Using repetition, deflection and schoolyard taunts, Elon Musk can move markets, confound, distract and offend with a single tweet – heavily evoking the tactics of former US President Donald Trump.
Their shared approach to online communication and mercurial personalities invite obvious comparison, with the similarities coming into even sharper relief as the Tesla Inc chief and world’s richest person has swerved into politics and cast his first vote for a Republican.
Musk’s infatuation with Twitter Inc inspired him to make a US$44bil (RM193.59bil) bid for the company, a deal that would give him even greater influence over a digital ecosystem where he commands outsized power. That could be especially useful as federal bureaucrats pose a growing challenge to his empire.
Musk has indicated he would welcome Trump back to the social platform, lifting a suspension that began when the former president violated the site’s policies with tweets surrounding the Jan 6, 2021, attacks on the US Capitol. But that permissive treatment – and Musk’s recent right-leaning political epiphany – aren’t an indication he’ll back Trump in the 2024 US presidential race.
“I’m undecided at this point,” he said last week at the Qatar Economic Forum in an interview with Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait. That demurral came several days after he tweeted he was leaning toward supporting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The careful answer for a public audience of investors demonstrates he can switch off the freewheeling, provocative online persona when needed – a restraint that Trump could never quite muster.
‘Flooding the zone’
As much as Twitter has worked to improve what it calls the “health” of conversation on its site – by down-ranking harassing voices and offering prompts to nudge users to reconsider offensive replies, for instance – the platform still rewards incendiary behaviour through re-tweets, likes, replies and follows. Banning those who cross the line in their use of the service, including Trump, has done little to calm those dynamics, and has left room for Musk to become the centre of attention.
Musk’s presence on Twitter is so forceful that even his absence is noticed: He hasn’t tweeted since June 21, leaving his admirers resorting to online speculation about the billionaire’s whereabouts. Typically, though, Musk serves up what his audience wants, emulating and fine-tuning Trump’s strategy to build his fan base and brands.
Musk and Trump are both effective at “flooding the zone”, said Inga Kristina Trauthig, a senior research fellow at The University of Texas at Austin. They hammer straightforward opinions repeatedly, she said, whether it’s Musk’s recent fixation with decreases in global birth rates or Trump’s frequent claims of a deep-state conspiracy working against his agenda.
Flooding the zone is an approach popularised by Steve Bannon, Trump’s onetime political strategist. In 2018, Bannon told author Michael Lewis that “the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
With this kind of onslaught, accuracy is less important than persistence.
“Their narratives are not nuanced. They’re not complicated,” said Trauthig, whose research focuses on how emerging technologies are used in political communication.
Those simple stories often frame the men as victims of politically motivated attacks, often timed to unflattering news stories. Musk, for example, speculated in May that Democrats would unleash a “dirty tricks campaign” against him because of his support of Republicans – and the next day, Insider reported allegations of sexual misconduct against him, which he dismissed as a “hit piece” designed to “interfere with the Twitter acquisition”.
Trump’s social media habit had singularly high-stakes consequences, with his tweets used to disseminate misinformation and to attempt to overturn his failed re-election bid. Still, Musk’s missives have a certain importance, shaping the investment decisions and world view of his acolytes.
Both found massive online reach, with Trump notching 88.9 million Twitter followers before he was kicked off the platform, and Musk counting some 100.3 million followers.
Musk’s Twitter acumen evokes Trump’s in another pointed way: He has a penchant for seizing the daily news cycle and reframing it. For Trump, tweets were often simple media commentary – he watched cable news voraciously, and delighted in mocking the ratings of the Oscars and the NBA. Others, though, were huge news: He fired his secretary of state by Twitter and even tweeted his own Covid-19 case.
“I call Twitter a ‘typewriter’,” Trump said in 2019. He recalled one tweet declaring that Israel has sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a post that bucked a longstanding US position. “I go: ‘Watch this.’ Boom, I press it, and within two seconds, ‘We have breaking news.’”
Musk’s tweets can blot out chatter about Tesla’s plunging stock price and his Twitter deal – or any effort to wriggle out of it. One Sunday in June, for example, he tweeted Father’s Day wishes, said he was still buying Dogecoin and that he feels “swindled” every time he drinks LaCroix sparkling water.
Both men use the platform instinctively and gravitate to topics will thrive there. Trump amplified conservative media to stoke feuds that underpin the US culture war. Musk, in between announcements about his companies, has weighed in on remote work, video games and the media, which he accuses of skewing too negative. He and Trump have sought to cultivate followings that trust them and distrust mainstream news outlets.
Followers closely hang on every word. Musk tweets cryptically, such as in April when he tweeted a blank space for a word followed by “is the Night” – spurring a flurry of speculation and sleuthing about whether the first word was “tender”, indicating he planned to make a tender offer for Twitter. Trump was less coy, but his tweets were still heavily dissected, such as his infamous unfinished one about “negative press covfefe”.
Musk, Tesla and a representative for Trump didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Still, their impulsivity online has sometimes blown up spectacularly. Trump lost his Twitter megaphone in January 2021 in the aftermath of the fatal swarming of the Capitol, when the company determined his tweets violated its policies around glorifying violence. The scope of Trump’s involvement in the rally is still coming to light. A former aide testified Tuesday that Trump urged security to let armed people into the protest, demanded he join them at the Capitol and grabbed at the wheel of the presidential SUV to redirect it.
Musk landed himself in trouble with a 2018 tweet in which he falsely claimed to have lined up financing to take Tesla private. That led to an agreement with the Securities & Exchange Commission in which he and Tesla each agreed to pay US$20mil (RM87.99mil) in civil fines over the tweet.
More recently, Musk’s own workforce has chafed at his online theatrics. On June 16, SpaceX fired employees who were behind an open letter condemning the behaviour of Musk, their CEO, as “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks”.
Should Musk’s acquisition of Twitter close, Trump has said he won’t return to the site, pledging to stick with issuing proclamations on Truth Social, his own platform.
The lure of regaining the reach and cache of his Twitter account, however, may prove too difficult to resist. – Bloomberg