There’s something about Elon Musk’s wealth, grandiosity and eccentricity that evokes comic books. A youthful 51, Musk has a staggering net worth of 236.2 billion dollars and a variety of attractively fantastical ventures. “Nations hire Elon Musk to get to outer space,” gushed a 2012 profile of Musk. “His solar company is cash-flow positive. His electric supercars seat seven. Superheroes emulate him. He wants to die on Mars.”
The superhero in question was Tony Stark, alias Iron Man, a brilliant billionaire inventor who protects the world from aliens, monsters and supervillains in a flying robotic suit of his own design. For many years, coverage of Musk has glowed with a similarly heroic adulation. In 2015, after making the Tony Stark comparison, Steven Colbert asked Musk directly whether he was a superhero or a supervillain. Musk modestly replied, “I’m trying to do useful things.” The audience laughed and applauded.
A few years later, Musk’s public image has changed, prompting fewer comparisons to Iron Man and more to Lex Luthor, Superman’s billionaire archnemesis. “[George] Soros reminds me of Magneto,” Musk tweeted on May 15, invoking the X-Men villain, a radicalized Holocaust survivor turned violent mutant supremacist. In response to pushback on his comments, Musk doubled down, tweeting: “He wants to erode the very fabric of civilization. Soros hates humanity.” Later he wrote a mock apology, saying that the comparison was unfair to Magneto.
These statements came less than a week after Musk reacted to revelations that the swastika-tattooed perpetrator of the mass shooting at a mall in Allen, Texas, was a white supremacist by dismissing the report as a “psyop,” a term often used by conspiracy theorists to refer to what they interpret as staged events. Rather than distancing himself from his comments either on Soros or on the shooting, Musk defended them in a bizarre CNBC interview, saying “I’m like a pro-semite, if anything.” In recent years Musk has executed a hostile takeover of Twitter, spread conspiracy theories and allied with high-profile conservative figures such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, prompting the question: Is Musk a misguided superhero, or was he secretly a supervillain all along?
Musk presented his Twitter takeover as a campaign for free speech, a position consistent with the views of his cohort of libertarian Silicon Valley mavens. In 1999, at about 28 and with a profitable tech start-up already under his belt, Musk founded X.com, one of the first online banks insured by the FDIC.
X.com’s success, and eventual sale to Cofinity, PayPal’s parent company, brought Musk into the orbit of Peter Thiel, another Stanford-educated South African immigrant. Thiel has a more longstanding history of right-wing political activism. As an undergrad in 1987, Thiel founded The Stanford Review, a conservative student paper that would go on to feature a variety of right-wing luminaries, including Senator-to-be Josh Hawley, on its staff. Thiel also coauthored The Diversity Myth, a polemic against multiculturalism on California college campuses. In 2016, Thiel publicly endorsed Donald Trump for president.
Musk, by contrast, built up an almost apolitical public profile as the CEO of electric car company Tesla and his private space exploration business, SpaceX. His personal shares in these two companies propelled him to become the wealthiest man in the world. Seemingly as comfortable at black-tie celebrity events as posting his irreverent way into the hearts of adoring Reddit followers, Musk’s wunderkind image offered something to everybody: Conservatives saw in Musk an idealized industrialist, embodying American meritocracy in action, and liberals could point to the role of electric cars in combating climate change. Musk himself pointed to his history of supporting candidates from both political parties.
After 2016, however, Musk’s political persona began to shift. He served on advisory councils for President Trump, though he resigned after Trump’s pullout from the Paris climate accords. Following the 2018 midterm elections, his donations shifted almost entirely to Republican candidates.
While Musk had always been outspoken on social media, the Trump years also saw him becoming more politically vocal on Twitter. In 2019, responding to a Twitter user’s attack on Tesla for benefiting from a U.S.-backed coup against Bolivian president Evo Morales, Musk tweeted, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it!” In May of 2020, he tweeted, “Take the Red Pill,” a meme referencing conversion to far-right politics using imagery from the film The Matrix, in which red pills symbolize awakening to reality. (After Ivanka Trump quote-tweeted Musk, Matrix cocreator Lily Wachowski replied, “Fuck both of you.”)
As Musk’s Twitter account began to amplify right-wing memes, a coalition of tech industry executives and investors began encouraging the Tesla CEO to make a bid for Twitter. They included Twitter founder Jack Dorsey alongside Peter Thiel and many of Musk’s former PayPal colleagues. And after Musk took over Twitter, his inner circle came to include David Sacks, another PayPal colleague and Thiel’s coauthor on The Diversity Myth.
“There’s going to be so much misgendering on this site now and it will be hilarious and great,” tweeted Daily Wire columnist and self-described “theocratic fascist” Matthew Walsh in April of 2022. (“Misgendering” refers to using a pronoun or other form of address that incorrectly identifies a person’s gender.) Musk himself presented his takeover of Twitter as an act of principled free speech absolutism.
But his commitment to free speech on the site has been disputable. “Musk has made some good decisions, including restoration of accounts banned under previous management for viewpoint-based reasons,” says Aaron Terr, the director of public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a pro-free speech organization. “But under Musk, Twitter has also limited expressive freedom on the platform in new and unprecedented ways, such as when it globally restricted a tweet in response to a demand from the Indian government.”
Within India, Twitter under Musk has frequently acceded to demands from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ultranationalist government by blocking the accounts of more than 100 prominent activists, politicians and journalists in India, drawing criticism from Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and others. “Musk’s readiness to cave to authoritarian governments’ demands to censor content is disastrous for online free speech,” said Terr.
Similarly, Musk’s release of “the Twitter files,” which purported to expose Twitter’s biased moderation prior to his takeover, misrepresented the evidence in order to suggest censorship. For example, the Twitter files presented @LibsofTikTok, an account which encouraged harassment against LGBTQ people and was notably linked to a 2022 bomb threat against Boston Children’s Hospital, as a target of ideologically driven censorship. In fact, the account received special protection from moderator action, with a code on the account requiring that Twitter moderators seek approval from high-level executives before taking basic enforcement actions against the account.
Bari Weiss, a right-leaning journalist who worked with Musk on the Twitter files project, had a public falling out with the Twitter owner following his suspension of several journalists on the site in December. But Musk continues to cozy up to prominent conservative pundits and politicians.
This has been most notable in Twitter’s long-form video content: After his Fox News firing, right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson announced that he would be premiering a new show exclusively on the site. Ben Shapiro’s media company The Daily Wire followed suit. The premiere of one Wire project, Matt Walsh’s documentary What Is a Woman?, was criticized as anti-trans and held up as an example of the unclear and inconsistent moderation policies.The documentary was initially restricted on the basis that it violated Twitter’s hateful conduct policy. After protest from Walsh, The Daily Wire and other prominent conservatives, Musk relented, removing the documentary’s restriction. He went on to quote-tweet it to his 140 million Twitter followers, saying, “Every parent should watch this.”
In May, Elon Musk participated in a Twitter Space, a live audio chat, with Ron DeSantis announcing his 2024 presidential campaign, an unprecedented choice of venue for such an announcement. It was moderated by David Sacks and featured a procession of speakers who praised both DeSantis and Musk, and—if not for technical issues—could have passed for a Fox News special. Still, Musk took it as an opportunity to tell his audience that the new Twitter is a place for open discourse.
“With a digital town square, it’s possible for the public to choose the narrative. It empowers the people, instead of a very tiny elite cabal,” said Musk during the event. He emphasized that his Twitter was committed to a “vigorous debate,” with the goal of changing minds on both sides of the political spectrum.
But the current state of Twitter may be antithetical to that goal. ““Elon said that everybody is welcome all across the political spectrum to broadcast on Twitter. The problem is: Do people want to?” says Sara Aniano of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Aniano notes that, according to a recent ADL study, QAnon-related hashtags on tweets have risen sharply since Musk’s acquisition of the platform. With increasing amounts of conspiratorial, hateful and divisive content on the site, it is likely that many users will simply log off. “It’s all well and good that we can invite all facets of the political spectrum to put up a stream or broadcast on Twitter, but it’s missing the point of ‘Is this an environment that I want to give that much oxygen to?’” Aniano asks. She also cites the continued problems of harassment and hate speech on the site: “If you look at replies to ADL on Twitter, it’s a pretty good example of the worst tweets you’ve ever seen.” Musk himself has responded to this criticism by saying that the ADL should drop the A in its name, tweeting “Stop defaming me” in November 2022.
Aniano cites Musk’s recent reply to an antisemitic tweet mentioning the “adrenochrome” conspiracy theory, a QAnon talking point that blends anti-vaxxer rhetoric with blood libel, along with a picture of a shirtless Mel Gibson. Musk’s reply to the tweet, (“Mel Gibson is that buff these days?”) did not directly reference the conspiracy theories but nevertheless distributed the original tweet to many of his 142 million followers.
Opinions differ as to whether Musk is antisemitic. In an op-ed in the Forward, Ehad Nehorai called Musk “the most dangerous antisemite in America,” saying his “behavior is part of a larger pattern that puts all Jews in America in urgent danger.” Nehorai references the size of his platform to argue that “Musk is engaging in essentially a scaled-up, far more widespread version of rhetoric that has directly led to violence against minorities.” Others—including high-profile lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli—have defended the billionaire, and particularly his attacks on George Soros.
Former NBC executive Linda Yaccarino became Twitter’s CEO on June 4. So far, she’s been a relatively quiet voice of leadership compared to Musk. Her social media image feels far more geared toward executive professionalism, and she certainly doesn’t have the baggage of the site’s owner.
Still, with Twitter having thoroughly rebranded as “Musk’s company,” any CEO seeking to nurture the virtual town square has their work cut out for them. Even though Musk has stepped down, it’s not easy to separate his controversial posting habits from the atmosphere of the company he owns. “It’s not just the fact that he has such a high status on the platform,” says the ADL’s Aniano. “The issue is also that he has the most followers out of anybody. He has this massive following, which means that anything he replies to will get massive amounts of engagement and amplification.”