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Why Elon Musk is so polarizing

The billionaire buying Twitter sees himself as a moderate. His tweets have convinced followers otherwise.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). (Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News)
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For a man who rarely hesitates to tweet his mind, Elon Musk has historically been coy as to his political leanings. On Thursday, however, he tweeted a diagram that offered a window into his views. It suggested he sees himself as a former liberal who was surprised to find himself right of center as the “woke” left grew extreme.

The tweet served as a winking acknowledgment of a reality that has been starkly evident in the public reaction to Musk’s bid to buy Twitter, an effort that he has framed as a crusade for “free speech.” The U.S. political right is giddy at the prospect, while the left is somewhere between apprehensive and panicked.

Liberals have sounded alarms, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) anticipating an “explosion of hate crimes” and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) calling the deal “dangerous for our democracy.” Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) called it “the biggest development for free speech in decades,” and far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.) rejoiced.

There may be some puzzles of American politics that are best understood by getting offline and spending time in the country’s diverse and often heterodox communities. But this is not one of them. The best way to grasp why the prospect of the world’s wealthiest man taking over Twitter has proved so polarizing is to delve into the realm where Musk himself seems to spend much of his time these days: Twitter.

Tucker Carlson, conservatives cheer Musk’s Twitter buy: ‘We’re back’

On the day Twitter’s board accepted Musk’s $44 billion bid, popular liberal Twitter accounts lost hundreds of thousands of followers — suggesting that left-leaning users were deactivating their accounts in protest. Conservative accounts gained followers, according to an analysis by the social media analytics firm Social Blade and the tech site the Verge.

Musk wasn’t always so aligned with the right. He claimed Thursday on Twitter that he “strongly supported Obama for president” before the Democratic Party was “hijacked by extremists.” He described himself in 2014 as “half Democrat, half Republican.” He clarified in 2018 that he was “registered independent” and “politically moderate.” Pressed on his relationship with Texas’s Republican governor last year, Musk said he would “prefer to stay out of politics.”

Even his business interests initially seemed more in sync with the left. He cited climate change as the motivation behind his car company, Tesla, which has sparked an electric-vehicle revolution, and has capitalized on Democrat-approved green-energy subsidies. In 2017, he quit then-President Trump’s business advisory councils to protest Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accords.

Yet he’s also a fierce and wildly successful capitalist who disdains unions, political correctness and government intervention — at least, when he’s not profiting from it. In recent years, his companies have come under fire for their labor practices, including allegations of a racist and misogynist culture. In December, he officially moved Tesla’s headquarters from California to Texas.

When news of Musk’s Twitter stake first broke at the beginning of April, the partisan response seemed to hinge at least partly on the notion that Musk might bring back Trump, whom Twitter permanently banned after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. While some reporting suggests that’s possible, Musk has not mentioned Trump publicly.

Rather, it is what Musk has said about Twitter in recent weeks — and how and to whom he’s said it — that’s fueling the fractiousness.

What Elon Musk's polarization graph gets wrong

It started with Musk’s repeated insistence that his goal in buying Twitter was to make it a platform for “free speech.” That might sound bipartisan: The left and the right broadly support the First Amendment, which protects Americans from government censorship, and the concept of free speech in general. But in the context of Twitter, Musk’s statements suggest to many that what he really means is a platform that is more tolerant of misinformation, personal harassment, bullying and hate speech.

Avid users of online forums know from experience that means that women, people of color, and gay and transgender people will face mountains of vitriol. Because abusive or bigoted speech usually comes with social or professional consequences in the real world — and on social networks that practice content moderation — any site that touts impunity quickly becomes a magnet for it.

Although marginalized groups, which skew liberal, are more likely to suffer under Musk’s approach, conservatives stand to benefit from looser content moderation.

A recent MIT and Yale-led study of politically engaged U.S. Twitter users in both parties found that 36 percent of the Republican accounts studied had been suspended in the six months after the 2020 election vs. 8 percent of Democrat accounts. Conservatives often attribute that to political bias on Twitter’s part, but the researchers found it could be explained by the fact that Republicans shared substantially more misinformation on the platform.

As Musk’s bid for Twitter has advanced, his tweets have displayed an increasingly enthusiastic embrace of the right’s expectations for a more laissez-faire regime — and an increasingly open disdain for both the left and Twitter’s existing leadership.

Repeatedly in recent days, Musk has criticized or agreed with criticism of individual Twitter employees, including posting a meme that mocked policy chief Vijaya Gadde for denying “Twitter’s left-wing bias.” That prompted waves of vitriol from among Musk’s 80-million-plus followers, some of it racist and sexist. (Gadde is a South Asian woman.)

Elon Musk boosts criticism of Twitter executives, prompting online attacks

Inside Twitter, that has confirmed some employees’ fears that Musk as owner would subject them to public scorn and harassment, rather than meeting with them privately, as any worker might hope a boss would do. And it reminded many on the left of Trump’s habit of singling out less-powerful individuals, implicitly turning them into targets for his most combative supporters.

Yet those on the right who see Twitter’s current policies as unfair, or even as part of a liberal conspiracy to suppress their voices, interpreted Musk’s criticisms quite differently. To them, Musk was speaking truth to power by pointing out the misdeeds of Twitter’s behind-the-scenes “censors,” an approach that echoed Trump’s pledges to “drain the swamp” by uprooting corruption in the government. The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro even suggested that Musk form a “truth and reconciliation commission” inside Twitter.

For those steeped in Twitter culture, it was not just the substance of Musk’s tweets that was noteworthy. It also was with whom he chose to engage.

Since his bid was accepted, he has consistently posted approving replies to tweets from some of the hard right’s most strident online voices, including blogger Mike Cernovich, YouTuber Steven Crowder and activist Tom Fitton. As Twitter users know, such replies from the man who is now perhaps Twitter’s single most influential user serve to amplify those accounts and their messages.

Musk has bestowed no such favor on comparable voices from the far left. In fact, he tweeted on Friday, “The far left hates everyone, themselves included!” Shortly afterward, he added, “But I’m no fan of the far right either. Let’s have less hate and more love.”

If it’s true that Musk is no fan of the far right, reveling in its approval is an odd way of showing it. And those who’ve been following his tweets over the past few weeks aren’t buying it.

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