By Ellie Winslow
As the richest man in the world, Elon Musk wields a lot of power. In recent years, the world has seen this power take shape in countless ways. As Elon Musk looks to embark on a new territory of dominance through ownership of Twitter, we must (or at least try) to consider how Elon Musk sees himself fitting into foreign and domestic affairs. Is he a gamemaster with malicious intent, or does he just like to see how much commotion he can stir up?
Shortly after Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Elon Musk, in his role as the CEO of SpaceX, donated Starlink satellites to provide internet connection to Ukrainian citizens and the military. This act served to connect Ukrainians to their families and the rest of the world amidst dire and uncertain circumstances. In addition to providing this service, Musk allowed the continued broadcast of Russian state media through the Starlink internet access, despite calls by other governments to block those sources. As a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” in a tweet on March 5th, 2022, Musk stood by his decision to play both sides on the conflict in Ukraine.
On October 3rd, via Twitter, Musk suggested a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine, furthering his involvement in the discourse surrounding the hopeful resolution of the conflict. This proposed plan was condemned by Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, as he suggested motions that would cross Ukraine’s red lines.
Controversy grew further around Musk’s involvement in the conflict as days later, U.S. news sources received documents indicating correspondence between Musk and the Pentagon in which Musk asked the Pentagon to fund the Starlink service going forward. Not long after this communication became public and panic ensued, Musk turned back to Twitter to confirm his commitment to providing Starlink terminals to Ukraine for the next 12 months.
This is one of many situations in which Elon Musk has put forth his ideas for solving a major global problem. Musk often sees himself as an active participant in situations he wishes to solve. Another one of his undertakings that has major international and financial implications is in his potential purchase and future renovation of “the de-facto town square,” Twitter.
On Twitter, Elon Musk is known for going on tweeting sprees, including sharing memes, and pitching ideas about what a Twitter platform under his rule may look like to his nearly 110 million followers. He frequently changes his position and is considered by some to be a Twitter “troll” due to his eagerness to provoke his following. This shifty behavior has real implications on international society and affairs, and I believe he knows his ability to attract an audience that will act upon his every word.
The reason that having this much power and influence over Twitter, in addition to his many other business and technological ventures, is dangerous to the global society is because it is difficult to fully understand his intent. Elon Musk certainly knows his power, but who truly knows what all he hopes to achieve with his platform and wealth. His intent through buying Twitter, and in all his actions, can go one of two ways, and I see both as having potentially dangerous impacts on society.
First, Elon Musk may have an ulterior motive to buying Twitter that may be malicious or harmful to users on the platform. Musk may seek to use the platform to push an internal agenda that deceives and confuses his massive following for his own personal and financial gain. Not all Twitter users are fact-checking their sources and carrying out a cost-benefit analysis when deciding to participate in actions that Elon Musk endorses. We have seen how financial markets have shifted as Musk has wavered in and out of his decision to lead Twitter, let alone through his individual tweets. When Musk first made an offer to buy Twitter, Tesla’s stocks lost roughly $40B in value in one day. If he is intentionally making claims and playing with people on Twitter, this can have severe impacts on democracy and international affairs outside of the app.
In the second situation, Elon Musk may just enjoy exercising his right to freedom of speech and trolling Twitter users because he can. Every tweet he sends goes viral and creates expansive social discourse. He doesn’t see a need to think twice about what he tweets because it is his right to share it, after all. However, this incautious tweeting is different as a private, independent user, as opposed to being the CEO of Twitter, even if you have over 100 million followers. With all the power, wealth, and audience Musk has, treating Twitter like a game can often leave non-consenting participants worse off.
In some ways, it feels like Elon Musk means to create and mold a social commentary through his unpredictable decisions. Society will likely never be able to predict Musk’s next move because those that are shared on Twitter seem to come to him at the moment. Nonetheless, everyone will try to forecast his next decision, because whatever it is, the money will likely follow.
Photo Creator: James Duncan Davidson
Photo Credit: James Duncan Davidson
Photo Copyright: CC BY-NC 3.0
Abramson, Samara, Olivia Nemec, and Cooper Havovi. “What Happens When Elon Musk Moves Markets with a Tweet.” Business Insider, March 31, 2022. https://www.businessinsider.com/what-happens-when-elon-musk-moves-markets-with-tweet-2022-5.
Barbaro, Michael, Rob Szypko, Rachelle Bonja, Michael Simon Johnson, Paige Cowett, Marc Georges, and Chris Wood. “Twitter’s Elon Musk Problem.” The New York Times, April 14, 2022, sec. Podcasts. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/14/podcasts/the-daily/twitter-elon-musk.html.
Marquardt, Alex. “Exclusive: Musk’s SpaceX Says It Can No Longer Pay for Critical Satellite Services in Ukraine, Asks Pentagon to Pick up the Tab | CNN Politics.” CNN, October 13, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/13/politics/elon-musk-spacex-starlink-ukraine/index.html.
Musk, Elon. “Elon Musk on Twitter.” Twitter, April 9, 2022. https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1512785529712123906.
Musk, Elon. “Elon Musk on Twitter.” Twitter, April 26, 2022. https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1519036983137509376.
Musk, Elon, and Chris Anderson. “Elon Musk: A Future Worth Getting Excited about | TED Talk,” April 6, 2022. https://www.ted.com/talks/elon_musk_a_future_worth_getting_excited_about.
Press, The Associated. “Elon Musk’s Peace Plan for Ukraine Draws Condemnation from Zelenskyy.” NPR, October 4, 2022, sec. World. https://www.npr.org/2022/10/04/1126714896/elon-musk-ukraine-peace-plan-zelenskyy.
Reuters. “SpaceX’s Musk Says Starlink Has Been Told by Some Governments to Block Russian News.” Reuters, March 6, 2022, sec. Media & Telecom. https://www.reuters.com/business/media-telecom/spacexs-musk-says-starlink-has-been-told-by-some-governments-block-russian-news-2022-03-05/.