Column: Elon Musk keeps winning because he understands this one thing about the internet

elon musk for hp.jpg
elon musk for hp.jpg

So Elon Musk skated, again. Dragged into court for something he definitely said that definitely wasn’t true, at least not in the conventional sense, he got a pass from a jury. And the reason is pretty simple: He understands how the internet works better than the people seeking to hold him to account.

More specifically, Musk intuits the way that most regular people — i.e., the kind of people that tend to sit on juries — perceive their own relationship to the internet, a place where almost no one wants to be held accountable for what they say and do, and exploits it accordingly.

See, there is an iron law of writing the words that become posts on a social media platform, and it holds that whether those words are “true” or not is secondary to their entertainment value. Since the dawn of social networking, it has always been thus. And Musk understands this innately, to the enduring detriment of everyone who does not.

This is at the heart of why the second-richest man in the world can tweet things that are technically false, like, “Am considering taking Tesla private for $420. Funding secured,” when no funding has been secured, get fined $40 million by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and then get acquitted by a jury when he is accused of fraud for the same tweet. Or why another jury can look at a tweet in which he called a cave diver who rescued stranded children a “pedo guy” and decide it was not defamatory because he probably wasn’t being serious, even after Musk hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on him to try to prove his accusation had merit, and after Musk insisted online in another post, “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”

Musk knows that everything posted on social media exists in a liminal, perpetually half-true state: Yes, the words have been composed and made viewable on a public platform, and therefore there is evidence of the thing having been said. But Musk also senses how social media automatically collapses any definitive meaning or context, so who’s to say if anyone ever really meant that thing in any particular way? Especially, say, if one has vast stores of capital to invest in a project of imbuing that statement with a competing context. Finally, even if someone isn’t a social media user, there remains a powerful sense that stuff posted there isn’t to be taken all that seriously, and that people who do take it too seriously are somehow suspect. They’re scolds, or they have an agenda; for God‘s sake, it’s Twitter.

Now, Musk may not be a good poster, but he very much wants to be, so he posts a lot, and he posts from the gut. In fact, this tendency was probably his most persuasive line of defense.

“Musk’s chief defense is, ‘All right, it might have been technically false but spiritually true,’” as Ann Lipton, a law professor at Tulane University, told Vox.

“Technically false but spiritually true” is also a very good description of how anyone who’s been called out for being wrong on social media has probably felt about their offending post.

The way that Elon Musk uses social media — that is, badly — may be one of the most relatable things about him. Both of these posts are classic examples of major post genres; by all indications, the 420 tweet is a trashpost, an impulsive attempt (often known by a less genteel version of that name) to stir the pot for the author’s own amusement. The cave diver tweet is a pure and simple ragepost. Musk was mad that the diver had made public comments that made him look bad, and lashed out accordingly, because it was extremely easy to do so, and because millions of his followers would delight in his casually calling one of his enemies a “pedo.”

This is how many, many people behave on these platforms, and in fact how the platforms encourage us to behave — take an idle, maybe half-true thought about a personal matter, pair it with something illicit to raise eyebrows, a 420 joke will do, sure, and fire it into the ether. See that someone has mocked you, respond with an impetuous burst of anger engineered to attract attention and rile up and delight your followers. Musk is hungry for the adulation of the online masses, especially the trolls and meme generators he thinks are funny, and he wants to delight in the mild subversion he expects people will experience when they see him, a billionaire, tweet weed jokes about a serious subject, like his multibillion-dollar business.

The way that Elon Musk behaves after he posts is, however, rather unrelatable to most of us. Being unfathomably rich and helming multiple companies, he has the resources to try to retcon their veracity, if such a thing becomes necessary (“retcon” being internet-speak for changing your story after the fact). Hence the hiring of the private investigator and the story about an off-the-record chat with the Saudis who agreed to take Tesla private in a handshake deal that left no other trace.

Musk has the power to create the impression that the untrue things he says online were in fact, kind of sort of true, or true enough, or at least turns the whole thing into enough of a funhouse mirror that jurors give up on the enterprise of sifting fact from fiction because it doesn’t ultimately matter. As one juror told the New York Times after the case concluded: “There was nothing there to give me an ‘aha’ moment…. Elon Musk is a guy who could sneeze and the stock market could react.”

That same Times story carried a quote from the closing arguments of the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Nicholas Porritt: “This case is about whether rules that apply to everybody else should apply to Elon Musk,” he said. On the one hand, sure, yes, that would be nice and good. On the other, it has become so radically implausible to the extent that it’s borderline absurd.

Musk has drawn a lot of comparisons to Donald Trump in recent years — for his ascent to Twitter’s permanent main character, for his “brash” and “unconventional” style and for his shifting political allegiances. But the most salient comparison point between the two men might be their ability to recognize, on an intuitive level, where the vulnerabilities in a generation-defining mass media lie and how to manipulate them. Trump, a creature of reality television and 24-hour cable news, worked his crowds — and the refs — accordingly. Musk, a creature of the social internet, does much the same for the Twitter and Reddit generation, leveraging persistent uncertainties about truth and untruth. And so far, it works.

In the wake of Musk’s win in the fraud case, analysts opined that we probably don’t have to worry about too many entrepreneurs following in his footsteps, that he’s too unique a case, a singular “incorrigible” firebrand, and most executives will be content to hew to the rules. Seems like we’ve heard that one before, though.

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