:00 AM

Good Luck Getting Elon Musk to Stop Tweeting

Twitter’s billionaire new owner is seemingly addicted to his own platform, firing off updates that endanger his own turnaround plan.

Elon Musk spewing out tweets

The Plain View

Watching Elon Musk run Twitter is like attending a music appreciation class while the FBI hostage squad is blasting Guns N’ Roses over giant speakers. It’s hard to separate signal from the interminable noise. But last week, some distinctive notes in Musk’s misfit symphony cut through the clatter in the form of some outrageously transgressive tweets. One was spurred by Washington Post reporter Geoffrey Fowler’s stunt of opening a verified Twitter account in the name of US Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts (with Markey’s permission). I call it a stunt because Fowler must have known that the caper had about a 100 percent chance of working: Twitter was verifying anyone with a credit card. But it was a useful journalistic gambit because it dramatized one of the most glaring flaws in Musk’s scheme (now paused) of selling blue check marks for an $8 monthly fee, almost begging scammers and disinformation peddlers to impersonate celebrities and officials.

After the article, Markey wrote a formal letter of complaint to Musk and Twitter, demanding an explanation. He also posted his letter in a tweet saying, “I’m asking for answers.”

Musk’s response was shocking, and I say this even accounting for the fact that the standard for labeling his doings as “shocking” is higher than those pencil skyscrapers in midtown Manhattan. “Perhaps it is because your real account sounds like a parody?” the entrepreneur replied. Musk went on to make fun of Markey for wearing a medical face mask in his profile picture. Since Markey—who will be heading key committees overseeing Musk’s businesses in the next Congress—is accustomed to bowing and scraping from tech moguls like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, one can only imagine his bemusement or rage at being mocked by a billionaire in the midst of a controversial tech takeover.

The Markey malarkey came on the heels of another rash Musk tweet. After a home invader’s vicious attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Musk retweeted a baseless conspiracy theory from a bogus news source. That now-deleted tweet not only offended almost all of Washington, DC, but provided evidence for those who claimed that misinformation would thrive at Twitter in the Musk regime.

Let’s put aside whether or not Musk is doing a good job at fixing Twitter. (I’ve already commented about his excessive haste.) What possible justification could there be to incite powerful people with stupid drive-by insults? It’s not like Musk is making salient points, exposing flawed reasoning, or providing valid information. He’s just wisecracking unwisely, with total disregard for the consequences. Just imagine being one of those employees that Musk has now insisted should be working day and night to save his newly private company. Can’t those workers expect that Musk will at least show some impulse control so their mission won’t be even harder?

Musk is also unwisely alienating some of his own users and advertisers by posting political opinions, such as urging people to vote Republican in the US midterms and suggesting that Ukraine negotiate with its Russian invaders. He has a right to express an opinion, but when he uses his own platform that way, people understandably wonder whether all of Twitter might be tilted in the direction of his politics. If Mark Zuckerberg had used Facebook to promote his views this way, he’d have half of Congress outside his mansion with pitchforks.

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Why do it? When I wrote about Musk’s tweeting earlier this year, I leaned toward the idea that Twitter itself had led him into this 280-character recklessness. I described Twitter as a superhighway from your foot to your mouth. But now that he owns the company, it’s gotten worse—and seemingly more intentional. Musk seems to have programmed his Tesla navigation system to zoom directly into his own babbling trap. The definitive answer to why he’s doing this is only accessible inside the big brain of the man who rules Tesla, SpaceX, brain implant and tunneling startups, and now also Twitter. I can’t ask Twitter for a comment because Musk fired its PR team. People around Musk I surveyed aren’t providing answers, either. The one response I did get was from his friend and fellow OpenAI cofounder Sam Altman. “Truly no idea,” Altman says.

One of Musk’s surrogates has addressed the tweets: Joe Lonsdale, an investor and Palantir cofounder who knows Musk and is rumored to be advising him on the Twitter rescue. As a recent guest on CNBC, Lonsdale gushed about how “the possibilities are amazing” for Musk and Twitter. But when cohost Andrew Ross Sorkin brought up the Markey tweet, he had the same concerns I did. “I don’t understand it!” Sorkin said. “Democrats control the Senate, that guy runs a whole number of committees—with subpoena power no less! … Doesn’t he put himself in some kind of real risk?”

Lonsdale defended his friend by saying the tweets proved “how important it is that Elon wins.” It’s about freedom. “In China, if you do that, you’re definitely out,” said Lonsdale, waving his hand in a chopping motion like a Maoist executioner. “It’s proving to everyone that it’s possible we have a free country, and you can push back, you can mock people who are attacking you, and you can still win. And that’s awesome! He’s saying we’re free and I’m not going to treat this like a Communist dictatorship.”

That remark might have landed better if at that very moment Musk had not been publicly firing—and then making fun of—any employee who dared to post anything about this that was more critical than a genuflection to his greatness. Since Twitter CEO Musk is leading a dictatorial masterclass, I reject the Lonsdale Theory.

Another supposition is that Musk has lost his mind. We should therefore regard all his actions at his Twitter as Queeg-like lunacy. That doesn’t work either. These troublesome tweets aren’t new behavior. Remember 2018, when Must recklessly called the guy who got those Thai kids out of the cave a “pedo guy”? Musk won the defamation lawsuit filed against him by the rescuer, but paid a price in distraction and reputation for his unjustified slur. And kept going. Or what about the time that same year when he tweeted, “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” Turns out the funding was not secured. Also, there was confusion over whether the tweet was a joke, since April 20 is known as Weed Day, a time to fire up a fat spliff. In any case, the US Securities and Exchange Commission was not amused. Musk and Tesla both had to pay $20 million to settle the agency’s complaint, and Musk had to step down as Tesla’s chair. But outside Twitter, Musk has been showing no signs of insanity. Since those 2018 tweets, he’s done a pretty good job at running Tesla and SpaceX, so one might assume he’s the same not-crazy guy now. Only crazy in his tweets.

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My own theory has the benefits of Occam’s razor, which posits that the solution to any question is most likely the least complicated. Musk simply likes to shitpost and is rich enough to write off the consequences. If you have more money than God—or any other human at least—nothing is more valuable to you than enjoying the limited hours you spend before you’re dead. I’ve always been baffled when superrich people move from exciting places like California or New York City to alligator-y Florida, just to duck taxes. What’s the point of having all that money if you don’t use it to live in the place you love the most?

Same goes for Musk and Twitter. He gets a huge kick out of saying whatever the hell he feels like, getting huge endorphin highs from his 110 million followers and maybe even higher highs when he ticks off some stuffed shirt in Congress. Most of the time, it’s plain fun—and Musk can sometimes be pretty witty. When he goes too far, he can usually shrug or pay off the consequences. To Musk, a $20 million fine is like throwing a quarter in the jar your mom set up to fine you when you curse. Sometimes you just want to drop an f-bomb and don’t care whether you have to pay your two bits. Likewise, if Ed Markey sends him a subpoena, so what? Congress would have probably summoned him anyway. Even if his tweets were perfect, those preening legislators would still be showboating at his expense to show how tough they are toward a tech billionaire.

Viewed in that light, Musk’s Markey-snarkiness is not as crazy as it looks. But it’s still dumb.

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Only a few months ago, I blamed Twitter itself for Musk’s excesses on the platform, saying that he couldn’t help himself. But even then his tweets had consequences—Twitter’s lawyers used them to argue that he couldn’t slither his way out of his commitment to buy the company.

In all the months since Elon Musk has been maneuvering to control Twitter, not once have his impulses seemed to make any sense. Here is a guy who has concentrated on leveraging big science to solve big problems. He runs two huge and inspirational corporations,TeslaandSpaceX, both with considerable challenges for him to grapple with. He has another company that wants to solve the brain, and yet another to tunnel under big cities. He’s got seven kids … sorry,nine. He’s got to figure out how to get to Mars. Yet something made him obsessed with taking charge of a 16-year old enterprise based on short bursts of self-expression, to the point of venturing billions of his own dollars and endless distraction in order to do so, at least until he changed his mind.

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The only explanation seems to lie in Musk’s own use of the platform—18,600 tweets. Twitter can make people crazy. It makes them do and say things they otherwise might not. And few have fallen as hard for it as Elon Musk.

So it’s no accident that in the wake of Musk withdrawing his buyout offer,Twitter’s suitdemanding that Musk go through with the deal relies heavily on … his tweets. Right in the filing, the company’s lawyers screenshotted them to build their case, starting with the irreverent puns that Musk made indicating he was about to make a tender offer. (He cited the Elvis tune “Love Me Tender” and invoked F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender Is the Night.) The filing uses Musk’s tweets to disabuse his claim that the deal was void because the company had misled him on the volume of bot traffic on the platform. It also included multiple instances where Musk used Twitter to disparage Twitter, the company he ostensibly wanted to buy. Perhaps most damning was Musk’s response to Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal’s thread about the company’s efforts to contain bots: a tweet consisting of a single poop emoji. To quote the brief: “For Musk, it would seem, Twitter, the interests of its shareholders, the transaction Musk agreed to, and the court process to enforce it all constitute an elaborate joke.”

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Colin asks, “What’s the best way the average reader/person can help a journalist who’s been laid off?”

Timely question, Colin! Just as with tech companies, news outlets are seeing horrible layoffs of late, continuing a decades-long trend. Just this week, we lost Protocol, a tech news site started with much promise by the Politico team (and some notable hires from WIRED). CNN’s leader Chris Licht said this week he intended to return the network to dominance with a plan that includes mass layoffs. (I have always wondered why executives think they will draw more readers by getting rid of the writers that people want to read.) Some journalists who sought safe haven from layoffs by joining tech companies are now find themselves unemployed—for instance, Meta just decided to end its Journalism Project.

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If you know some of those journalists, express your sympathies, and if you’re positioned to do so, look out for job opportunities where they might be a fit. If you know them only from their work, retweet some of their greatest hits—maybe an editor will come across it and be reminded of their excellence.

Though it might not help those who are now Googling “Cobra health plans,” it’s a good idea to mitigate future layoffs by supporting paid journalism. In your own news consumption, you might consider springing for a few more subscriptions to venues that you like but haven’t paid for yet. If one of those laid-off writers starts a Substack, pay up for it! And if you have inside dope on Elon Musk or Sam Bankman-Fried, share the scoop with one of those newly unemployed scribes. They might get a freelance assignment out of it, and maybe even a shot at another job.

You can submit questions Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

Good Luck Getting Elon Musk to Stop Tweeting

Ivanka Trump wants no part of Daddy’s campaign.

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While Musk tweets away, his depleted workforce is struggling to keep the network safe and usable. One sign of inertia: failing to help people locked out of their accounts.

We are entering a new era of collaboration with AI generators of language and art. And it will be awesome.

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Here’s the latest installment in the thrilling six-part series on recovering stolen currency from the web’s biggest crime bazaar, AlphaBay, excerpted from Andy Greenberg’s amazing new book.

You can sign up for a free newsletter series tied to the AlphaBay story, with exclusive commentary.

I promise not to write about Elon next week—because it’s Thanksgiving and Plaintext is off! Be thankful for your turkey, especially since you didn’t pay $44 billion for it.

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More Great WIRED Stories

Steven Levy covers the gamut of tech subjects for WIRED, in print and online, and has been contributing to the magazine since its inception. His newest column, Plaintext, will soon only be available to subscribers; sign up here. He has been writing about technology for more than 30 years, writing… Read more
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