Updated at 8:40 p.m. ET on April 5, 2022.
Long before the rockets and the electric cars, before the high-speed trains and the brain implants and the flamethrowers, Elon Musk was in the content business.
In 1996, Zip2, the company he’d founded with his brother, started courting newspapers with a service that would allow them to build online directories of classified ads, real-estate listings, car deals, and entertainment events. The internet was still new and mysterious, and news organizations around the country were glad to have help getting online. Even The New York Times signed up. The business was so lucrative that the Musk brothers moved Zip2 into a bigger office to make room for all their new employees.
Now Musk has found himself in the content business once again, this time as Twitter’s largest shareholder and, as of this morning, a newly appointed board member. The CEO of SpaceX and Tesla has purchased a 9.2 percent stake in the social-media platform, worth about $2.89 billion, based on the closing price of Twitter’s stock on Friday. Twitter’s share price surged more than 27 percent in response, and by the end of Monday, Musk’s investment was worth about $3.7 billion.
Zip2 was no tech giant, of course, and 1996 Elon Musk, a little-known dot-com entrepreneur, bears little resemblance to 2022 Elon Musk, the richest person on the planet. But both versions share an impatience to shape the world, as quickly and as directly as possible, in the way they deem fit. Musk wanted Zip2 to skip the media companies and cater directly to consumers, but the company’s board steered him back, according to the journalist Ashlee Vance’s definitive biography of the entrepreneur. Now Musk is rich enough to try to steer the places he’s obsessed with—whether a spaceport in South Texas or one of the world’s most important social-media platforms—in the direction he wants them to go. He hasn’t offered any explanation for the Twitter purchase yet, aside from a mischievous “oh hi lol” tweet soon after the news broke, but the move seems related to his strong feelings about free speech: Musk has been talking a big game about its importance to society. But ultimately he values control of the things he cares most about.
Musk loves Twitter. It is his preferred medium, a tool for communicating directly with his fans—he’s dropped major SpaceX news in comment threads—an outlet for trolling, and the place to announce headline-making moves. Earlier this year, after a Ukrainian government official asked Musk via Twitter to help with the country’s connectivity problems, Musk dispatched dozens of dishes for SpaceX’s internet-satellite service, Starlink; not long after, he tweeted that “some governments (not Ukraine)” had asked Starlink’s satellites to block Russian news sources. By then, Twitter had started labeling accounts affiliated with the Russian government, and Facebook had blocked a couple of Russian state-funded outlets in Europe. But Musk said he wouldn’t follow suit. “We will not do so unless at gunpoint,” Musk said. “Sorry to be a free speech absolutist."
A few weeks later, Musk posted a Twitter poll asking people to weigh in on the site’s approach to free-speech rights. “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?” he asked his 80 million followers. “Is a new platform needed?”
Dip into Musk’s history, though, and you’ll find that his commitment to free speech has been less than absolute. He might like to be able to say anything he wants, but he bristles when what others want to say goes against his own preferences. He will grace his fans with engagement, but he has little interest in critics. And he has not always shown himself to be someone who welcomes people speaking their mind, especially not at his own companies. Musk’s version of free speech, in practice, seems to be one in which only powerful people can say what they please and escape any negative consequences.
At Tesla, Musk has fostered the opposite of a culture of speaking freely without fear of retaliation. He has reportedly fired employees who disagree with him, including those who said that the company’s ambitious production goals were unrealistic, according to the Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Higgins, who published a book about Tesla last year. Some Tesla employees who have alleged racial harassment and discrimination at work say the company has ignored or tried to silence them. (Tesla has denied any wrongdoing.)
The distaste for dissent also shows up in Musk’s reaction to the people assigned to scrutinize his work. Musk once criticized analysts during a Tesla earnings call for their line of questioning, saying that “boring, bonehead questions are not cool,” then gave the stage to an investor known for his fanboy tendencies on YouTube, allowing him to ask a dozen questions over the course of more than 20 minutes. In 2018, Musk, seemingly fed up with what he described as “negative” press coverage of his companies, announced that he would create a website that allows people to rank the credibility of journalists and news organizations. He offered a poll then, too, asking whether he should do it. (He never did.) During SpaceX press conferences, Musk has shut down my questions on two occasions, once interrupting the NASA administrator to tell me to “move on.”
At opportune moments, though, Musk is all about free speech. In the winter of 2019, when the Securities and Exchange Commission asked that Musk be held in contempt of court for apparently violating the terms of a settlement between the two—brought on by that infamous $420 tweet—Musk’s lawyers argued that the agency was trying to violate his First Amendment right to free speech. (A federal judge eventually defused the situation.) Musk’s team invoked the principle again later that year, after a cave explorer sued Musk for calling him a “pedo guy” on Twitter, implying that the man was a pedophile. When the jury ruled in favor of Musk, it set a potential precedent for future cases involving online speech; the case was one of the first major defamation lawsuits involving a tweet to reach trial.
So, what happens now that Twitter has become part of the Musk Cinematic Universe? Musk’s investment is a “passive” stake, meaning that he’s not trying to gain control of the company—though Musk could, if he wanted, change that status and take on a more active role. He will have influence as a board member, and it seems he intends to use it. “Looking forward to working with Parag & Twitter board to make significant improvements to Twitter in coming months!" he tweeted today in response to Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal welcoming him to the board. Musk is already brainstorming some of those “significant improvements,” and he is doing it—where else?—in full view on Twitter. “Do you want an edit button?” he tweeted last night, offering yet another poll to his followers.(On Monday night, Twitter announced that it would soon begin testing an edit feature, which they said they'd been working on since last year.) And Musk, as he has done before, is paying close attention to his most ardent fans. When a popular space YouTuber and SpaceX fanboy made a suggestion—an edit feature that is available for only a few minutes and that makes clear what changes were made—Musk replied, “That sounds reasonable.”
Musk’s absolutist stance on public discourse potentially stands in conflict with even the limited policing of content that social-media companies do now. Former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter last year over his tweets about the January 6 insurrection; after Musk’s investment in the company was revealed, some far-right members of Congress called for changes to Twitter’s policies that would allow for Trump’s return. Others have wondered whether Musk’s involvement in Twitter could lead to a loosening of rules meant to protect users from harassment and abusive behavior. It is unclear what a potentially new Twitter environment might mean for journalism, for which Musk holds an almost Trumpian contempt. Or for accounts that Musk personally dislikes, such as @ElonJet, which posts publicly available information about the movements of Musk’s private plane in near real time. Last year, Musk offered the 19-year-old college student who runs the account $5,000 to shut it down, saying he was worried about his personal safety. When the student declined the payment—he’d worked too hard on the account, he said—and asked for an internship with Musk instead, Musk blocked him.
Musk’s increased power could also pose problems for Twitter directly. What would happen if he tweets something that violates Twitter’s own rules? Or, as with the $420 tweet, if he fires off a comment that runs afoul of federal law? When I asked Twitter these questions, a spokesperson said the company is “committed to impartiality in the development and enforcement of its policies and rules.” But Musk’s dislike for rules is well documented. (According to CNBC, he even failed to disclose his Twitter-stock purchase on time, taking 21 days instead of the 10 days required by SEC regulations.) As the technology writer and executive Anil Dash observed today, “I’m trying to imagine any other context where a publicly traded company had seen a customer use their product to break federal law, and to try to destroy the lives of innocent people, and then added that person to their board.”
Musk joined Twitter in 2010. By then, the Zip2 era was far behind him, the company sold off in 1999 in a deal that made Musk a millionaire. His brother, Kimbal, actually tried his hand at the social-networking business that year, starting an unsuccessful company called Funky Talk. Elon Musk, of course, moved on to developing the most popular electric car on the market and the only rocket currently capable of launching astronauts from the United States. Like that other MCU, Musk’s projects tend to hit on the same themes over and over—gargantuan vision, enormous ambition, uncompromising speed. This new focus on Twitter reminds me of another entry in the Musk Cinematic Universe, in particular: his vision for a rocket that can reach all the way to Mars.
That system, known as Starship, is currently under construction in a remote part of South Texas. When Musk first moved SpaceX into the area, in 2014, he said the company would launch only small rockets. The operations, the company promised, wouldn’t be disruptive to the local residents. But then Musk’s plan changed. He decided that this would be the spot where SpaceX hammers down on its founding principle to settle the red planet. The company started pressuring locals who had lived there for years to sell their homes and leave. It expanded its facilities, repaved roads, renamed streets. Last year, Musk donated $30 million of his own fortune to the nearest city and schools. And now SpaceX is dealing with a regulatory battle because its plan for South Texas is far more ambitious—more disruptive—than originally planned, and a federal agency must evaluate Starship’s potential environmental impacts before the company moves forward. Should Musk clear that hurdle, SpaceX could begin launching its most powerful rocket ever.
All this just goes to show that when Musk takes an interest in some industry, his desire for change usually grows. In 2020, then–Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who stepped down from his post in November, invited Musk for a chat in front of the company’s employees. Dorsey asked the entrepreneur for constructive criticism of the platform, then added, “By the way, do you want to run Twitter?” He was joking then, but today Musk’s stake in the company is four times the size of Dorsey’s. And he doesn’t need to be right at the helm to push Twitter in the direction he thinks is right.