Elon Musk’s penchant for publicity stunts, deliberately provocative statements and picking fights has made him a magnet for media attention. Things stepped up a notch further recently following the announcement that he is to buy Twitter for the eye-watering sum of $44bn.
What might this mega-purchase, and Musk’s confirmed status as the world’s wealthiest internet troll, mean for philanthropy and civil society?
The Twitter takeover & platform dependency
The news of Musk buying Twitter was greeted with widespread dismay by many who fear that he will exacerbate some of the biggest challenges already facing the platform. Twitter has struggled to deal with hate speech, online abuse and the general coarsening of public discourse, and it seems unlikely that things will improve under Musk, given his views of the platform’s failings and his oft-claimed commitment to ‘free speech’.
Musk’s takeover of Twitter also vividly brings home the dangers for civil society of platform dependence, and of assuming that the spaces we inhabit online are a digital public sphere, when in reality they are controlled by private companies and investors. This raises not only awkward questions about power, but also practical challenges in terms of future changes in terms of service. Musk, for instance, will be under huge pressure to find ways to make Twitter more profitable given the vast debt he has taken on, and that is likely to mean either new charges or new efforts to monetise users’ data.
Elon’s army and the ‘Great Man’ fallacy
Twitter has played a big part in Elon Musk’s success by enabling him to build a huge base of supporters – who celebrate him not just for his wealth, but for his supposed brilliance and anti-establishment streak, and will ruthlessly attack anyone who has the temerity to criticise their idol. What does this mean for those keeping watch on Musk’s philanthropy if, at a time when it is more important than ever to be able to scrutinise and critique the giving of elite donors, it becomes far harder to do so for fear of reprisal from ‘Elon’s Army’?
If the wealthiest person in the world is happy to spend so much time actively coarsening public discourse, what effect will this have on how we think and talk about philanthropy?
Musk’s cult status also reflects the enduring influence of the ‘great man fallacy’ in the tech world, where the mythos of Silicon Valley is built on of tales of mavericks who turned the course of history through their sheer genius. This carries over into the approaches and narratives tech moguls apply to their philanthropy, with complex and intractable social issues being seen as ‘problems’ that can be ‘solved’ if only a sufficiently brilliant and disruptive individual is willing to have a go. The worry is that this leads to unrealistic expectations, and for a preference for ‘moonshots’ and working in isolation over collaboration on less glamorous issues – even though the latter has often been the hallmark of philanthropy that has played the biggest part in moving society forward.
Philanthropy in Elon’s world?
Given the scale of Musk’s wealth and his public profile, whatever he decides to do or say about his philanthropy is likely to have a significant knock-on effect. So, what do we know?
For one thing he might have significantly fewer liquid assets now, as he has not only tied up Tesla stock as part of the Twitter deal but also taken on a huge amount of debt. Given that, is his enthusiasm for philanthropy going to wane? Of course, that depends how you define philanthropy. Musk himself raised many eyebrows recently when he declared in an interview that his for-profit ventures (Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink) were ‘all philanthropy’. This is not the first time he has tried to claim a higher social purpose for his businesses, and one suspects that if he has less money free for traditional giving in coming years he may well be tempted to double down on these claims. For the rest of the philanthropy world, this will raise difficult questions about how far we are willing to blur the boundaries between profit and purpose.
This carries over into the approaches and narratives tech moguls apply to their philanthropy, with complex and intractable social issues being seen as ‘problems’ that can be ‘solved’ if only a sufficiently brilliant and disruptive individual is willing to have a go.
Given that Musk has previously described his goal as ‘extending the light of human consciousness to the stars’ it seems safe to assume that if he does stick with philanthropy, he is going to favour ‘big bets’ over prosaic immediate concerns. And he is unlikely to do this in a quiet or humble way. His business success has been predicated on talking up his companies, and his public persona is based on picking fights and generating conflict.
As far as we can tell this will extend to his philanthropy too: last year he become involved in a testy back-and-forth with the World Food Programme when they challenged him to use some of his wealth to help solve world hunger (significantly less than he has now paid for Twitter, one might add). More recently, Musk was involved in an unedifying (and quite one-sided) mudslinging match with fellow philanthropist Bill Gates, after he took offence at Gates maintaining a short position in Tesla.
Perhaps this can just be written off as Musk’s schtick, but if the wealthiest person in the world is happy to spend so much time actively coarsening public discourse, what effect will this have on how we think and talk about philanthropy? It is already hard enough to talk about many of the complex issues and challenges that face philanthropists and practitioners today without collapsing into polarisation and polemic, but if the man who could be the world’s biggest philanthropist is gleefully encouraging more division and dumbing-down it might get a whole lot harder.
Rhodri Davies is a Pears Research Fellow at the Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent and the host of the Philanthropisms podcast.