The world's richest internet troll now has made a deal to give himself a huge chunk of our national discussion. And it appears, he was so intent on this deal, he was willing to be incredibly overcharged.
Twitter was frankly, not doing all that well as a business lately. As I write this on April 27th, the market expected some bad news about the company in their quarterly report on Thursday. In fact, when Elon Musk arranged the financing for his offer to buy Twitter, that offer was $54.20 a share, a full 19% above its current stock price. The total, a staggering $44 Billion. The owners and their board initially were skeptical, and then decided, wisely, to take the money, tuck it under their arms and run for daylight.
But make no mistake, Elon Musk has bought himself a huge, if incredibly annoying, part of the American political discussion, such as it is these days. And that annoyance factor is about to increase. That's because, as sure as the sun rises in the east, and on Twitter, you'll get some disagreement on that, Donald Trump will be back, and those low stock numbers will head northward.
Around 2009, I was working for a TV station, and for the first time in my career, we had an editor whose job was social media. He sat there right next to the men and women who edited, selected, wrote and assembled our nightly newscasts. They were news veterans, whose judgment and taste were the products of years in the business. They separated the wheat from the chaff, honed in on the important issues and ignored the distractions of extremists and simple nutlogs who tried to derail the debate.
He, meanwhile, simply answered the nutlog questions online with as benign a tone as possible. When some out and out racist or incendiary comments were submitted simply to insult someone, I asked why we allow that. My feeling was, as a TV station licensed by the FCC to serve the public interest, don't we have an obligation to moderate the worst of the garbage that the cloak of internet anonymity allows trolls to spew? His feeling was, the internet is self-correcting. The trolls will be taken care of by the sensible commenters. To which I can now confidently reply, Uh-Huh. And let me add a "Well, bless your heart."
And even in my 52nd year in the business, well ensconced in old fartdom, I have to admit, social media is a huge force in our society. But not the one envisioned years ago. One New Yorker writer compared it to the Tower of Babel in the Bible. That is where the Lord decided that we were becoming too arrogant and separating us by language would temper our way-too-lofty self-esteem. Well those who thought sharing our thoughts, concerns, opinions and information online with literally everyone, along with what we had for dinner, would unite us, now know it has had the opposite effect. Remember when flat earthers and those who think the moon landing was faked were consigned to the sideshow of our national carnival? Now they are simply an opposing view, with YouTube videos to explain why they think the moon is hollow and there are lizard people living beneath LA. That last one, I admit, may have some merit.
Only in the world of social media could a phrase like "Alternate Facts" be met with anything but intense laughter and calls for a psychiatric intervention. So, during the pandemic, and with a real barker in charge of that national carnival, the boffins at Twitter and Facebook decided that there needed to be some guard rails. They defrocked some users, including said barker, and added explanations about why a dewormer might not be the best cure for covid.
That degree of moderation was met with cries of protest, and accusations concerning freedom of speech. Who knew that our precious first amendment rights were so dependent on a private internet platform of 280 characters?
Enter Elon Musk. Musk is the richest man in the world who aims to ultimately send humans to Mars, and now has given them a reason to go.
Born in South Africa in 1971, when I was a senior in college, he was raised with a silver, no, emerald spoon in his mouth. His father owned half the Zambian emerald mine near Lake Tanganyika, and was an engineer and property developer who once said, "We were so rich, we couldn't close our safe."
Musk ultimately emigrated to the US, started a money-transfer company to rival PayPal and ultimately sold it to them when he couldn't compete. His founding of SpaceX actually preceded his involvement in Tesla. The latter, of course, the electric vehicle company founded by two engineers. Musk bought his way in and became the CEO. Given our climate concerns and some excellent engineering work, the company has become wildly profitable and SpaceX now is regularly sending astronauts to the International Space Station.
So far, so good. Unlike some rich kids we could name, he didn't take dad's money and continually fail with it; he did indeed prosper. So, why Twitter? He has taken great delight in online snark about politicians, business rivals and others. But even for a rich guy, $44 bill is a lot to have your own personal snide machine. That's why he's doing it mostly with OPM, other people's money. And what he has put up from his own stock has caused the price of a Tesla share to drop. OK, only a minor flesh wound to the foot.
And the reaction from both sides of the political divide, which these days, makes the Grand Canyon look like a drainage ditch, has been honestly ridiculous.
The left claims it will bring back every nut who had been excluded, including the chief one, mislead our citizenry with bad info and lead to a further fragmentation of what remains of our tattered political dialogue. That dialogue, by the way, was already disappearing in the 90's when then Speaker Newt Gingrich advised his membership to not buy a house in Washington lest they fraternize and become friends with the opposition. So, there's not much dialogue to save.
The right sees a Madisonian return to the founding principle of free speech which, apparently solely due to Twitter, was yanked cruelly from our fellow Americans. Now we can freely discuss why you should have been guzzling hydroxychloroquine and petitioning for the deportation of Anthony Fauci.
Neither extreme is right, of course. The left will find that it won't be the end of civilization as we know it, though Matt Gaetz's tweets might make you wonder. And the right will still see and hear all the things they saw and heard anyway, but Tucker won't have to bear the whole load on his narrow shoulders.
Musk seems to believe, as our social media editor did, that Twitter will be self-correcting and the good info will balance the bad. But in this age when we all look for "facts" that back up our own previously held opinions, he will be as wrong as that editor was.
The divide will widen, the arguments will grow nastier and his libertarian open town square will be more like the gunfight at the OK corral. Snap judgments on politicians, celebrities and public servants will ruin careers, and weaken even more our confidence in our leaders, the press, our accepted history and ultimately, each other. The Tower of Babel model will continue to make us more tribal and angry, not less.
But in reality, Twitter and Facebook are doing that now all by themselves, thank you very much.
And so, yes, things will get worse, if that's possible. We don't just disagree, we disagree on things as basic as the color of the sky. There's no accepted starting point in history for a discussion. And, there's no one to tell the emperor he not only has no clothes, but is now shoving nickels up his nose. And with a bored billionaire at the helm, technically, it will be a world of Soros and ivermectin.
And Musk? Well, he will have the same access to his goofy tweets he had before. I quote from Wikipedia...
"In August 2018, he claimed in a tweet that he was taking Tesla private at $420 per share, a joking reference to marijuana. An SEC investigation concluded that the tweets had no basis in fact and hurt investors, resulting in separate fines to Musk and Tesla of $20 million each. The settlement also included a clause that Musk would have legal counsel approve tweets about Tesla in advance.
In 2022, he was also sued by Tesla shareholders over the tweet. Musk maintains that the joke was "worth it". In 2020, a tweet by Musk stating that "Tesla stock price is too high" reduced the company's value by $14 billion.
Musk encountered further troubles in 2021, when he tweeted a poll about whether to sell 10% of his stock in the company, before doing so. This resulted in an SEC insider trading investigation into Musk and his brother Kimbal, relating to whether Musk told his brother in advance that he would tweet the poll.
Other points of controversy have included his tweets about cryptocurrency such as Dogecoin and Ethereum, which have caused their values to fluctuate, as well as tweets downplaying the severity of COVID-19 and criticizing lockdowns, including one comparing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Hitler over vaccine mandates."
But then what? I predict he'll grow bored. As was asked of Gordon Gecko in the film "Wall Street"..."How much is enough? How many yachts can you ski behind?" He's doing things on a whim, and whims move on. But the damage he can do in the meantime? Oh, let me count the ways.
He has seen the results of his moronic tweets on the stock price of his companies. Will he now try that to intentionally influence the market? Will he seek to move public opinion? Will he, as a CEO, be fined? Will he hurt his companies with ill-timed dumb assery? Will he continue to shoot from the hip, no wait. Too high. From the knee? Of course he will. Then he'll get bored and move on when it stops being fun. He can't lose enough money to make him anything but mind-numbingly rich.
Musk is so rich he could live to 100, set fire to a $100 bill every second for the next 50 years until that time, and still have $261 billion in the bank when he dies. Does anyone think he cares?
Matt Phillips of Axios compared him to the richest man in the 19th century, Jay Gould, the railroad and Wall Street financier who decided in 1881 to buy Western Union. It was at the time the most important purveyo r of news and information in the country. He wrote that both Gould and Musk used their fame and notoriety to influence society. Phillips says this is, along with Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Brin, et al, part of a new Gilded Age of Robber Barons.
So will a new Teddy Roosevelt come along to try to instill a little societal responsibility in the gilt-edged crowd? I wouldn't count on it.