Column: Elon Musk takes Twitter exactly where we thought he would — into the sewer

Tesla CEO Elon Musk points his finger and smiles.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks during the unveiling of the new Tesla Model Y in Hawthorne on March 14, 2019.
(Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Elon Musk made it official Sunday — democracy is on life support.

For anyone who wondered what the world’s richest man had in mind for one of the world’s most powerful social media platforms, the answer came around 5 a.m. when Musk tweeted out a link to a vicious and false conspiracy theory to his 112 million followers on his new toy, Twitter.

I’m not going to repeat that ugly, anti-LGBTQ garbage here, but suffice it to say it’s a tidily packed bit of refuse about the hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, who is married to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). It brings together multiple storylines of hate and conspiracy, all part of the far-right attempt to topple a democracy that I personally am fond of.

And of course, it involves the frantic fear of sexuality that has come to define the Republican Party.

By the way, that counterfeit moral panic about whom we love and how we identify has long been used by fascists and white supremacists to rally the masses. So let’s not pretend this is just a rich dude’s opinion. There’s more to the story, as Mr. Musk claims — it’s just not the story he’s talking about.


Musk, who tried to cover himself by saying the theory was a “tiny possibility,” has since deleted his post. Still, it is being reposted all over social media platforms and channels — QAnon ones, Nazi ones, ones espousing a violent civil war. But those echo chambers are less important than what just happened on Twitter, with its ability to spread falsehoods worldwide in seconds.

An unmoderated Twitter may be the tipping point of democracy if we don’t do something quickly. Within 24 hours of Musk taking over the site, the use of the N-word increased 500%, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute — though Musk claims its moderation policies have not yet changed. Hate has found its home, in the middle of our public square.

I am a firm free speech supporter. There are no simple solutions here, but this can’t be a back burner issue for government any longer. The midterms are days away, and violence is already expected. Musk’s tweet shows that Twitter has become a willing participant in feeding the machine of propaganda and lies that is driving some to believe violence is justified.

As professor Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, told me Sunday when I interrupted him walking his dog on the beach, “Companies have the right to establish their terms of operation, but when some are so big and influential, it’s important that they act with a sense of civic responsibility. And if not, the law should regulate them to the extent it can be done without violating the 1st Amendment.”

Levin added, “The new standard bearer of the company is setting the tone that Twitter will be a place where misinformation and targeted rumors can circulate with the approval of the man behind the curtain.”

Musk, of course, didn’t come up with this conspiracy theory himself. I watched it take shape in real time in the minutes after the attack — it took only minutes. The right-wing machine that is intent on demonizing and dehumanizing anyone blocking its march to authoritarianism kicked into high gear as soon as the news broke that a 42-year-old man wielding a hammer had broken into the Pelosis’ San Francisco home shouting, “Where’s Nancy?”

The House speaker was in Washington, D.C., but her 82-year-old husband was home. Paul Pelosi was brave and quick thinking, surreptitiously calling 911. A smart dispatcher sent help, even though Pelosi was unable to freely speak about the situation with his attacker there. Police arrived two minutes later and witnessed Pelosi struggling with the intruder, whom police identified as David DePape, over the hammer. The intruder got the tool and started bashing Pelosi, who underwent skull surgery but is expected to recover.


That story elicited glee from some. After I wrote about it on Saturday, a reader named Steve (he gave me his last name, but I’m not printing it) emailed me with the subject line, “I hope the man who did this is doing well.”

Steve continued, “I only wish that Pelosi was there on the other end of that hammer!”

Steve wasn’t the only person in favor of killing our politicians, and Musk wasn’t the only prominent person to dive headlong into the sewer of hate.

The memes and so-called witticisms were nearly unavoidable, many beginning with some variation of “It may be too soon, but ...” as if the attempted assassination of the most powerful female politician in America was one big joke.

Arizona Republican lawmaker Wendy Rogers tweeted a “Halloween costume” of a headband with a hammer poised to hit the wearer’s head.

Former California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder, the “sage from South Central,” as he bills himself, wrote: “Too, soon? Poor, Paul Pelosi. First, he’s busted for DUI, and then gets attacked in his home. Hammered twice in six months.”

The story that Musk retweeted also came from close to home: the Santa Monica Observer, owned by one-time City Council candidate David Ganezer. The editorial board of this paper has called out that publication for “publishing false news,” including that Hillary Clinton had died and that a body double had taken her place in a debate with Donald Trump.

What makes comments like Musk’s so alarming is that denial is a key part of the far-right strategy, and one that adherents find fun and empowering. Nothing is ever their fault. Nothing is ever what it seems.

It couldn’t possibly be that DePape had been driven to extremes by a fire-hose diet of lies — all laid out on his personal blog, where he ranted against transgender people and Jewish people, and mucked around in conspiracies, including that an alien race of lizards has infiltrated society, albeit mostly Democrats.

It had to be something else, something the far-right finds abhorrent, even evil. Musk’s post was in response to Clinton, one of the far-right’s most hated figures. Clinton had tweeted Saturday, attaching a Times article about DePape’s online ravings: “The Republican Party and its mouthpieces now regularly spread hate and deranged conspiracy theories. It is shocking, but not surprising, that violence is the result. As citizens, we must hold them accountable for their words and the actions that follow.”

When the rich, powerful and influential become peddlers of antidemocratic ammunition, they become dangerous to democracy. Musk, in a note to advertisers last week, wrote, “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences.”

But then he made it just that.

If we don’t hold Musk and others like him accountable now, we may not have the chance.