Just before midnight on December 26, Elon Musk posted a picture of a brooding Bruce Wayne on Twitter.
He (Wayne, not Musk, although the point was to draw a parallel) glowered downward, presumably at a crime-infested Gotham, from atop a cathedral. It was snowing. Wrapped in his cape, Wayne’s Batman stood between two gargoyles with icicles for beards. “Some nights…” read Musk’s caption.
Yes, “some nights.” On that particular night, and on several nights before it, “some” Americans were freezing. To death, tragically. Wayne would’ve saved a few. Musk, like the teenager he is, tweeted Batman cartoons, and surely not from the top of any snowy cathedrals.
It’s true that the world needs saving, and with his billions, Musk was a good candidate for savior. If it was a superhero he wanted to be, Tony Stark was always the natural choice. Presumably, Musk could have SpaceX build an Iron Man suit if he wanted.
Unfortunately for a world in peril, Musk seems to enjoy playing the antagonist. If that’s too strong, it’s fair to suggest he revels in being an irritant. At some point, Musk was co-opted into the echo chamber of bastardized libertarianism. Then, he bought the echo chamber.
Some have suggested Musk’s quips, memes and short-form rhetoric look suspiciously like foreign propaganda, but it’s important to remember that although stoking division in Western democracies is a Kremlin calling card, the best misinformation campaigns are those that take on a life of their own after being unwittingly adopted by people with no conception whatever of their role.
It seems doubtful that anyone in Moscow could’ve predicted in 2015 that a run-of-the-mill, initially unremarkable effort to amplify the rising tide of populism in the West might eventually crescendo in a tidal wave of venomous animosity that threatens to wash away the foundation upon which the world’s most prosperous democracies were built. The facilitators of the original misinformation campaign haven’t had to work very hard since the initial blitz some seven years ago. Millions of unsuspecting (and, by extension, originally innocent) accomplices inadvertently perpetrate a fraud on society every single day. In the process, they defraud themselves.
To the extent Musk is swept up in all of that, it’s probably by accident. In casual conversation I’m not as generous, but to be completely honest, hindsight suggests Donald Trump might’ve been more dupe than conspirator in 2016, so we should allow for that possibility before we cast accusatory aspersions.
This isn’t meant as another lament for the fraying of the social fabric (ironically perpetuated by social media), although you could certainly read it that way. I set out to document the year it’s been for Tesla’s stock, but as these things often go, my “introduction” became an article all its own.
Musk’s profile, wealth and reach makes his excruciating metamorphosis from eccentric inventor to serial provocateur a threat to democracy. Like so many such threats in the so-called “post-truth” world, it’s dressed up as an effort to rescue democratic values from a cabal of “thought police” comprised of large tech companies, the political establishment, intelligence agencies and any journalist unwilling to indulge juvenile fantasies about “red pills,” a reference to The Matrix adopted years ago by purveyors of misinformation.
It’s tempting to describe Musk’s exploits as cynical, but I doubt that’s accurate. Twitter is flailing by most accounts, Tesla’s shares have lost nearly three quarters of their value in 2022 and Musk’s net worth has fallen dramatically on paper. In all likelihood, Musk, like countless others across the Western world, is an unwitting party to the most successful misinformation campaign in modern history. Scarcely anyone knows when and where it began, although I can tell you a pretty convincing origin story. One thing I don’t know is where it’ll end.