Elon Musk is one of the most powerful corporate CEOs in history. When Musk buys Twitter, he will be adding one of the world’s most influential media platforms to his business empire, which already includes the leading private space company (SpaceX) and one of the leading electric car companies. Musk, who was already named the world’s richest man by Bloomberg, will soon add one of the world’s most influential media platforms to his purview (Tesla).
It’s a mix that has made him one of the most influential personalities in technology, business, and media history. In an email, Brad DeLong, an economic historian at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “I believe this is actually novel.” “There were press lords in the past,” he added, invoking the exaggerated mythology of William Randolph Hearst immortalized in the film “Citizen Kane.”
“But never before, to my knowledge, has a significant entrepreneur in high-tech desired this type of power — or, rather, Jobs and Gates wanted it, but they wooed news platforms rather than purchasing them,” DeLong added, referring to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
There have been many strong businessmen throughout history, many of whom also controlled large media outlets. In recent years, affluent technocrats have turned their attention to media businesses. The Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Time is owned by Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff, and Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, is the creator of the Emerson Collective, which owns The Atlantic. MSNBC was co-founded by Bill Gates and Microsoft in a previous period (NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC News and MSNBC).
Twitter, on the other hand, is a whole other animal. Despite being smaller than some of its rivals, its platform has 217 million daily active users and is regarded by some to be the most significant and influential platform in the world.
Musk and Twitter have agreed to a $44 billion agreement, with Musk as the only shareholder so far, but he may add outside investors in the future. That’s the equivalent of roughly a sixth of his $252 billion fortune.
Musk can’t be compared to anybody else in history. According to Richard White, a Stanford University historian and author of “The Republic for Which It Stands,” a 2017 book on the 19th century Gilded Age, Musk is most similar to William Randolph Hearst, who wielded power in public debates in the early 20th century through his control of a chain of popular newspapers. Musk’s economic interests, on the other hand, are much more diverse than those of Hearst.
Musk has also shown little interest in buying mansions and open land, a favorite hobby of tycoons from Cornelius Vanderbilt to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, preferring instead to use his shares to fund ventures such as Neuralink, a brain implant business, or the purchase of Twitter.
“Elon Musk seems really basic to me. He enjoys being the center of attention. “He likes to be in the center of the conversation,” White said. That, according to White, contrasts with railroad barons who, in the 19th century, acquired newspapers to suit limited financial goals, sometimes in secret. Musk’s foray into social media seems to have no commercial purpose, and he isn’t shy about displaying his power.
Musk, if anything, appears to enjoy his cultural position as much as his economic influence. He’s hosted NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” made frequent cameo appearances on television and in movies, and has inserted himself into global hotspots by giving assistance in areas like Ukraine and Thailand. He dated Grimes, a pop musician, and has been compared to a comic book superhero.
Because of his celebrity and his enterprises, he has amassed a large online following and has become a hero to many in the IT world. Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian, dedicated a podcast series to Musk last year, claiming that he had developed a new sort of capitalism based on science fiction. It was dubbed “Muskism” by her.
Comparisons have been made between the first American Gilded Age, which started about 1870 and gave birth to the Vanderbilt and Rockefeller empires, and the current concentration of wealth, like Musk, Bezos, Gates, and others benefit from Big Tech.
But there are certain parallels worth noticing, such as Musk’s reliance on government assistance, according to Boyd Cothran, a historian at York University in Toronto and editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. “The transcontinental railroad, like electric automobiles and SpaceX, would not have been viable without significant federal government subsidies,” Cothran added.
Musk, like Hearst a century earlier, has a knack for attracting people’s attention and imitating the ideas of those who follow him, according to Cothran. “He’s a populist in the sense that he wants to stir up public opinion rather than woo political parties,” he added. Musk’s dominance has drawn the attention of government authorities and industry watchdogs alike.
Musk, like other rich businessmen before him, has utilized his corporate power to counter labor union influence. Tesla’s California facility has been accused of unbridled racism, and Musk has put the willingness of government officials to enforce federal law to the test. Tesla has argued that alleged racial discrimination “strains credibility,” while Musk has maintained that he treats his staff well and has accused securities authorities of behaving unjustly. All of this has fueled political resistance.
When questioned about Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a statement sent via his office, “Wealthy CEOs have too much influence in this nation, whether it’s buying up firms or hiking prices while funneling more profits toward themselves.”
“CEOs earned 254 times more than the ordinary worker last year.” Brown said, “We need an economy that promotes effort rather than money.”
Some question if Musk’s ownership of Twitter will make him a significant media figure, and it’s unclear what role Musk will have at the firm. He has declared publicly that he intends to adopt free-speech norms comparable to those used by the US government, as well as try to ensure that accounts are managed by actual people rather than bots (automated accounts).
Many more Americans obtain their news from the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group than from Twitter, according to David Huyssen, an economic historian at the University of York in the United Kingdom.
“Which’media power concentration’ is more detrimental to democracy?” Why are we discussing Musk instead of Sinclair?” In an email, Huyssen said. It’s also possible that Musk’s interest in acquiring Twitter may vanish as quickly as it emerged. “Writing a big check does not make you a media mogul,” Huyssen said. “There are grounds to mistrust Musk’s intention to become one, not least his vast variety of other businesses.”