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Elon Musk Wants Us to Think He’s at War With the Elites

As Elon Musk and his lemmings have unfurled their plans for Twitter HQ, there have been an interesting range of defenses for the richest man in the world’s widely-hated plans for the platform he was forced to buy. When it comes to layoffs at Twitter—Musk is poised to lay off at least 3500 employees, about half of the company—the strategy has been to simply go silent. When it comes to making people pay for verification, Musk’s defense has amounted to him and his friends posting through it and loudly declaring that this plan takes aim at “elites” and “lords” who currently have free blue checks.

Early reports revealed Musk sought to create a $20/month Twitter Blue subscription package for users interested in acquiring or retaining a blue check, with a November 7 deadline for engineers to build this or get fired. But days of complaints and some full-throated refusals to pay from prominent figures (specifically author Stephen King) have killed that plan. Enter its next iteration: an $8/month fee for a blue check and a host of features like fewer ads and priority on the site that would essentially make Twitter pay-to-play. 

The move is transparently a money grab, because Musk was forced to buy Twitter at an absurdly high valuation, but it’s not clear how useful of one it would actually be. There are about 420,000 verified users right now, and assuming every single one of them remains on the site and pays for verification, Musk will bring in $40.3 million of revenue a year. Taking Twitter private has created $1 billion in debt interest that needs to be paid back each year. The verification program is incredibly small, a mere 0.2 percent of the 240 million daily users, but it would need to increase ten-fold to begin approaching the size necessary to seriously pay down Twitter’s debt.

In the face of this grim reality, Musk and his followers have attempted to portray making verification a paid service as some kind of revolt of “the People.”

“Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit,” Musk tweeted on Monday. “Power to the people! Blue for $8/month.” 

David Sacks—a right-wing reactionary, venture capitalist, and Musk lemming who has reportedly been involved in the Twitter transition—picked up the line and tried to spin the backlash in a familiar tune:

“The entitled elite is not mad that they have to pay $8/month,” Sacks said on Thursday morning in a tweet. “They’re mad that anyone can pay $8/month.” 

It’s worth reminding ourselves of a few things here. First, it’s absurd that Musk and Sacks, and many others echoing this line, are portraying themselves as being on the side of “peasants” vs. some imagined blue check elite. Sacks—who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars because of investments he made using privileged connections and elite social networks—is defending the decision of his friend, who is the richest man alive, to take private what is supposed to be the most important town square and force them to pay $8 for a blue check.

The faux populism deployed by Sacks is an old and tired tune that he, his friend and patron Peter Thiel), and the corporations they criticize while investing in use regularly: invoke a mundane and superficial commonality we share so you look away while I lift your wallet. Here, the commonality hinges on being ridiculed by people with blue checks, who supposedly make up some kind of elite. 

It’s worth thinking about who the “elite” here is supposed to be. It’s easy enough to see by the gleeful tweets from Musk supporters that this more or less means journalists, and more specifically, “woke” journalists. Indeed, journalists are essentially the main group of people on Twitter who have been given blue checks by the company for no other reason than they are members of the media—often, mainstream—and who are not themselves “famous.” The blue check is there to mark them as a verified source of news. 

This group is also a constant thorn in Musk’s side. He has consistently, over the years, painted most journalists as untrustworthy and possessing some unearned authority that needs to be reassessed by “the People,” for example via a website called Pravda that never materialized. This dovetails nicely with talking points of the Trumpian right-wing—a cohort that Musk has attempted to court recently—and Musk’s clear frustration with a group of largely non-famous, non-rich, non-powerful people who still have the ability to check him on a forum that he now owns. 

In this conception, it’s not the really rich and powerful who are the “elite” that need to be taken down a peg, it’s the people who keep tabs on them in the public interest. In a paid verification scheme, as many journalists have pointed out, it would be members of this group that are most likely to have their checks removed and then never reinstated.

The faux-populism isn’t interesting—Sacks is notorious for being a financier of “populist” bigotry and, among other things, co-wrote a book with Thiel arguing reports of college campus rape were greatly exaggerated and being used to wage a culture war. Though the pair apologized when lines from that book resurfaced in 2016, as Jasob Silverman noted in The New Republic, the book is filled with other, similarly vile ideas. It’s also an argument he and others have recycled for today’s culture war, this time being waged against “wokeism.” No, what is actually a little interesting here is the quibbling about what blue check verification actually means. It’s worth remembering how this all started; not as an addled conspiracy pushed by billionaires, but as dry fact. 

Blue check verification began after Tony La Russa, then-manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, sued Twitter in 2009 over a parody of his account. The parody account had been mocking recent deaths of Cardinals players along with La Russa’s own DUI, so he tried to sue. La Russa launched a suit over trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and misappropriation, and Twitter shortly after launched the verification program to address the issue of impersonation on the platform.

Almost every single articulation of blue check verification that ignores this starting point is masturbatory at best, brought to you by people desperate to hear you praise how good they are at thinking. You have some people crafting grand theories about blue checks representing social status and Musk’s move righting a societal wrong. There are others who are slightly more honest and admitting that they’re just going to trust the process because Musk spent tens of billions on this deal so he must know what he’s doing.

But all this has little to do with what the blue check actually means, or how it originated. It is incredibly clear that Musk is flailing, in a risky position he wanted to avoid at nearly all costs, and he is reaching for whatever levers are closest at hand. Right now, that means paying for verification because it is a) obvious, if completely wrong-headed, and b) fits with his mental shortcuts about the world, such as that “the media” is basically full of bad actors who are getting unearned clout from a little blue badge. Never mind that its origins lie in a lawsuit over account impersonation, or that its purpose is to make Twitter more usable by distinguishing public figures such as celebrities or journalists. 

It doesn’t help that Musk knows there are hordes of people who will climb over one another to give him money, whether or not he asks. They’ve done it with Tesla, which maintains a stock valuation unmoored from the reality of its financials. They did it with Twitter’s financing, which we learned when texts published during his lawsuit to exit the deal showed countless wealthy individuals eager to invest or bemused enough to throw piles of money at him. He’s even sold $1 million worth of “burnt hair” perfume. The waves of crypto scams over the years have taken advantage of that fact, pretending to be Musk and convincing people to give grifters crypto or access to crypto wallets. 

It’s not going to matter what your sociological theory about verification status is once the scammers roll in, or if the desperate money grab falls flat and Musk sets his gaze on another aspect of the site to squeeze money from. This is a dumb idea offered by a dumb man rich enough to spin this as a smart idea offered by a smart man.

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