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Barron's How Elon Musk Reset Silicon Valley’s Values

Elon Musk’s $44 billion purchase of the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter was far from a smooth process, involving a scramble for funding, legal battles, and lots of viral tweets. That all played out in front of millions of users and plenty of anxious Tesla shareholders, who fear the cost and distraction will affect Musk’s other companies.

Journalist Zoë Schiffer reports on the messy takeover in her new book Extremely Hardcore: Inside Elon Musk’s Twitter. Schiffer is the managing editor at the news site Platformer, where she covers Twitter—now renamed X—and Musk. In this week’s book Q&A, Barron’s spoke to Schiffer about the direction of X and its leader’s impact on it. X didn’t respond to a request for comment on Schiffer’s remarks. This transcript has been edited.

Barron’s: Did the Twitter purchase reveal a new side of Elon Musk that we hadn’t seen at his other companies?

Zoë Schiffer: With Elon, some of this existed before. If you talk to hardcore Tesla reporters, they will say none of this is a surprise. He really did have these attributes a long time ago. He was really antiunion, [Tesla] was really top-down. He had an ethos that was pretty unique in Silicon Valley at the time, particularly 2018 on. It was this moment of workers getting a lot of power, there were a lot of unionizing efforts that felt like the balance of power between workers and management was shifting a little bit. But certainly not at Musk’s companies. Then he came into Twitter. 

He has a very specific preoccupation with the “woke mind virus.” He equates workers wanting to work from home and having a certain amount of power and autonomy at his companies with that virus. It’s almost like if you want those things, you’re not hardcore. You don’t want to work hard, and you’re part of this liberal class of employees that’s gone a little soft. And so we see him come in with this completely different ideology and he infuses it with this almost religious fervor, and we see that spread to other companies. So rather than, what does it mean for Musk’s other companies, it’s more like, what does that mean for Silicon Valley as a whole? What it means is that balance of power that had started to shift more toward workers is really being reset to upper management and the executive class.

So the way he’s managed Twitter has affected other companies’ workers in Silicon Valley?

I think it already has, when we look at Mark Zuckerberg firing middle managers and actually crediting Elon Musk with giving him license to make that decision. I think that you see that for two reasons. One, Musk infused a political ideology into those otherwise natural austerity measures in a moment when the economy sucks, but then two, he set the bar so low because he did it in a quite vindictive way and without a lot of care toward the people he was impacting, so that anything else other CEOs did after that looked relatively mild.

In the book you write about how Musk prioritized his own tweets on Twitter feeds. That seems to go against the egalitarian vibe he was touting for the site.

We’ve seen on a lot of fronts that some of the values that he said he held when he was buying Twitter didn’t feel like they actually impacted his product-level decisions, free speech being a very obvious one. This was something he talked about a lot throughout the acquisition. He felt like Twitter under Jack Dorsey [co-founder and former CEO] and Parag Agrawal [CEO at time of acquisition] had limited people’s free speech and he wanted to change that when he was owning the company. 

He has allowed a lot more speech on Twitter than what was allowed previously. There’s more misinformation. There’s more of what old Twitter would have called hate speech. But at the same time it doesn’t feel like a cohesive stance, because when it comes to speech that Musk in particular finds offensive, he either bans accounts or he rolls out a rule retroactively that gives him a license to ban those accounts.