Do journalists need to change the way we write about Elon Musk? Casey Newton, who writes the Platformer newsletter, is among those who think that we do. Musk’s behavior as the owner and (until recently) CEO of X, the company formerly known as Twitter, may have started out mesmerizing, like a multi-car pileup on the freeway, but at some point, his penchant for making statements and promises that are not only untrue, but will likely never become true, raises questions about how we should cover him. To take just one recent example cited by Newton, Musk bragged about a proposed martial-arts fight with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Meta. Musk promised that the fight would be live-streamed on X, with the proceeds going to charity; he also hinted that the fight might take place at the Colosseum, in Rome. Behind the scenes, however, Musk reportedly ignored attempts to book a time for the fight, then said he needed more time, and might need surgery.
A grudge match between Zuckerberg and Musk is the kind of thing that gets played for laughs, but other examples of the growing gap between Musk’s statements and the truth have been more serious. Despite Musk’s claim that he is a free speech maximalist, earlier this month, X launched a lawsuit against the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a research group that investigated hate speech on the platform and found that it has been increasing. X alleges that the researchers violated the platform’s terms of service in a “scare campaign to drive away advertisers.” The suit also claims that the center “engaged in a series of unlawful acts designed to improperly gain access to protected X Corp. data,” as well as breach of contract, violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, intentional interference with contractual relations, and inducing breach of contract. (In turn, Imran Ahmed, the center’s CEO, accused Musk of “a brazen attempt to silence honest criticism and independent research.”)
To take another example, Musk said in February that X would start sharing ad revenue with creators on the platform. This promise generated some favorable coverage from business and technology journalists. As Newton notes, however, after sending a small number of creators a single payment last month, X announced that too many creators had applied and that it had thus decided to delay the rollout of the plan indefinitely. Then, over the weekend, after a NASCAR driver was suspended for liking a post that made fun of the police killing of George Floydin 2020, Musk promised to pay the legal bills of anyone whose employer has “unfairly treated” them as a consequence of their activity on X. But many observers are skeptical that this will ever happen. “Given that Musk won’t even pay his own vendors,” Newton wrote, “it strains credulity that he would file unlimited lawsuits” to defend ordinary users from attack. (And Musk, reportedly, has also fired a number of employees for criticizing him.)
Note: This was originally published as an email newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
X’s “zero-tolerance” policy on material containing child sexual abuse, last updated in 2020, says that “viewing, sharing, or linking to child sexual exploitation material contributes to the re-victimization of the depicted children” and constitutes one of the platform’s “most serious violations.” The policy says that the consequence for violation “in the majority of cases is immediate and permanent suspension.” And yet the account of Dom Lucre—a far-right conspiracy theorist whose real name is Dominick McGee—was reinstated by Musk in July, less than a day after Lucre was suspended for sharing a screenshot from a child sex-abuse video. (Lucre claims he did this to raise awareness about child sexual abuse.) Soon afterward, Lucre received money from X as part of the platform’s new ad revenue-sharing program.
In April, Musk told the BBC that most advertisers had returned to the platform, and that he expected the company would be cash-flow positive by June. Last month, however, he admitted that X’s cash flow was still negative, a result of advertising revenue dropping by more than fifty percent over the previous year, as well as a heavy debt load, much of it assumed when Musk acquired the company. Musk has also won praise for his investment in SpaceX, and in particular its Starlink service, which provides internet access via a web of satellites; there has been a lot of favorable coverage, for example, of Starlink’s offer to help provide internet access for Ukraine during that country’s war with Russia. There has been comparatively little coverage of how Musk’s control of Starlink’s satellites can be capricious (although a recent New York Times story noted that his influence over satellite internet technology is now “raising global alarms”).
When he acquired X, Musk said he wanted to create a politically neutral platform. But in December, Charlie Warzel, of The Atlantic, argued that, judging by Musk’s actions since he bought the company, it is fair to characterize him instead as a “far-right activist” and his purchase of the company as an explicitly political act, aimed at advancing the right’s “culture war against progressivism.” Warzel said that Twitter has been transformed into a platform that offers “a haven to far-right influencers and advances the interests, prejudices, and conspiracy theories of the right wing.” In addition to cozying up to right-wing broadcaster Tucker Carlson and the Daily Wire, Warzel notes, Musk has reinstated many banned right-wing accounts and has “emboldened trolls, white-nationalist accounts, and January 6 defendants.”
Newton noted this week that ever since Musk posted in 2018 about having “funding secured” to take his electric-car company, Tesla, private (which never happened), it’s been obvious that journalists should apply a “healthy discount rate” to everything Musk says. And yet a significant number of stories about Musk’s claims are still lacking in skepticism. In part, Newton argues, this is because journalists tend to assume that “CEOs of public companies are not lying all the time.” Newton also points out that stories about Musk’s various promises and pronouncements “are dead-simple and cheap to produce—a description of an embedded tweet, followed by 300 or so words of context. And because people read these stories in huge numbers, publishers devote a lot of space to them.”
Newton’s analysis carries clear echoes of how hard many journalists found it to cover Donald Trump after he burst onto the political scene in 2015, in part because they assumed that, while candidates might stretch the truth about some things, they wouldn’t lie about everything all the time. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, has described the latter dynamic as crashing the system; Trump, he wrote, “upends the assumptions required for the traditional forms of campaign journalism even to make sense.” In an essay about Trump coverage in 2018, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, wrote that he had hoped, after the election, that, journalists would “not let Trump, and his acolytes, control the conversation.” Instead, Pope wrote, journalists should decide what mattered. But in the months following the inauguration, Pope noted that “Trump has done his thing, taunting and lying and promising lawsuits [and] we, unfortunately, have failed to hold up our end of the bargain.”
As with Trump, one of the reasons behind a lot of the credulous coverage of Musk and X is the fact that it draws readers, and therefore clicks and revenue. As difficult as it is to survive financially in the current media environment, however, we should ask ourselves whether it is really worth pandering to an individual whose statements are routinely detached from reality, or made solely for the purposes of getting attention. Granted, Musk’s ownership of X—or even SpaceX and Tesla—may not be as serious a social and political challenge as Trump’s presidency. But that doesn’t mean we should feel sanguine about enabling him. SpaceX can blast people into space. And X (then Twitter) helped blast Trump to the White House.