"He's a massive troll": Elon Musk's bid to buy Twitter, explained
Also: Biden roasts Fox News — but his staff keep giving it interviews it anyway.
Since news broke a week ago about Elon Musk reaching a deal to buy Twitter and take it private, he’s posted tweets attacking Twitter officials and the “far left,” engaged in a creepy back and forth with AOC, spread right wing memes and medical misinformation, and repeatedly posted solicitous replies to far right figures and fringe conspiracy theorists.
Meanwhile, news reports have suggested some changes Musk wants to make to the platform, include restoring Trump’s account (and the account of Holocaust denier Charles Johnson) and making transphobia acceptable. It’s been a steady stream of bad news.
Musk postures as some sort of centrist, but people are clearly seeing through him. Literally overnight, news of his deal prompted major growth in the follower counts of prominent right-wing accounts and a decline in those of prominent liberals. I, for one, am worried about Twitter becoming a cesspool of bullying, hate, and misinformation — and I know I’m far from alone.
So for today’s edition of Public Notice, I spoke with someone who not only has written about Musk, but at one point was pen pals with him. Thor Benson is a New Orleans-based freelance journalist who writes about politics, tech, and science. About five or six years ago, he emailed Musk about a story he was working on, and Musk replied. They ended up exchanging candid off-the-record emails for about a year.
When I posted tweets criticizing Musk last week, Benson reached out and suggested we talk because he understands Musk better than most. I took him up on the offer, and a transcript of our discussion, lightly edited for clarity, follows. It didn’t necessarily leave me feeling better about the possibility the deal goes through and Musk takes control, but Benson did suggest he might get bored before he totally ruins the place. I guess we’ll have to take whatever hope we can get.
I know you and Elon used to exchange emails with each other. My perception, which admittedly is largely based on his tweets, is that he’s pretty much a run-of-the-mill right-wing contrarian. Is the truth more complicated? Who was the Elon Musk you knew, and how do you think he’s changed over the years?
I think we started emailing back and forth probably in late 2016 or early 2017, and at first it was just that I had gotten his email and had a question for an article, and then we just kind of started chatting. You have to remember at this time he was pretty well liked. People were really excited about Tesla and SpaceX. He hadn't revealed any significant trollinesss.
But I would say around 2019, he started to become more of a troll on Twitter as his tweets got kind of weird, and it's gotten progressively worse since then. I feel like he's moved to the right in those years — or maybe he was just good at hiding it before. But yeah, I'd say he's changed quite a bit, and a lot of people who years ago thought he was an interesting, cool innovator are maybe now not so excited about him.
You mentioned to me that you guys were emailing each other in 2018, when Musk was in the news for talking about the possibility of creating a service to rate the credibility of journalists. What were those exchanges like?
He was really annoyed with his press coverage. This is why I think his attention span is low when it comes to these things. He was originally hinting at starting his own social media platform. Now he's just buying the one he already uses.
Why do you think Musk is trying to buy Twitter, and if the deal gets done, how do you anticipate he’ll change the platform?
I think he's heard a lot of concerns from right-wingers about free speech issues on social media, and I think he has his own concerns. And I think he sees Twitter as possibly the most important social media platform and wants to do what he can to influence its future.
Do you think he’s motivated primarily by spite? There’s certainly a lot of that coming through in these tweets he's posting now about the “far left” and AOC and Democrats. Or do you think that he actually does have some principled ideas?
I think he thinks he has those principles. He hasn't been shy about saying that he's not a fan of “wokeness,” and the “far left,” as he puts it. So I think that's a lot of it.
Elon Musk @elonmusk@waitbutwhy I strongly supported Obama for President, but today’s Democratic Party has been hijacked by extremists
You’ve written in the past about how Musk’s tweets have landed him in trouble with the SEC. What’s your take on his tweets this week attacking Twitter officials and posting a seemingly never ending string of right-wing memes?
At this point he's a massive troll. I think he likes the attention and thinks it's funny. People on the right wing clap when he does this stuff, and he likes that. I think he just loves the spectacle.
There’s obviously a lot of hysteria about what Musk might do to Twitter. As someone who at one point had a bit of a personal rapport with him, how worried should we be?
Let's say he does buy Twitter. I think knowing him, he will do some big flashy things in the beginning — make some changes, probably try to increase the revenue just for his own reasons, probably bring back some controversial figures who have been banned. But I think in the long run he's going to get bored. He doesn't have a huge attention span for these kind of things. What he’s been interested in doing are things that involve engineering, rockets, cars, artificial intelligence, things like that. He gets excited about social issues and human things for a while, and then he kind of loses interest.
So I think he might make a splash. It might be a bumpy road for a while and then eventually it might just be some CEO that he chose who’s running the company, and maybe he's telling them to do something now and then, but he's mostly focusing on other things.
Is Fox News a legitimate network or isn’t it, Mr. President?
President Biden did a remarkable job roasting Fox News at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday. And then hours later his homeland security secretary did an exclusive interview with Fox anyway.
That chain of events illustrates the administration’s conflicted handling of a right-wing propaganda channel that happens to be the country’s most-watched cable network. Biden clearly understands what Fox News really is, even as his top officials routinely legitimize it by agreeing to do exclusive interviews that break up the non-stop scandal-mongering about his son.
During his speech at the correspondents dinner, one of Biden’s best zingers came at the expense of Sean Hannity.