Elon Musk Is Spiraling

One Elon is a visionary; the other is a troll. The more he tweets, the harder it gets to tell them apart.

An illustration of Elon Musk's face, rendered in yellow and orange, with his bottom half disintegrating as if made of dust
Daniel Zender / The Atlantic; Getty

In recent memory, a conversation about Elon Musk might have had two fairly balanced sides. There were the partisans of Visionary Elon, head of Tesla and SpaceX, a selfless billionaire who was putting his money toward what he believed would save the world. And there were critics of Egregious Elon, the unrepentant troll who spent a substantial amount of his time goading online hordes. These personas existed in a strange harmony, displays of brilliance balancing out bursts of terribleness. But since Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, Egregious Elon has been ascendant, so much so that the argument for Visionary Elon is harder to make every day.

Take, just this week, a back-and-forth on Twitter, which, as is usually the case, escalated quickly. A Twitter employee named Haraldur Thorleifsson tweeted at Musk to ask whether he was still employed, given that his computer access had been cut off. Musk—who has overseen a forced exodus of Twitter employees—asked Thorleifsson what he’s been doing at Twitter. Thorleifsson replied with a list of bullet points. Musk then accused him of lying and in a reply to another user, snarked that Thorleifsson “did no actual work, claimed as his excuse that he had a disability that prevented him from typing, yet was simultaneously tweeting up a storm.” Musk added: “Can’t say I have a lot of respect for that.” Egregious Elon was in full control.

By the end of the day, Musk had backtracked. He’d spoken with Thorleifsson, he said, and apologized “for my misunderstanding of his situation.” Thorleifsson isn’t fired at all, and, Musk said, is considering staying on at Twitter. (Twitter did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Thorleifsson, who has not indicated whether he would indeed stay on.)

The exchange was surreal in several ways. Yes, Musk has accrued a list of offensive tweets the length of a CVS receipt, and we could have a very depressing conversation about which cruel insult or hateful shitpost has been the most egregious. Still, this—mocking a worker with a disability—felt like a new low, a very public demonstration of Musk’s capacity to keep finding ways to get worse. The apology was itself surprising; Musk rarely shows remorse for being rude online. But perhaps the most surreal part was Musk’s personal conclusion about the whole situation: “Better to talk to people than communicate via tweet.”

This is quite the takeaway from the owner of Twitter, the man who paid $44 billion to become CEO, an executive who is rabidly focused on how much other people are tweeting on his social platform, and who was reportedly so irked that his own tweets weren’t garnering the engagement numbers he wanted that he made engineers change the algorithm in his favor. (Musk has disputed this.) The conclusion of the Thorleifsson affair seems to betray a lack of conviction, a slip in the confidence that made Visionary Elon so compelling. It is difficult to imagine such an equivocation elsewhere in the Musk Cinematic Universe, where Musk seems more at ease, more in control, with the particularities of his grand visions. In leading an electric-car company and a space company, Musk has expressed, and stuck with, clear goals and purposes for his project: make an electric car people actually want to drive; become a multiplanetary species. When he acquired Twitter, he articulated a vision for making the social network a platform for free speech. But in practice, the self-described Chief Twit had gotten dragged into—and has now articulated—the thing that many people understand to be true about Twitter, and social media at large: that, far from providing a space for full human expression, it can make you a worse version of yourself, bringing out your most dreadful impulses.

We can’t blame all of Musk’s behavior on social media: Visionary Elon has always relied on his darker self to achieve his largest goals. Musk isn’t known for being the most understanding boss, at any of his companies. He’s called in SpaceX workers on Thanksgiving to work on rocket engines. He’s said that Tesla employees who want to work remotely should “pretend to work somewhere else.” At Twitter, Musk expects employees to be “extremely hardcore” and work “long hours at high intensity,” a directive that former employees have claimed, in a class-action lawsuit, has resulted in workers with disabilities being fired or forced to resign. (Twitter quickly sought to dismiss the claim.) Musk’s interpretation of worker accommodation is converting conference rooms into bedrooms so that employees can sleep at the office.

In the past, though, the two aspects of Elon aligned enough to produce genuinely admirable results. He has led the development of a hugely popular electric car and produced the only launch system currently capable of transporting astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil. Even as SpaceX tried to force out residents from the small Texas town where it develops its most ambitious rockets, it converted some locals into Elon fans. SpaceX hopes to attempt the first launch of its newest, biggest rocket there “sometime in the next month or so,” Musk said this week. That launch vehicle, known as Starship, is meant for missions to the moon and Mars, and it is a key part of NASA’s own plans to return American astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time in more than 50 years.

Through all this, he tweeted. Only now, though, is his online persona so alienating people that more of his fans and employees are starting to object. Last summer, a group of SpaceX employees wrote an open letter to company leadership about Musk’s Twitter presence, writing that “Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us”; SpaceX responded by firing several of the letter’s organizers. By being so focused on Twitter—a place with many digital incentives, very few of which involve being thoughtful and generous—Musk seems to be ceding ground to the part of his persona that glories in trollish behavior. On Twitter, Egregious Elon is rewarded with engagement, “impressions.” Being reactionary comes with its rewards. The idea that someone is “getting worse” on Twitter is a common one, and Musk has shown us a master class of that downward trajectory in the past year. (SpaceX, it’s worth noting, prides itself on having a “no-asshole policy.”)

Does Visionary Elon have a chance of regaining the upper hand? Sure. An apology helps, along with the admission that maybe tweeting in a contextless void is not the most effective way to interact with another person. Another idea: Stop tweeting. Plenty of people have, after realizing—with the clarity of the protagonist of The Good Place, a TV show about being in hell—that this is the bad place, or at least a bad place for them. For Musk, though, to disengage from Twitter would now come at a very high cost. It’s also unlikely, given how frequently he tweets. And so, he stays. He engages and, sometimes, rappels down, exploring ever-darker corners of the hole he’s dug for himself.

On Tuesday, Musk spoke at a conference held by Morgan Stanley about his vision for Twitter. “Fundamentally it’s a place you go to to learn what’s going on and get the real story,” he said. This was in the hours before Musk retracted his accusations against Thorleifsson, and presumably learned “the real story”—off Twitter. His original offending tweet now bears a community note, the Twitter feature that allows users to add context to what may be false or misleading posts. The social platform should be “the truth, the whole truth—and I’d like to say nothing but the truth,” Musk said. “But that’s hard. It’s gonna be a lot of BS.” Indeed.