Commentary

Elon Musk’s homophobic conspiracy thinking is bad for Twitter & bad for democracy

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Flight 1 post launch press conference on February 6, 2018
SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Flight 1 post launch press conference on February 6, 2018Photo: Daniel Oberhaus/Wikimedia Commons

Who needs to worry about Donald Trump returning to Twitter when the new owner can do just as much damage?

Yesterday, Elon Musk decided to weigh in on the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) husband, Paul. An intruder broke into their house in San Francisco, apparently in search of the Speaker. Not finding her, the intruder assaulted her husband with a hammer.

Instead of expressing his sympathy to the Pelosis or decrying the attack, Musk took to Twitter to tweet a vile, homophobic right-wing conspiracy theory from an extremist online source known for making up wild stories.

It all began when Hillary Clinton called Republicans out in a tweet for “hate and deranged conspiracy theories” aimed at Pelosi that fed the suspect’s own delusions and led to the attack. Amid the hate and deranged conspiracy theories in the responses to Clinton’s tweet was this response from Musk.

This “tiny possibility” to which Musk linked was a bizarre “as told to me by a source” story from someone who purports to have information that Paul Pelosi hired his attacker for sex. The writer of the story begins with a bit of lurid scene setting: “As SF’s gay bars closed at 2 a.m., two gay men met in a bar and went home together. Happens every night in the City by the Bay. Except one of these two men, was married to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”

The evidence? None whatsoever. To add to the story’s credibility, the attacker, David Wayne DePape, is described as “a Castro nudist,” a nice shocking-for-the-1950s twist. The source insists it’s a well-known group and went on to claim that the cops only came to Pelosi’s house to make a wellness check.

No mention is made of Depape’s blog, which includes reams of attacks on Democrats, Jews, and transgender people. When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) went after Disney for its opposition to the state’s Don’t Say Gay legislation, DePape posted a video of a SWAT team attacking Mary Poppins. In short, any political motive for the attack – including Depape’s shouting “Where’s Nancy?” – are completely gone.

The outlet that published this bogus scoop, the Santa Monica Observer, has in the past insisted that Hillary Clinton was killed on 9/11 and had been replaced by a body double, that sunlight cured COVID, and that Bill Gates was responsible for the polio epidemic.

This is the news that the world’s richest man and the owner of a major social platform feels the world should know: that an assassination attempt on the Speaker of the House was really just the product of the everyday depraved sexual practices of San Francisco’s gay community.

Musk eventually took the tweet down, but not before it was liked by 86,000 people and retweeted 24,000 times, to say nothing of being captured by screenshots so that it could live on forever.

The same day that Musk shared the homophobic article he reassured advertisers that Twitter would remain a respectable brand.

“Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences,” he wrote. “Twitter aspires to be the most respected advertising platform in the world.”

With a $44 billion investment on the line, you’d think that Musk would be a little more cautious, but that’s not his brand. The Securities and Exchange Commission fined him $20 million in 2018 for fraudulent tweets about taking his company Tesla private for $420 a share, apparently a joke about Musk’s fondness for cannabis. 

But what’s worse is that Musk’s tweet is a sign of what’s to follow. If tweeted unfounded and hateful stories about a politician’s husband recovering from a hammer attack isn’t the definition of hellscape, what is? There’s already been a noticeable upswing in anti-trans, racist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic tweets since Musk took over the company last week. His tweeting sends a clear message about what he’s willing to tolerate, which is to say the worst.

At a time when democracy is in a fragile state, that’s a very bad development. Moreover, the stream may grow to a flood. Musk is planning to lay off thousands of Twitter’s staff, leaving the company a shell of its former self. That means fewer people to do content moderation, meaning that hateful and violent speech is far more likely to find a berth on the platform. Giving those voices a megaphone is the last thing the nation needs at this point.

The risk Musk runs is that Twitter becomes the new MySpace. The company already has significant profitability problems, and if advertisers find it too toxic, they will abandon it. The same will go for users. That day may be a ways off, but it may come. Then another platform will come along to fill the need.

If that day comes, one thing will be certain. Elon Musk will no longer be the world’s richest man.

Grappling with John Updike’s homophobia in “The Witches of Eastwick”

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