Elon Musk, the social media autocrat

In embracing dictatorial tactics, Musk is making the same mistakes many tyrants made before him.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk took over as CEO of Twitter in late October [File: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

Like millions of people around the world, I have been closely following the debacle at Twitter since Elon Musk took the company over. Not only do I fear the loss of a space for free debate and access to information – especially valuable for those of us from not-so-free places. But as a political cartoonist, I am also afraid of losing the platform where I and many of my peers started our activism during the Arab Spring, which made Twitter what it is today.

Perhaps this turn of events was inevitable. For a while now, the tech industry has been cultivating personality cults. It started with Steve Jobs and his carefully constructed image of an open, curious innovator who in reality presided over “one of the tightest-controlled corporations” in the world. While Jobs stayed away from politics, the tech bros that have come after him, pursuing iconic status, have not.

Their fervent quests to grow their fortunes and their egos have pushed them onto the political scene and exposed their self-serving agendas. Musk made his political intentions for the Twitter takeover quite apparent, tweeting in May – while the deal was still not concluded – a painting of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”. A self-declared “free-speech absolutist”, he crowned himself the new “enlightened” king of social media and declared that he will set Twitter “free”.

But watching him act and react over the past two months, I see him much less as a “Sun King reigning over a flourishing kingdom, and much more as a little modern-day dictator presiding over a crumbling regime.

Just like an ambitious power usurper, he started his takeover of Twitter by talking about “democracy” and the “will of the people”, but made a mockery out of them. He quickly transformed what he himself called “the digital town square” into his own private back yard, where he rules supreme.

Just like a classic dictator, Musk has also shown no tolerance for dissent and criticism. He has reportedly fired employees for daring to speak up against his decisions within the company or on social media.

Just like a standard authoritarian, he hates the press and does not hesitate to censor it (albeit presenting himself as a freedom of speech advocate). In mid-December, he suspended the accounts of several journalists who had been critical of him.

Just like a wannabe autocrat, Musk is seeking to extract as much wealth as possible by merciless exploitation. He has cancelled benefits, forced employees into endless working days and even installed beds in the Twitter headquarters to squeeze any living energy out of them for the benefit of his company.

And like a good tyrant, he has overseen an exodus of people from his domain, some leaving voluntarily, others being forced into “exile”.

Indeed, I feel for the former Twitter employees. I also know too well what it feels like to have to leave the place you love because of a dictator’s whim. The man responsible for my and my family’s exile is Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in Sudan in 1989. He had no tolerance for dissent – or talent for that matter – and pushed out anyone who was not a hardline loyalist, causing a massive brain drain out of the country.

In the three decades he ruled, he oversaw a bloody civil war, multiple ethnic conflicts, a genocide, a deadly famine and an economic collapse. He brought the country to its knees and deservedly won the hatred of the majority of the Sudanese population.

He pushed the people to their limit and was eventually toppled by a peaceful popular revolution in 2019.

Musk makes me think of al-Bashir. What the tech tycoon seems to have in common with the Sudanese dictator is that just like him, he is holding on to power even in the face of growing popular anger and protest.

Musk’s decisions since he came to power have been extremely unpopular. He has faced criticism not only from users, IT experts and business commentators, but has also received warnings from government officials, including Thierry Breton, the EU’s digital chief.

He appears to be widely disliked off Twitter as well. In December, he made an appearance at Dave Chappelle’s stand-up comedy show in San Francisco only to be booed into silence. As videos of his unfortunate encounter with reality made it online, Musk still claimed, “it was 90% cheers & 10% boos” in a tweet which he later deleted.

Musk appears to be so in denial about his unpopularity that he promised to resign as Twitter CEO if people voted for it in a Twitter poll. And they did. Some 57.5 percent said “yes” to him stepping down. But he did not.

It took him more than 40 hours to acknowledge the result and when he did, he said he would resign only when he finds someone else to take the job. This is such an old dictator’s trick – pretending like there is no one better for the job to stay in power indefinitely.

But what Musk does not have in common with al-Bashir is regime loyalists – people willing to prop him up even when the ship is sinking.

Musk derives his power from his wealth, but that is dependent on market forces he cannot fully control. Big investors who have enabled his various tech adventures are much fickler than regime loyalists. They would jump ship at the slightest sign of distress which could cause them monetary losses.

That has already been happening with Twitter: many big brands put on hold advertising on the platform, causing a major slump in advertising revenue. It could also happen with electric car company Tesla, Musk’s other large business venture, whose shares have gone down almost 40 percent since the end of October, causing large investors to openly criticise the CEO.

Musk seems to be making the same mistake as al-Bashir and other fallen dictators. He seems to be underestimating people’s power.

Twitter, like other social media networks, is nothing without us, its users. In fact, it was the Arab Spring’s people-led uprisings that made the then-mundane microblogging site into the global platform it is today.

And just like in the Arab Spring – when people rose against incompetent autocracy – popular resistance is emerging against Musk’s dictatorial vagaries. Former employees have filed multiple court cases against the company, and have already scored an early victory. Users have also risen up. Some are arguing that the best way to resist Musk’s policies is from within the platform; others are leaving and encouraging others to move to competitor apps.

Musk tried to thwart the latter by imposing strict new rules on promoting or referring to other social media platforms. That quickly created a backlash and the change in policy had to be scrapped.

The end of Musk’s digital autocracy will come – sooner or later. But his troubled rule should stand as a warning to other tech bros who aspire to be tech dictators. The internet – and by extension, social media – is a space built upon people’s natural affinity for freedom. Any attempt to usurp and control it is doomed to fail.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.