Musk Amok

The tech billionaire’s dangerous influence
Elon Musk at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado, April 7, 2022 (Apex MediaWire Photo by Trevor Cokley/U.S. Air Force)

Elon Musk is more than a tech mogul and the world’s richest man. Even as he stirs things up on the American political scene, he’s also making forays into geopolitics. The founder of SpaceX, CEO of Tesla, and soon-to-be owner of Twitter holds no official or honorary office but has an outsized personality and a compulsion to pronounce on matters both within and beyond his areas of expertise. He also has, at last check, an estimated net worth of $238 billion. 

That buys him influence in global affairs. In October Musk asked his millions of online followers to approve a four-point plan for ending the war in Ukraine. His proposals resembled those often put forth by Russia, such as acknowledging the legitimacy of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and ceding Russian-occupied territories in the east. The “poll” went decisively against him, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ridiculed the move. Piqued, Musk then suggested he’d pull out of an arrangement under which he’d been giving Ukraine free access to his Starlink satellite network. Ukraine has relied on network access not only for basic government functions but also for secure battlefield communications—something many credit for Ukraine’s unexpected successes against the Russians. Musk publicly complained about high monthly “burn rate” (lost revenues), but then backed off his threat after Ukrainian appeals. “The hell with it,” he wrote on Twitter. “Even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free.” (Western governments do pay for the 20,000 Starlink terminals Ukraine needs to connect to the network.)

All this could be written off as the eccentric behavior of a rich entrepreneur if it didn’t have such significant implications.

All this could be written off as the eccentric behavior of a rich entrepreneur if it didn’t have such significant implications. Fiona Hill, former official at the U.S. National Security Council, acknowledged Musk’s help to Ukraine in a recent Politico interview. But she also said that Vladimir Putin has leveraged Musk’s popularity to short-circuit the diplomatic process. It’s “very clear,” Hill said, “that Musk is transmitting a message” for the Russian leader, delivering detailed talking points on topics he’d likely know little about himself. Putin recognizes a mark when he sees one, according to Hill, a skill honed over decades of dealing with Russian oligarchs: “[He] plays the egos of big men, gives them a sense that they can play a role.”

Recently Musk also weighed in on relations between China and Taiwan, suggesting in an interview with the Financial Times that Taiwan should be made a Special Administrative Region under Beijing’s rule. The two governments could reach a “reasonably palatable” arrangement, he said, a remark that was criticized by Taiwan but praised by China’s ambassador to the United States. Meanwhile, Musk has remained conspicuously quiet on China’s human-rights record and restrictive censorship rules. Little surprise: Tesla is regularly setting new sales records in China, which, as journalist Matt Yglesias points out, “is obviously only possible because the Chinese government lets Tesla sell cars there.” But this, Yglesias adds, raises a different set of concerns: how the world’s richest man will manage Twitter once he’s in charge. Will Musk prohibit content critical of China (or other governments and leaders) even as he promises to loosen restrictions on offensive material, lift the ban on Donald Trump, and keep the platform politically neutral despite calling Democrats “the party of division and hate”? How social-media companies should balance content moderation against the right to free expression remains a hotly debated question with no obvious answers. In the meantime, Musk with his billions can afford to indulge his whims.

Published in the November 2022 issue: 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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