The Crumbling of Elon’s Little Digital Dictatorship

The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, has officially purchased the social media platform Twitter for the astronomical sum of $44 billion. It’s one of the most high-profile business transactions in recent memory, and the ensuing chaos has steadily unraveled both the myths Musk built up around himself and the myths we tell ourselves about billionaires and capitalist excellence.

Musk, age 51, was born into wealth. His father famously owned significant shares of an emerald mine, among other business and real estate ventures, while his mother was a fashion cover model. After college, the young Musk made a series of very savvy business decisions, helping to found PayPal and SpaceX and becoming the largest shareholder in Tesla. In the years since, Musk has invested heavily in his public relations, branding himself as a forward-thinking, genius inventor.

Until recently, that image largely held. But gradually, as Musk began making more peculiar and immature statements and as journalists dug deeper into his business practices and personal history, a different picture emerged. Now, with his acquisition of Twitter and all the ensuing, very public drama that’s entailed, it’s become clearer than ever that Musk isn’t a transformative savior who will guide mankind to a brighter future. He may not even be much of a businessman. He may, actually, be kind of a dunce.

Musk overpays for Twitter and scrambles to recoup his investment

For months after making his initial offer, Musk tried to back out of his deal to buy Twitter. The $44 billion price he paid for it is more than the GDP of most nations, and some $30 billion more than Twitter’s estimated value. Musk’s own net worth is estimated at around $180 billion, but it fluctuates dramatically as his unpredictable actions leave investors and stockholders in turbulence. To seal the Twitter deal, Musk put together $46.5 billion through a combination of personal financing, including by selling Tesla stock, and loans from a number of banks and investors.

Now that Musk is the owner, Twitter is delisted from the stock exchange. One of the world’s largest social media platforms, with some 240 million monetizable daily active users, is now Musk’s own privately held fiefdom. The company is no longer accountable to the usual bylaws or ethics, limited though they may be, of public corporations. And all that user data — pictures, direct messages, financial and personal information — is now in the hands of a man with utter contempt for the privacy and security of others, as is the platform himself.

Immediately after taking over, Musk began making big changes, all of which appear aimed at recouping his investment and paying off his creditors. He fired half the staff, ordered the other half to work 84 hours a week, and ended remote work. When it looked like Musk had laid off too many people, he tried to recall some of them. Senior people at Twitter have been resigning left and right.

Conservatives applauded much of this, viewing Musk as a decisive man of action and Twitter employees as spreading left-wing propaganda. Many of the laid-off workers were responsible for Twitter’s moderation of hate speech, communications, ethics, and advertising. Instances of the n-word skyrocketed 500% immediately after Musk’s takeover and right-wing conspiracy theories surged. Musk had previously complained that Twitter censored conservative voices in favor of liberal ones.

Shortly after taking over, Musk proposed an $8 monthly fee for verified users, apparently haggled down by Musk himself from an initial $20 in a Twitter thread with author Stephen King. Verification comes in the form of a blue check mark next to an account’s username that signals to readers the account is official. Charging for it is apparently an attempt to monetize Twitter’s users and sort of invert the site’s long-running business model. Before, Twitter’s users were the product and advertisers were the customers, paying for users to see their ads. Now, Musk wants users themselves to pony up as well.

Comedy is now legal on Twitter — except for this, this, and this

Musk has often branded his decision to buy Twitter as an attempt to restore free speech to the platform, proudly tweeting, “Comedy is now legal on Twitter.” Trolls and other users very quickly tested the limits of that theory.

After Musk began selling verification, a rash of phony verified accounts began impersonating official accounts, posting satire and parody from them. Many of these pretended to be Musk himself, posting about his association with convicted child sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell, his dodging of taxes, and offering to give away cryptocurrency. Musk quickly clamped down on these accounts and suspended them, but in some cases, not before they had significant, real-world consequences.

On November 10, an account impersonating pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly tweeted, “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” The real company quickly put out a tweet correcting the information — they are not giving away insulin, despite the fact that its creators gave it away and wished it to be affordable for all — and Twitter suspended the phony account, but the damage had already been done. Eli Lilly’s stock, along with two other pharmaceutical companies, took a significant hit by the time the market closed.

In many ways, these parody accounts are laudable. They have given high-profile spotlights to corporate misdeeds. But the companies themselves certainly don’t like them. And Musk’s own behavior can’t be reassuring — he posted laughing emojis under a tweet spotlighting parody accounts of Nintendo mascot Mario giving the middle finger and President Joe Biden talking about self-fellatio. Especially at first, it seemed to be primarily his own image that he’s dedicated Twitter’s resources to upholding.

All the chaos has sown distrust and made advertisers wary of Twitter. In addition to the brand risks they face from impersonations and less-regulated hate speech, there is Musk’s personal brand, now inextricably linked to Twitter as a platform, which has slowly morphed from visionary savior of humanity through capitalism to right-wing, anti-woke, sophomoric man-child and reckless business tyrant.

Musk’s behavior at Twitter is high-profile because of the nature of the platform and his own inability to keep quiet on it. But it’s perfectly in line with his practices elsewhere. His companies have committed a litany of labor and product safety violations, including active union-busting, illegal retribution, unsafe work spaces, and flammable solar panels. It’s tempting to buy into his hype, and believe that he is a benevolent billionaire who offered the market cleaner, more sustainable choices. But that doesn’t seem to be who Elon Musk is at his core.

The future looks chaotic

No one knows what will ultimately happen with Twitter. Musk himself has already floated the idea that it could go bankrupt next year. All the dumb decisions — to amplify voices that pay over those that don’t, to fire employees responsible for curating a minimally decent public space — are Musk’s own. The average user experience hasn’t dramatically changed yet, but if the company can’t pay its workers or its bills, anything could happen.

Twitter has always had issues. Social media itself is inherently problematic. But it’s still remarkable to watch Musk transform a potentially viable digital town square into a wasteland, at enormous financial expense to himself and his investors. So far, the whole debacle been a spectacular illustration of just how far the myth of the genius billionaire is from the reality. And, just maybe, it should give us cause to reexamine how we exalt rich people in general.

US Outbreak: How Monkeypox Spread in a Failing State

The new order of our times seems to be that everything must get worse. Because one plague was not enough, we’ve added another: monkeypox, a close relative of smallpox that causes flu-like symptoms and painful, pus-filled blisters. Making matters even worse, it’s spreading primarily in gay communities, giving new life to old bigotries and complicating public health messaging.

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Why Overturning Roe Could Be the Last Straw for Many

On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that has been the focus of America’s abortion debate since 1973. In that decision, the 1973 court ruled that the Constitution protected a woman’s right to an abortion, with some limits. By overturning that decision, today’s court leaves abortion laws up to individual states, allowing them to ban abortion under any circumstances and at any point during pregnancy. In doing so, the Supreme Court has placed millions of women across the country at grave risk.

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Why we should think beyond “returning to normal”

The COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly everyone on the globe, bringing with it a great deal of suffering and significant changes in the way people work and live. Despite the initially dismal US response to the pandemic, we are now among the most vaccinated countries on earth. All across the country, restrictions are relaxing, masks are coming off, travel is resuming, and people have begun returning to normal.

Unfortunately, “normal” in the US is a dire situation to begin with.

As bad as COVID was, it also brought with it several silver linings. The scope and horror of the situation forced us, for the briefest moment, to prioritize something other than profit. The rich weren’t immune to COVID-19. A far-right Republican government temporarily instituted an eviction moratorium and student debt relief, issued stimulus checks, and expanded unemployment benefits. Some essential employees received pay increases. Those who were able worked remotely, reconnecting with their families, clearing up the roads, and allowing nature some respite from our constant hustle.

For a while, it seemed like some of these changes might become permanent. Pundits and politicians seriously discussed universal basic income and student debt forgiveness. As we realized society is only as healthy as the least-healthy among us, the need for a Medicare-for-All system became apparent. Businesses explored more flexible work models, and some made work-from-home permanent.

Now, there is no “new normal.” Instead, we are rushing back to the old normal as quickly as possible.

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The fatal flaw of George Clooney’s Catch-22

Episode 102

Christopher Abbott as Yossarian prepares to fly yet another mission.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is a classic American novel about World War II, bureaucracy, the illogic underpinning our social charades, and the courageous use of cowardice to do the one thing that really matters: survive. It is long, dense, and nonlinear, with a large cast of characters who represent Heller’s satires of capitalism, incompetence, American exceptionalism, and more.

Previous attempts to translate Catch-22 in motion pictures proved difficult. Mike Nichols’s 1971 film fell flat before critics and audiences, though Heller himself praised it. A 1973 TV series fizzled before it got off the ground. Now, Hulu and George Clooney have produced a six-part miniseries and most reviews contend that Heller’s epic novel has finally been given the treatment it deserves. Continue reading

Stan Lee, major architect of American pop culture, dies at 95

Stan Lee

“Most people retire so they can go do what they want. I’m already doing what I want. I like to write. I like to work with creative people. If I retired, I’d be giving up my fun.” – Stan Lee

Stan Lee was 95 years old, pushing 96, when he passed away on November 12. His wife of nearly 70 years, Joan, died last year. After her death, reports emerged about Lee’s own health issues and troubled personal life, including elder abuse and shady estate finagling. The writing was on the wall: the living legend’s time was coming.

Everyone whose life he touched – and they must number in the hundreds of millions – is affected. By now, the story is well-known. Lee, the editor of Timely Comics – later Atlas, and eventually Marvel – was frustrated with his industry and contemplating a career change. On his way out the door, and with two of the most imaginative artistic storytellers in the field, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, in his employ, Lee transformed a company known primarily for cheap genre comics into the leading innovator in superhero literature. Continue reading

Republicans plead for civility

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Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant, an incident that became a flashpoint in the culture war.

For three years, Donald Trump has dominated America’s cultural conversation. In that time, he has accused Mexico of sending rapists and drug dealers over the border, mocked a disabled reporter’s handicap, encouraged his crowds to physically assault protesters, and labeled journalists the “enemy of the people.” As President, he has done all he can to shred America’s life-saving social safety net, banned Muslims from entering America, and held migrant children hostage in cages. Now, Trump and his enablers are asking for one thing: civility. Continue reading

Right-wing snowflakes outraged over Michelle Wolf’s anti-elitist standup routine

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Comedian Michelle Wolf performs at the White House Correspondents Dinner, mere feet away from the targets of some of her most brutal jokes.

Comedian Michelle Wolf delivered a risqué performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner last Saturday and became a hot topic overnight. The annual dinner, which is typically a stuffy affair, brings together Democratic and Republican politicians and media personalities for a night of awkward, elitist camaraderie. Wolf’s performance, laced with explicit references to President Trump’s scandals and sexual history, earned the ire of the far-right – a rich irony, given that group’s crusade against political correctness. Continue reading

The Second Amendment, the NRA, and the quest to militarize American life

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Parkland shooting survivor-turned-activist Emma Gonzalez (left) grills NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch on gun control.

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is one of the most hotly debated pieces of text in history. For devotees, it guarantees the most important freedom ever enshrined in a government document. For critics, it is a dangerous relic of colonial history with little relevance to modern life. Continue reading

Republicans abandon all pretense of public service

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President Trump appears with two powerful members of his administration, both Goldman Sachs alumni. Gary Cohn is on the left and Steve Mnuchin is in the middle.

If there’s one thing the Republican Party can be counted on to do, it’s lower the tax burden of wealthy Americans. They’re in the midst of an effort to do so right now, and one bill recently passed in the House of Representatives. But the bill is massively unpopular, with only 25 percent of Americans approving of it. Republicans have a remarkably candid response when pressed as to why they are pushing such unpopular and destructive legislation: it’s to please their donors. Continue reading