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Elon Musk’s lib-trolling is backfiring

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If you were in charge of running three major companies, were father to 10 children (four of whom were under three), and fancied yourself as crucial to “the future of civilisation”, you might be a bit selective about what activities were worthy of your time, or what events were going to be worth turning up to. But you, probably, are not Elon Musk.

Still, it must have come as quite the nasty surprise for the second-richest man in the world when he was greeted by loud and lengthy boos, rather than the adulation he seems to have expected, after being brought on stage by comedian Dave Chappelle in San Francisco on Sunday night.

It is hard to not feel at least a degree of second-hand embarrassment, if not outright pity, watching the full video of the episode. You see Musk throwing up his hands in the air as he is introduced, and waving at the crowd before slowly beginning to realise that a substantial portion of it is jeering at him. After a few awkward minutes in which he appears unsure of what to say or do, he asks, rather pathetically, “Dave, what should I say?”

The crowd’s reaction must have felt particularly discomfiting, coming, as it did, just hours after Musk had got an enthusiastic response on Twitter — a platform he now owns and runs — to the line: “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci”, in reference to Anthony Fauci, the US’s chief medical adviser. The tweet has now been liked over 1.2mn times. After it started to go viral, Musk proudly added a follow-up: “Truth resonates”.

“So does a crowd full of boos,” a user responded the next morning, to which Musk replied, somewhat toe-curlingly: “Technically, it was 90% cheers & 10% boos (except during quiet periods), but, still, that’s a lot of boos, which is a first for me in real life (frequent on Twitter). It’s almost as if I’ve offended SF’s unhinged leftists”.

Musk has since deleted this last tweet. Besides sheer cringe, he might have felt, in the end, that describing the kind of people who pay to go and see Dave Chappelle — a man whose last Netflix special was so controversial that it provoked protests and mass walkouts at the streaming platform — as “unhinged leftists” might be a bit off the mark. He had obviously reckoned that he would be on safe ground.

So why was the crowd booing? It seems to me that Musk’s online antics are starting to backfire on him. I share his disdain for hollow virtue signalling, but Musk, in tweeting repeatedly about the “woke mind virus” and making jokes about gender pronouns, Fauci and “owning the libs”, is in fact doing a whole lot of signalling of his own.

I have written before in defence of contrarians: even when they are wrong, those who challenge the status quo widen the scope of the discourse and force others to question their own assumptions. But what is on display with Musk is not the kind of courageous and thoughtful contrarianism that ultimately brings us closer to the truth. Instead, he is simply positioning himself as a member of the “anti-woke” tribe, which suffers from the same sheeplike and unthinking adherence to various consensuses as the tribe its raison-d’être is to oppose.

I also share Musk’s belief that free speech is vital for a properly functioning democracy. But he has been noticeably silent when it comes to speaking out against China — on its harmful zero-Covid policy, for instance. It strikes me also that someone who has more than 120mn Twitter followers should take their responsibility for what they share on the platform more seriously.

Despite promising to turn Twitter into “the most accurate source of information on earth”, Musk seems more than happy to tweet unsubstantiated claims on a whole raft of matters in which he has no expertise. “Fauci . . . funded gain-of-function research that killed millions of people,” Musk tweeted late on Sunday.

I also have some sympathy for where Musk is coming from here. What was once dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” — the idea that Covid-19 escaped from a lab and may have been the result of risky gain-of-function research — should now be considered to contain some credible elements. But Covid’s origins have still not been established, and claiming they have is reckless and irresponsible. So was confidently stating back in March 2020 that new US Covid cases were likely to be “close to zero” by the following month — a tweet that Musk doesn’t appear to have considered embarrassing enough to delete.

While Musk has been so busy calling out the inconsistencies, groupthink and lack of rigour in the virtue-signalling left, he seems to have failed to notice his own. The reaction of the Chappelle crowd suggests that this more signal, less nuance strategy is not doing so well.

jemima.kelly@ft.com

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