Three days before Elon Musk agreed to buy Twitter, the world‘s richest man tweeted a photo of Bill Gates and used a rude sexual term to mock his stomach.
Playful, aggressive and often juvenile, Musk’s past tweets show how he used social media to shape his public image as a brash billionaire who isn’t afraid to offend. They may also reveal clues about how Musk will govern the platform he hopes to own.
“Look at the stream: it’s everywhere. It’s erratic. Sometimes it’s pretty extreme,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University professor who studies social media and who recently assigned Musk’s tweets. as reading material for their students.” It portrays him as some sort of rebel leader who will take over the public square to save it. It’s a myth that he built.”
Musk joined Twitter in 2010 and now has more than 85 million followers, the seventh highest of any account and the highest of any business leader. He had considered buying the site before agreeing on Monday to pay 44 billion dollars for Twitter, which he hopes to transform into a refuge where all words are allowed.
“I hope even my worst critics stay on Twitter because that’s what free speech means,” Musk wrote in a tweet.
As CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, Musk uses his Twitter account to make commercial announcements and promote his companies. He reflects on technology and business, but has also posted jokes about women’s breasts and once compared Canada’s prime minister to Hitler. He regularly intervenes on world events, as he did in March 2020 when he tweeted that “the coronavirus pandemic is stupid”.
He has also used the account to respond to criticism, such as when he called a diver working to rescue boys trapped in a cave in Thailand a “pedo”, short for pedophile. The diver previously criticized Musk’s proposal to use a submarine to rescue Musk, which won a libel suit brought by the diver, later said he never intended ‘pedo’ to be construed as a “pedophile”.
A few years ago, after software engineer Cher Scarlett criticized Musk’s handling of the cave incident, the tech billionaire fired back and she was soon harassed by dozens of Musk’s online fans. . He then deleted the messages, but not before Scarlett had to lock her account because she was receiving so many hateful messages.
“It’s ironic to me that someone who claims to want to buy Twitter to protect free speech is so thin-skinned,” she said. “He’s a very smart man, and when he responds to people who criticize him, he knows what he’s doing. For me, that’s not defending freedom of expression, it’s weaponizing freedom of expression. expression, and I think that’s what he will do by owning this platform.
Jack Sweeney, 19, caught Musk’s attention when he created an automated Twitter account that tracked the movements of Musk’s jet. Musk responded by offering Sweeney $5,000 to open the account. When Sweeney refused, Musk blocked him on Twitter.
Sweeney said he fears being kicked out of the site entirely if Musk’s takeover is approved. But he said he likes Musk’s free speech absolutism and hopes he gets there.
“He’s going to make it more open, and I think that’s a good thing,” Sweeney said.
Musk’s use of Twitter has also caused problems for his own businesses. In an August 2018 tweet, for example, Musk claimed he had the funds to take Tesla private for $420 a share, although a court ruled that was not true. This led to an SEC investigation that Musk is still battling.
More recently, Musk appears to have violated SEC rules that required him to disclose that he acquired a 5% stake in Twitter; instead, he waited until he had more than 9%. Experts say these issues are unlikely to affect its acquisition of Twitter.
Last year, another federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board, ordered Musk to remove a tweet that officials said illegally threatened to cut stock options for Tesla employees who had joined. the United Auto Workers union.
Those tweets helped cement Musk’s reputation as a brash underdog, a working-class billionaire, Grygiel said. But that doesn’t mean it’s equipped to handle a social media platform with more than 200 million users, the professor added.
“Maybe he wants to burn it,” Grygiel said. “I don’t know. But I know it goes to show no one should have that kind of power.