Chaotic and crass: a brief timeline of Elon Musk’s history with Twitter
"The billionaire’s purchase of humanity’s ‘digital town square’ is a culmination of his controversial past on the platform
One of Twitter’s most controversial users became its owner on Monday, after Elon Musk brokered a $44bn deal to purchase the company.
The move was in many ways the culmination of the billionaire’s long history with the platform. Musk has been on Twitter since 2009 and tweeted as early as 2017expressing interest in buying it. He has also been a vocal critic of Twitter, calling for changes including rolling back content moderation and prioritizing a “societal imperative” of free speech.
A prolific user, Musk has 84 million followers on his account – with whom he shares memes, news about his electric vehicle company Tesla and, like the majority of Twitter users, pithy commentary on his day-to-day life.
But Musk’s tweets are not all fun and games. The executive has faced major backlash – and in some case legal action – for his activity online.
Here are some of the key moments in Musk’s Twitter history.
A $40m tweet
Musk’s activity has in some cases cost him dearly.
In August 2018, he posted that he had funding to take Tesla private at $420 per share – a joking reference to marijuana. But the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) concluded after investigation the tweets had no basis in fact and hurt investors, issuing two separate fines to Musk and Tesla of $20m.
The penalty marked a “warning for all those who make public pronouncements without regard for either the accuracy or impact of their words”. (Musk maintainsthat the joke was “worth it”).
Part of that 2018 settlement included a clause that Musk would have legal counsel approve tweets about Tesla in advance to ensure they do not contain market-moving news. Musk, unsurprisingly, has not abided by those conditions, flippantly wiping $14bn off Tesla’s value in 2020 with a tweet stating that “Tesla stock price is too high”.
Musk again ran into SEC troubles when in 2021 he tweeted a poll about whether to sell his stock and proceeded to do just that. The Tesla CEO and his brother are now under investigation for insider trading relating to whether Musk told his brother in advance that he would tweet the poll.
The frequent investigations and legal actions have rankled Musk, whose lawyer said in a legal filing in March that the SEC investigations constitute “outsized efforts calculated to chill [Musk’s] exercise of First Amendment rights”.
Cave diver drama
Musk’s Twitter feuds brought him into a Los Angeles courtroom in 2019, where he faced trial for defamation relating to tweets and other statements he made about the British cave diver Vernon Unsworth.
Musk had grown angry after the caver ridiculed him over his plans to rescue a team of young footballers from a cave system in Thailand, baselessly calling Unsworth a “pedo guy” in a tweet to Musk’s then 22 million followers.
The Tesla executive later apologized and deleted the tweets after intense criticism from the public and his investors, but re-upped the baseless claims in another series of tweets about a month later and doubled down on them in an on-the-record email to a BuzzFeed reporter.
Musk testified in court that he had not meant to be literal in his tweet and that he was upset at the time at what he called “an unprovoked attack on what was a good-natured attempt to help the kids”.
“It was wrong and insulting, and so I insulted him back,” Musk said. He was ultimately exonerated.
Backlash from Musk’s tweets has also come from shareholders. He is being sued in an ongoing lawsuit filed by investors who say his 2018 “420” tweet was inaccurate and hurt the company.
Another suit filed by a shareholder in 2021 claims that Musk’s tweets had caused “billions of dollars in losses”, and specifically references a feud between Musk and Senator Elizabeth Warren, which allegedly drove down the stock price another 9.6% in December as well as the poll over whether to sell stock.
“Musk remains undeterred and continues to post on Twitter and social media on matters that are material to Tesla and its stockholders, and which ultimately have an impact on Tesla’s stock prices,” the lawsuit says.
The platform has also played a large role in Musk’s personal life: he reportedly met his former partner Claire Boucher (known as Grimes) via Twitter.
When the couple went public with their relationship in 2018, Page Six reportedthey met when Musk went to tweet an elaborate pun about artificial intelligence and found Boucher had already made the joke years earlier.
The pair, who have since communicated publicly on Twitter often, have two children together. An SEC filing said Musk even made his infamous 420 tweet in 2018 because he “thought his girlfriend ‘would find it funny’.”
Covid-19 controversy and other antics
Even when they are not moving markets, Musk’s tweets are often chaotic and crass (he said he sends them mostly from the toilet). He has received criticism for a number of tweets downplaying the severity of Covid-19 and speaking outagainst lockdowns. He tweeted (then deleted) a meme comparing the Canada prime minister Justin Trudeau to Hitler over Covid-19 vaccine mandates.
Elsewhere over the years, Musk has promised Tesla vehicles would be purchasable in Bitcoin and then walked back that announcement, joked aboutquitting his job and becoming an influencer, and mused about nuking the planet Mars.
Musk’s freewheeling personal style on Twitter has caused many to express concern about his takeover of the company, and whether his “free speech” mentality will translate to harmful policies.
“Musk hasn’t just purchased another expensive play toy, but a global online community that includes about 330 million regular users,” said Jessica J González, co-chief executive of media reform advocacy non-profit Free Press. “With control of such a massive platform comes great responsibility – and Musk hasn’t shown he has the capacity to be accountable to this diverse online community.”