Elon Musk vs. Twitter
Why it matters: The richest man in the world, the most talked-about billionaire and the head of multiple companies shaping the future may soon also be the arbiter of free speech on the global public square.
The big picture: Musk is worth some $250 billion. He’s the 4th most followed person on Twitter with 105 million followers, and he employs more than 100,000 people across his companies.
- Understanding who Musk is and how he built his companies could help to understand how he would approach and manage a major social media platform.
The early days
Musk started his career in Silicon Valley at the dawn of the modern internet.
- He started a publishing company called Zip2, then sold that and used the money to get into online payments with X.com. Then X.com merged with another company to become PayPal in 2000.
- "He wanted to bring banking online, which was not just revolutionary from a consumer standpoint, banking is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world. And you've seen him do this again, when it comes to transportation and when it comes to space travel," Axios' Dan Primack notes.
The rise of SpaceX and Tesla
The money Musk made from PayPal funded the launch of SpaceX, in 2002.
- "The U.S. had lost the entire market share of commercial satellite launches to the Chinese, the Russians and the French," says former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver. "That has been completely turned around by SpaceX."
At the same time that SpaceX was coming up, Musk was also shaking up the automotive industry with Tesla, which was founded in 2003.
- "Tesla's big advantage is they were starting from scratch," Axios' Joann Muller says. "They had none of the costly manufacturing baggage that the legacy carmakers in Detroit had. That allowed Tesla the freedom to imagine what a car of the future would be like."
"I think he's always been very intellectually principled," says Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn who has known Musk since the Tesla days. "He has a kind of a vision of what he is trying to build, a deep degree of certainty that he can do it and that he can navigate risks.
Tesla sold more than 900,000 cars last year, a record for the company.
Reality check: Tesla had its troubles getting there.
- Over the years, the company has had run-ins with regulators, labor disputes and allegations of racism and abuse on the factory floor.
An unconventional communicator
Throughout his rise, Musk hasn't just been unconventional in his leadership style, but also in the way he communicates.
- The range of jokes — oscillating from silly to offensive — on his Twitter feed aren't what you might expect from a blue-check-marked CEO's account.
And Musk's companies and online persona — which is accessible and relatable to many — has earned him an army of loyal fans who are eager to rush to the defense of him and his companies, and even attack critics online.
- One salient example of this is Missy Cummings, a transportation safety expert who was targeted by Tesla super-fans after she was tapped for a role at the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration.
- Musk tweeted that Cummings was biased against Tesla because she had scrutinized Tesla's self-driving mode in the past, as her expertise was in analyzing the safety of vehicles' autopilot systems.
- Hordes of Tesla fans went after Cummings on social media, made videos about her and circulated a petition asked President Biden himself to reconsider her hire. Cummings deleted her account due to the harassment but did go on to take the job.
The bottom line
Musk has his hands in the future of transportation, brain technology and space. And he could soon play a major role the future of news and information, too.
How It Happened senior producer Naomi Shavin, How It Happened reporter-producer Amy Pedulla, managing editor of business and markets Javier E. David, business editor Dan Primack, space reporter Miriam Kramer and transportation reporter Joann Muller contributed reporting for this story.