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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

The Trumpification of Elon Musk

Around the time Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017, I said to colleagues in the newsroom where I worked at the time that we shouldn’t cover everything he said or tweeted. Previously, a president’s every word was assumed to be a carefully chosen signal of future policy, and was reported as such. Trump, on the other hand, clearly said many things purely to get a rise out of people. Reporting on them, I argued, just fed the flames. Another editor pushed back. “He’s the president,” he said, or words to that effect. “What he says is news.”

Eventually, many (if not all) news outlets kicked (if not entirely) the habit of amplifying every wild tweet and got back to doing their real job, which was to report on what Trump’s administration was actually doing—much of which he himself may have been, at best, only dimly aware of. Over the past few weeks, though, news habits from the early Trump years have resurfaced around Elon Musk.

Here, for instance, we saw a slew of rapid-response news stories about Musk’s tweet on December 11 that “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” a dig at the government’s former chief infectious disease expert, as well as at gender diversity. Here’s another bunch about the picture of his bedside table with two replica guns on it, and some more about his tweeting a far-right Pepe the Frog meme.

News coverage of what Musk is doing at Twitter betrays another trope of the Trump years. There’s a large category of stories that report with a kind of ghoulish delight on moves that will surely—surely!—sink the platform in short order, like alienating advertisers and influential users. Meanwhile, there’s a drumbeat of pieces from right-wing outlets that just as willfully ignore Musk’s worst behaviors to argue that his slash-and-burn tactics are literally the only way to rid Twitter of excess bureaucracy and make it profitable, as if it were such a pit of vipers as has never been seen in the annals of corporate management. 

This is precisely the way coverage of Trump worked. The liberal-leaning media were often drawn to stories confirming the belief that a person so clearly unfit to be president would only succeed in bringing himself (or the country) down in flames, while the right-wing media treated his evident egomania, corruption, and lack of interest in grasping basic policy issues or actually doing the job as at best irrelevant and at worst essential qualities for reforming Washington. There was plenty of good reporting going on at the same time, but these polarizing accounts tended to dominate the conversation. The losers were the public, whose understanding of what was actually happening across the country was forced through incompatible narratives around the behavior of one unhinged man in the White House.

This is what’s happening with Musk and Twitter. Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic describes a “dysfunctional relationship between Twitter’s new owner and so many of the journalists who cover him … where the least defensible statements and claims on all sides are relentlessly amplified in a never-ending cycle that predictably fuels disdain and negative polarization.” 

Friedersdorf goes on to argue that Musk’s journalistic critics should give him more benefit of the doubt; after all, he did ban Kanye West, he refused to reinstate Alex Jones, he’s right that Twitter helped suppress the story about Hunter Biden’s laptop that later turned out to be at least partly true, and maybe his idea of amnesty for suspended accounts is not such a bad way to reset the clock and rebuild overall trust in the platform. But I think that strays toward both-sides-ism and misses the point.

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The point isn’t that Musk may not be as terrible as you think. He is definitely terrible. Just as Trump was unequivocally unfit to be president, Musk is unequivocally cruel, vindictive, a heartless manager, and a troll who amplifies extremists. (Over the weekend he sicced his followers onto Yoel Roth, Twitter's former head of trust and safety, who fled his home with his family after getting threats.) He is also a chaotic leader who, far from having a plan, is—in the words of Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist and self-confessed admirer of Musk—“winging this.” It’s entirely possible that he will either destroy Twitter outright or turn it into what right-wing platforms like Gab and Parler only dreamed of becoming.

The point is that the focus on Musk is a mistake. Arguably not as much of a mistake as it was with Trump; an owner-CEO has more power over their company than a president does over their country. But trying to report on what’s happening by expecting either his abject failure or resounding success and then using his most attention-grabbing tactics as evidence for that thesis is not doing anyone a service. 

As with Trump, the real story is often what’s going on below the level of newsmaker in chief. It’s about the actual numbers around Twitter’s advertising, not Musk’s claims that advertisers are coming back. It’s about who’s actually joining and leaving Twitter, not about who’s threatening to leave. It’s about Twitter’s role in the world—its importance to natural-disaster management or to any number of communities for whom it’s a store of social wealth—rather than just how much money it will lose. Musk and Trump subvert the ability to focus on such nuances by making the story all about themselves. The very same tactic that draws their fans ensnares their critics. And we, by which I mean everybody, but especially the media, fall for it every time.

Just before Musk bought Twitter, I tweeted a prediction that “not much [will] change. Trump et al will come back, trolling will increase somewhat, rest of us will block and mute more and engage less but still use it for publishing—more web 1.0, less 2.0.” As foolish as it is to make predictions, and as crazy as the past six weeks have been, I still think this is as plausible a long-term outcome as any other. It’s neither the destruction of Twitter nor a turnaround, but a bet that the platform is too important to too many people to disappear altogether and will hobble along, however dysfunctionally, in some form. This prediction could be utterly wrong, but its chief quality is that it’s boring. People should make boring predictions more often. Like boring opinions, they are more common and more likely to be accurate, but they get short shrift because they don’t fit the easy narratives of success or failure.

Both the Trump and Musk sagas show that we are still in the thrall of the great-man theory of history. The desire so many have to see people like these either soar or burn produces an attendant bias in evaluating them—a feeling that their actions are the only ones that really matter. That’s what produces this breathless obsession with their every move and blinds us to more complex information that might paint a clearer picture of the messier reality—and whatever future we’re barreling toward.

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