Elon Musk, an erratic visionary, is overflowing with contradiction

With the uproar over Elon Musk’s $44 billion purchase of Twitter reaching its climax, another Musk drama is back in court.

The 2018 scene began, ironically, with Musk’s tweet about making a bold deal. Weeks later, Tesla’s CEO gave up talk of buying all of the electric car maker’s shares, admitting that it could be a lot of trouble. With regulators preparing to sue the billionaire for defrauding investors, he thought about his stance in an interview that was broadcast live as he blew into the bowl.

It was a confusing study of Musk’s continued ambition and happiness in contradiction. However, while the world’s richest man stalks Twitter, even those who have watched him for a long time remain puzzled as to what he has.

“This is a man who is more transparent than 99.99% of other CEOs, yet he is difficult to predict because he has the confidence to be able to change his mind publicly,” said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan.

“Would musk be more successful if he smoothed it out? I think the answer is no, because it wouldn’t be musk.”

Weeks after the Twitter board accepted Musk’s offer, observers are puzzled over the meaning of the acquisition and even whether he will complete the deal.

If 50-year-old Musk’s gambit says anything, it’s that he thrives on this paradox.

Musk, who has a net worth of about $240 billion, boasts of owning Twitter to advocate for free speech. But he has long used the platform to attack perceived enemies.

He is very confident in his own judgment. But he has openly admitted there are weaknesses, revealing his separation anxiety in one interview and telling Saturday Night Live audiences last year that he was the first host with Asperger’s syndrome.

He is a much admired visionary. But it does away with the norms of corporate behavior, alienating analysts, regulators, and others.

“I don’t think you necessarily want to be me,” he told broadcast presenter Joe Rogan in 2018. “It’s very hard to turn it off.”

Musk has been a bit of a freak since childhood, teaching himself computer programming at the age of 10 and selling a video game he created two years later, according to a 2015 biography.

Leaving South Africa at the age of 16 for Canada before moving to the United States at the age of 24, leaving Stanford to try his luck in the internet boom of the 1990s.

Together with his brother Kimball, he launched Zip2, an online business directory that was eventually sold to Compaq for $307 million.

Musk used his stake to found what would become PayPal, sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion.

Musk then co-founded SpaceX to develop cost-effective reusable rockets, before investing in a startup called Tesla. But he soon clashed with co-founder Martin Eberhard.

“Every time there was an article that didn’t appear, he would blow a gasket,” Eberhard, who sued Musk and Tesla after his ouster, said during a 2018 interview with The Associated Press.

On Twitter, Musk recently called Eberhard a “liar.”

As Tesla’s chairman, Musk pushed employees to achieve goals many considered impossible, said Gene Berdichevsky, the battery engineer on the company’s first car. Berdichevsky, who now leads a company developing new types of battery chemistry, said he would likely be similarly harsh on Twitter.

“Managers will be asked to do things they do not necessarily think are reasonable,” Berdichevsky said. “Some of it won’t make sense and some of it will change things completely.”

Despite this, Musk’s creative energy is intertwined with his erratic behavior.

This was highlighted in 2018, as Tesla ramped up production of its Model 3 sedan. Musk berated the engineers for their problems before acknowledging that his overreliance on automation was the main culprit. Meanwhile, he rebuked analysts for asking “Bunhead questions.”

In August he surprised observers, tweeting that he was considering taking Tesla private and that he had secured financing. The stock went up before it fell back. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit, claiming that Musk’s talk about the deal was largely a delusion.

Musk and Tesla settled, each paid $20 million in fines and agreed that the tweets potentially affecting the stock price would be reviewed by an attorney. A federal judge recently rejected Musk’s claim that the settlement violated his right to free speech.

“Some people use their hair to express themselves,” he said. “I’m using Twitter.”

Despite this, Musk and his fans sometimes use the platform to go after perceived enemies.

A California short seller alleged that the CEO and one of his aides, Omar Qazi, were responsible for tweets insulting him and falsely asserting that he had been arrested for child abduction. They were among 80,000 coordinated tweets “praising Tesla and attacking its critics,” according to investor Aaron Greenspan’s lawsuit.

A judge described the allegations in an email as “ridiculous.” Tesla’s lawyers have dismissed the accusations against a Twitter mob led by Musk as conspiracy theories.

Musk did not respond to an interview request for this story. But speaking briefly with the AP at the Met Gala in New York, he reiterated his pledge to rid Twitter of spam bots and trolls who spread spam.

“Obviously this reduces the user experience,” he said. “I’m on the warpath, so if someone is running a bot and trolling me, I’m definitely their enemy.”

But a University of Maryland researcher recently concluded that such bots have generated thousands of positive tweets about Tesla, which could boost its stock.

Neither the company nor its backers took responsibility. But Musk said that for real people on Twitter, most things are fair game.

“Twitter is a war zone,” he said in an interview with 60 Minutes in 2018. “If someone is going to jump in a war zone, it’s like, ‘Okay, you’re in the arena. Let’s go.”

Angelo Caruson of monitoring agency Media Matters said Twitter’s reliance on ads has driven its efforts to curb extremism and disinformation.

If Musk relaxes those standards, he risks trespassing with Apple and Google. They both have strict policies citing booting certain apps from their devices.

Musk did not address what he would do if his efforts to open Twitter threatened his accessibility.

Then again, he was never one to shy away from inconsistency.

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