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30 November 2023

Elon Musk has more ego than sense

The self-styled bad-boy of tech recently told advertisers to “go f*** themselves”. Should we really be surprised?

By Sarah Manavis

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Elon Musk’s career, it’s that no amount of damage to his companies or his net worth will deter him from an ego trip. This has never been more obvious than in the past year, since he took over Twitter and promptly enacted a litany of decisions designed to make him look cool, at any cost: rebranding the platform as “X”, removing verification from his biggest critics and letting hate speech and previously banned accounts run wild.

In almost perfect tandem, Twitter users and advertisers have fled the platform. Within days of Musk taking over the company began haemorrhaging money, and the downwards trend hasn’t stopped. This came to a head earlier in November, after the organisation Media Matters for America released a report about the volume of anti-Semitism that now appears on Twitter, identifying a number of adverts for major companies that appeared next to posts featuring Hitler quotes, Holocaust denial and praise for the Nazis. When Musk himself liked an anti-Semitic post several big advertisers decided to quit the platform, including Disney, Apple and IBM.

This has caused another financial hit for Twitter. But rather than trying to woo these advertisers back, Musk alienated them further in a series of bizarre, self-congratulatory statements made at a conference in New York featuring some of the world’s most famous leaders (including Kamala Harris, the US vice-president, and Isaac Herzog, the president of Israel).

“I don’t want them to advertise,” he said on stage after being asked about the controversy. “If someone is going to blackmail me with advertising, blackmail me with money, go f*** yourself. Go. F***. Yourself. Is that clear?”

Despite this showboating, Musk later apologised for liking the anti-Semitic post and admitted that the financial damage caused by the advertising boycott would “kill the company”. As the New York Times reported this week, more than 100 more advertisers have also halted ads, which could lead to the platform losing $75m in revenue before the end of the year.

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The obvious solution to anyone with two brain cells to rub together – let alone a purported “tech genius” – would be for Musk to take the easy steps of stemming hate speech on Twitter, apologising to advertisers and sparing his company total annihilation. But this misunderstands what Musk ultimately wants – not just from Twitter, but from any of his business ventures. While money and power are clearly important, he cares far more about his image. Musk has an extremely transparent need to be liked: he is desperate to be seen as a maverick jokester, the rebel tech bro who only cares about the last laugh.

It may be hard to believe that Musk wouldn’t just swallow his pride in this instance. But throughout his career, he has repeatedly shaved millions off his companies’ stock prices as well as his own personal wealth in pursuit of punchlines (though they rarely, if ever, land). After he smoked weed on a podcast, Tesla share prices plummeted; after tweeting about taking the company private at $420 a share (another weed joke, if such artful subtlety is lost on you), Musk was landed with a federal lawsuit and was forced to step down as chairman of the company he founded. His clichéd, teenage sense of humour has always trumped his business sense. So of course Musk would respond to Twitter’s worst financial disaster with expletive-laden chest beating.

This is the one constant with Musk. He will never act in a way that could weaken this image of himself – to do so would require real humility. No matter the consequences, Musk’s first priority will always be to protect his bad-boy, tech bro persona – even if he is the only person who believes in it.

[See also: Elon Musk’s death drive]

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