No one on earth loves Twitter—sorry, “X,” or whatever—more than Elon Musk. It isn’t just that the Tesla boss loves to tweet—and, especially, to reply. By all accounts, Musk has always viewed the platform as something more than a place to promote his other business ventures or repost other people’s memes. If there was a tacit thesis behind his acquisition of Twitter, it was that it could be a demotic forum for the free and robust exchange of ideas.
Yet his vision has so far yielded a hothouse for ideological crankery—not least his own.
Not content with merely upholding general free-speech norms, he has repeatedly entered the fray—too often on the side of weird, unsavory politics. In response to a recent post asserting that “Jewish communities have been pushing … hatred against whites,” for example, Musk stated: “You have said the actual truth.” His apparent endorsement of the same anti-Semitic canard that inspired the Tree of Life massacre attracted immediate opprobrium, another exodus of advertisers, and even the ire of the White House.
As is often the case, the “Jewish question” is serving here as a proxy for other questions, in particular: How well can people establish reasonable bearings after having rejected conventional sources of opinion? Musk’s Twitter overhaul and systematic demotion of established expertise have made the platform a laboratory for exploring this question. The results aren’t promising. Indeed, Musk’s signal boost to a vague insinuation about nefarious Jews undermining the white race seems to confirm what detractors feared the site would become under his stewardship: a space in which hateful conspiracy theories would flourish at the expense of serious discussion.
The problem, however, is that over the past several years, much of our establishment lost whatever standing it may have had to criticize such theorizing. To name just a few relevant instances, an array of mainstream outlets spent years breathlessly reporting claims about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia that went far beyond what the evidence could support; they also denounced certain questions about the origins of Covid that were later deemed legitimate and exaggerated the efficacy of vaccination in preventing viral spread; and they cheered the censorship of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story as “Russian disinformation” before ultimately conceding its validity. In these and other cases, the response by our established institutions wasn’t to self-correct, but to double down. All of which is to say that the “just trust the experts again” line pushed by some pundits won’t cut it.
One might think it all the more incumbent on the epistemological contrarians, having rejected conventional sources of opinion, to seek out only the most sturdy and empirically sound alternatives. To put it mildly, that hasn’t happened. There is an element of farce in turning away from established institutions that have proved unreliable, only to endorse the stream-of-consciousness output of every other resentful charlatan who comes along. Musk’s engagement with the likes of Eva Vlaardingerbroek, Ian Miles Cheong, and Jack Posobiec—figures that any reasonably sophisticated denizen of the online world would consider grifters and hacks—should provoke an embarrassment not unlike what one feels for liberal boomers who believed every Russiagate story aired by Rachel Maddow.
There are true and important stories that a place like The New York Times won’t touch, because they violate the prevailing taboos of that institution and of the media class more broadly. But there are also many claims the Times won’t publish because they are wrong and stupid. How to tell the difference? This is an issue Musk’s haphazard experiment in hosting a free-speech platform hasn’t clarified. The investigation of the Twitter Files he sponsored early on in his tenure opened a valuable window onto how state and private entities have colluded to set the parameters of permissible speech. But his constant boosting of grifters doesn’t help his credibility, or that of the journalists he brought in on that project—whom establishment stalwarts were looking for reasons to dismiss anyway.
In the latest development to the recent controversy, Musk has insisted he isn’t an anti-Semite and announced that the phrase “from the river to the sea” used by pro-Palestinian activists would henceforth be banned due to its genocidal implications.
He has thus retained his position as Schmittian decider of the exception. The trouble, though, isn’t just that his own judgment is dubious, but that no society—no matter how democratic—can entirely dispense with elite opinion. We presently find ourselves in a kind of interregnum, with the old elite having immolated its credibility, and various online anons—even those signal-boosted by the world’s richest man—proving to be wholly inadequate replacements.
Musk’s foray into Protocols of the Elders of Zion territory showcases the failure of his erratic free-speech agenda to present any meaningful standards for credibility and accuracy amid diminishing trust in established institutions. Replacing a careless elite with an even more careless counter-elite—thus far, the main achievement of “X”—is no solution at all.