Elon Musk, the richest person in the world can move markets, confuse, distract and offend with a single tweet.
Through repetition, diversion, and schoolyard taunting, Elon Musk can move markets, confuse, distract, and offend with a single tweet, largely reminiscent of the tactics of former President Donald Trump.
Their shared approach to online communication and fickle personalities invite obvious comparison, and the similarities become even more apparent when the head of Tesla Inc. and the world’s richest person veered into politics and cast his first vote. by a Republican.
Musk’s infatuation with Twitter Inc. inspired him to make a $44 billion bid for the company, a deal that would give him even greater influence over a digital ecosystem where he wields outsized power. That could be especially useful as federal bureaucrats present a growing challenge to his empire.
Musk has indicated he would welcome Trump to the social platform, lifting a suspension that began when the former president violated the site’s policies with tweets about the January 6, 2021 attacks on the US Capitol. But that permissive treatment , and Musk’s recent right-wing political epiphany, are not an indication that he will endorse Trump in the 2024 US presidential race.
“I’m on the fence at the moment,” he said last week at the Qatar Economic Forum in an interview with Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait. That objection came several days after he tweeted that he was leaning toward supporting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The thoughtful response to a public audience of investors shows that he can turn off the provocative and nonchalant online persona when needed, a restraint Trump has never been able to muster.
‘Flooding the Zone’
As much as Twitter has worked to improve what it calls the “health” of conversation on its site (for example, by downgrading harassing voices and offering prompts to encourage users to reconsider offensive responses), the platform still rewards inflammatory behavior through retweet, like, reply and follow. Banning those who cross the line from using the service, including Trump, has done little to quell that dynamic and left room for Musk to step into the spotlight.
Musk’s presence on Twitter is so forceful that even his absence is noticeable: he hasn’t tweeted since June 21, leaving fans to resort to online speculation about the billionaire’s whereabouts. By and large, though, Musk serves up what the audience wants from him, emulating and adjusting Trump’s strategy to build his fan base and his brands.
Musk and Trump are effective at “flooding the area,” said Inga Kristina Trauthig, a senior fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. They express forthright opinions repeatedly, she said, whether it’s Musk’s recent fixation on declining global birthrates or Trump’s frequent claims of a deep-state conspiracy working against his agenda.
Flooding the area is an approach popularized by Steve Bannon, Trump’s political strategist. In 2018, Bannon told author Michael Lewis that “the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the area with shit.”
With this type of attack, accuracy is less important than persistence.
“Their narratives are nuanced. They are not complicated,” said Trauthig, whose research focuses on how emerging technologies are used in political communication.
Those simple stories often frame the men as victims of politically motivated attacks, often timed with unflattering news. Musk, for example, speculated in May that Democrats would unleash a “dirty tricks campaign” against him because of his support for Republicans, and the next day, Insider reported sexual misconduct allegations against him, which he dismissed as a hit”. designed to “interfere with the acquisition of Twitter.”
Trump’s social media habit had singularly important consequences, as his tweets were used to spread misinformation and try to nullify his failed re-election bid. Still, Musk’s missives carry some weight, shaping the investment decisions and worldview of his acolytes.
Both found massive reach online, with Trump achieving 88.9 million Twitter followers before being banned from the platform, and Musk tallying some 100.3 million followers.
Musk’s Twitter acumen evokes Trump’s in another way: He has a penchant for tapping into the daily news cycle and reframing it. For Trump, the tweets were often mere media commentary: He watched cable news voraciously and enjoyed poking fun at the ratings of the Oscars and the NBA. Others, however, were big news: He fired his Secretary of State over Twitter and even tweeted his own Covid-19 case.
“I call Twitter a ‘typewriter,’” Trump said in 2019. He recalled a tweet declaring that Israel has sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a post that contradicted a longstanding US position. “I said, ‘Look at this.’ Boom, I press it, and in two seconds, ‘We have breaking news.’”
Musk’s tweets may erase talk of Tesla’s stock price crash and his Twitter deal, or any efforts to evade it. One Sunday in June, for example, he tweeted wishes for Father’s Day, saying he was still buying Dogecoin and that he felt “ripped off” every time he drank LaCroix sparkling water.
Both men instinctively use the platform and gravitate towards topics that will thrive there. Trump expanded the conservative media to stoke the disputes underpinning America’s culture war. Musk, between announcements about his companies, has commented on remote work, video games and the media, which he accuses of biasing too negatively. He and Trump have tried to cultivate a following that trusts them and distrusts the mainstream media.
Followers hang closely on every word. Musk tweets cryptically, such as in April when he tweeted a blank for a word followed by “it’s tonight,” prompting a flurry of speculation and investigation as to whether the first word was “cute,” indicating he was planning to make a tender offer. for Twitter. Trump was less coy, but his tweets were still highly dissected, like his infamously inconclusive “negative press covfefe.”
Musk, Tesla and a Trump representative did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, his online impulsiveness has sometimes skyrocketed. Trump lost his Twitter bullhorn in January 2021 after the fatal Capitol invasion, when the company determined his tweets violated its policies on glorifying violence. The extent of Trump’s involvement in the rally is still coming to light. A former aide testified Tuesday that Trump urged security to allow armed people into the protest, demanded he join them on Capitol Hill and grabbed the wheel of the presidential van to redirect it.
Musk got into trouble with a 2018 tweet falsely claiming he had raised funding to take Tesla private. That led to a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which he and Tesla agreed to pay $20 million in civil penalties for the tweet.
More recently, Musk’s own workforce has chafed at his online theatrics. On June 16, SpaceX fired the employees behind an open letter condemning CEO Musk’s behavior as “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks.”
If Musk’s takeover of Twitter goes through, Trump has said he will not return to the site and vowed to continue issuing proclamations on Truth Social, his own platform.
However, the lure of reclaiming your Twitter account’s reach and cache may be too much to resist.