Elon Musk Thinks Social Media Isn’t Rocket Science

When Elon Musk talks about making electric cars, he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, probably because he does. “We basically messed up almost every aspect of the Model 3 production line, from cells to packs to drive inverters,” he said, earlier this month, during an onstage interview at the TED conference in Vancouver. “I lived in the Fremont and Nevada factories for three years, fixing that production line, running around like a maniac.” He spoke with confidence and without hesitation, his eyes swinging from side to side as if he were watching himself, in his memory, striding purposefully across his factory floor. “At this point,” he concluded, “I think I know more about manufacturing than anyone currently alive on earth.” The audience applauded. They didn’t seem to doubt him.

When Musk talks about managing a platform for public discourse, he sounds like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, probably because he doesn’t. The TED interview took place a few hours after he’d announced (on Twitter, of course) that he wanted to buy Twitter, Inc., in a hostile takeover, for what would amount to about forty-four billion dollars. The first question from the interviewer, Chris Anderson, was: why? Why would Musk, who already had both the world’s largest personal fortune and several consuming day jobs, want to own another company? “So, um, well, I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk began. This drew an appreciative “whoop” from someone in the audience, but Musk didn’t seem encouraged; he took a shallow breath, then shifted in his seat as he continued. “Twitter has become kind of the de-facto town square,” he said, “so it’s just really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.” There are parts of this, such as “de-facto town square,” that I would quibble with; as a starting point, though, it’s perfectly fine. But it’s merely a starting point—a bit of throat-clearing, the part you get out of the way before proceeding to your larger thesis. Musk didn’t seem to have a larger thesis, or, if he did, he wasn’t willing to share it.

Anderson asked a few follow-up questions—not gotcha questions but elementary ones—and Musk fumbled most of them. “Right now, Twitter and Facebook and others, they’ve hired thousands of people to try to help make wise decisions, and the trouble is that no one can agree on what is wise,” Anderson said. “How do you solve that?”

“Well, I think we would want to err on the—if in doubt, let the speech—let it exist,” Musk said. “I’m not saying that I have all the answers here.” If the only premise behind Tesla had been that cars should err on the side of fuel efficiency and smooth handling, without any further technical details or proofs of concept, the idea wouldn’t have been worth much. Musk is an engineer who believes in trial and error, but free speech isn’t an engineering problem. “Is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like?” he continued. “If that is the case, then we have free speech.” This is, at best, an incomplete definition—hardly even a passable use of TED’s thought-leader airtime, much less a cogent rationale for a takeover bid equivalent to the G.D.P. of Turkmenistan. If Musk had purported to know more about speech norms, penumbral rights, or Habermasian discourse ethics than anyone alive on earth, the audience would have laughed in his face.

[Support The New Yorker’s award-winning journalism. Subscribe today »]

On Monday, Musk got what he wanted. Within the next few months, if all goes as expected, Twitter will become a private company under his control. Musk, arguably the most successful living entrepreneur, may well be able to convert his hazy free-speech principles into a solvent business, but he insists that this is beside the point. “I don’t care about the economics at all,” he said in Vancouver—a strange pitch from a guy who was still trying to secure investor financing, but possibly a sincere one. Rather, he claimed that bolstering “the trust of Twitter as a public platform” would be a way to decrease “civilizational risk.” As of now, Twitter is pretty awful. It’s certainly possible that Musk will make it better. Nor is it unprecedented for a tycoon to control a de-facto town square—much of the Internet is already controlled by billionaires, faceless corporations, or entities under the influence of the Chinese security state. “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means,” Musk tweeted on Monday. One problem with this is that it’s not what free speech means. Another is that, even if it were, Musk doesn’t have an unblemished record of following his own advice. On Tuesday, Musk subtweeted said critics, writing, “The extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all.” This is a straw-man maneuver, a way of shifting the debate: you say that you disagree with me, but what you actually mean is that you fear free speech. Musk, or one of his many besotted reply guys, might argue that free speech isn’t rocket science. This is true, not in the colloquial sense but in the literal sense: rocket science is a domain in which Musk has demonstrated some expertise.

At one point, Anderson asked about hate speech, and Musk replied that “Twitter should match the laws of the country.” The United States doesn’t have laws against hate speech. On the contrary, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that almost all hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. It’s my personal view—and not a particularly edgy one—that there are some kinds of speech that should not be prohibited by the government, but that Twitter basically has to prohibit if it wants to flourish as a business. You’re currently allowed, as you should be, to stand in a public park and shout, for example, that all synagogues should be burned to the ground. You’re currently not allowed, as you shouldn’t be, to tweet the same opinion. There are thousands of hypothetical examples like this, and new ones arise every day. I also think—again, not controversially—that the question of whether social networks should be designed to reliably incentivize and algorithmically amplify incendiary lies is distinct from the question of whether “misinformation” should be “censored,” and that those two questions will often, albeit not always, yield different answers. What does Musk think about any of this? We don’t know, and, it seems, neither does he. “If Elon takes over Twitter, he is in for a world of pain,” Yishan Wong wrote, earlier this month, in a long tweet thread. “Elon is going to try like heck to ‘fix’ the problems he sees. Each problem he ‘fixes’ will just cause 3 more problems. . . . it’s not just going to suck up his time and attention, IT WILL DAMAGE HIS PSYCHE.” Ten years ago, when Wong was the C.E.O. of Reddit, he was something like a free-speech absolutist. He seems to have learned the hard way that, if absolutism was ever intellectually defensible, it’s not a tenable way to run a platform.

In his 1989 book “Liar’s Poker,” Michael Lewis famously referred to greed-is-good Wall Street bankers as “Big Swinging Dicks.” Elsewhere, I’ve argued that today’s tech titans—who privilege the cerebral over the corporeal, who claim to disdain hedonism in favor of intellectual hubris, who think of themselves as epochal figures with civilization-bestriding legacies—should instead be called Big Swinging Brains. Musk, in many ways, is the biggest of them all—so big that he apparently can’t be bothered to read a Wikipedia article on free speech before mansplaining the concept to the world. It’s one thing to magnanimously promise that you won’t silence your critics; it’s another thing to have enough humility to listen to them.