Q&A: CSU social media expert talks Elon Musk, Twitter trolling and the attention economy

Even though he’s now facing a lawsuit from Twitter for backing out of a $44 billion deal to buy the social media network, Elon Musk is continuing to find time and motivation to tweet … a lot. 

From sharing memes of himself weighing in on Twitter bots to responding to tweets about his calves while his attorneys were in a court hearing with the social media giant, Musk is keeping his “will they or won’t they” saga with the tech company in the news ahead of a trial over the deal in October. 

Michael Humphrey, an assistant professor in Colorado State University’s Department of Journalism and Media Communication, has spent his career studying social media’s impact on the real world, as well as some of its most influential users. 

He caught up with SOURCE to discuss what’s going on with Musk’s Twitter bid, what he might want to achieve, what his tweets say about his mindset and if we should even care about this whole thing at all. 

Michael Humphrey

Michael Humphrey, an assistant professor for CSU’s Department of Journalism and Media Communication, studies social media and its impact on the real world.

SOURCE: In your expertise, please explain what the heck is going on right now with Elon Musk and Twitter. 

Humphrey: The best I can say is that no one really knows what’s going on right now. I think the most recent thing that’s happened is that Twitter has fired back and disclosed a lot of the conversations they’ve been having with Musk. 

I think it’s become a little more apparent that Musk might have been playing a game this entire time, and that he probably didn’t need to receive information about bots to determine for himself whether he was going to buy it or not. 

It’s possible that he thought the points he was making were so important that it was worth whatever troubles come along with that, even if he has to pay Twitter an amount of money that might be life-crushing to anyone else in order to get out of the deal. 

A less generous way of looking at this is that Musk is just trolling Twitter. 

The lawsuit certainly hasn’t slowed down Elon Musk’s Twitter presence. In fact, he used emojis to respond to the company’s lawsuit against him … and that lawsuit itself actually contained some of his tweets. What do you make of that? 

It’s really hard to get into the mind of someone like Elon Musk. It’s hard to talk about intentions when we’re just looking at the text, you know? 

But, one of the things they tell us is that every tweet brings a new opportunity to say something. It doesn’t have to be coherent. It doesn’t necessarily have to be legally sound, or even factually sound. 

Every one of those tweets, when you think about them individually, just take on a life of their own. And the most important thing that happens to a tweet is attention, not necessarily a discourse that leads to better understanding the truth or getting a resolution of something. 

For instance, one of Musk’s tweets against Twitter has one million likes on it. That’s attention, and in a way, that wins in the Twitter mindset. 

Not every billionaire can get this level of attention. 

You think Elon Musk is good at getting attention? 

Oh yeah, he’s excellent at it. There are a lot of billionaires out there who could try, but can’t pull it off like he does. I mean, he’s often trying to be funny at times – he is funny, in a way. 

The humor is a big part of it. I think that’s also what made President Donald Trump gain an audience on Twitter: a mocking sense of humor that was able to provoke a reaction. 

Elon Musk is also a solutionist, and people love that too. He’s using Twitter to give people advice on how to sleep better, and also making jokes about how he’s trying to solve the world’s underpopulation problem by having lots of kids. 

He’s built up this idea that he’s a solutionist through the companies that he’s famous for, like Tesla and SpaceX. He definitely thinks technology can solve things, and that’s been his argument about Twitter the entire time. 

You studied all of President Donald Trump’s tweets. Do you see any parallels between his use of Twitter and Musk’s? 

Trump was basically trying to do two things. One, he used the platform to build a very, very avid base of fans – even before he was running for president – and that gave him attention. Second, he was smart enough to realize – especially after he started running for president – that he could use Twitter as a way to set agendas that jump out of Twitter and into the media, creating tremendous reach. 

And that’s exactly what Musk is doing too. Controversy is the goal. 

I think there’s another parallel between Trump and Musk in that they both think they are really funny, and that sometimes leads to people overblowing what they’re actually saying, because sometimes they are just mocking or being facetious. 

One big thing I will say that differentiates Musk from Trump is that he will get into the thread sometimes, and stay in the conversation. Trump will throw out these bombs and walk away to the next one, and rarely replies. Musk sometimes will, even if he loses arguments. 

Your research looks at the intersection of social media and the real world. Can what Elon Musk is saying online – even if he’s kidding or joking – have real harm? 

One of the things you learn when you read the Twitter lawsuit is that this is certainly having material damage on people’s lives – certainly employees at Twitter, shareholders. 

However this fight plays out, Twitter is damaged by this, and that involves real people’s lives and jobs. 

I think as a society we need to step back and say that if attention is the main thing being grasped, how is it valuable to society? If it’s not valuable, maybe we have to develop a skill to understand what’s materially important and what’s just rhetorically important, and break those things apart more often. 

Let’s go back to the Twitter deal. Elon Musk said some of his biggest concerns involved data about bots. Why is he so worried? 

He’s absolutely right that they should be a concern, for two reasons. One, it’s important if Twitter doesn’t have the user base it claims to. 

Secondly, we know that bots can very heavily impact the social system on Twitter, and the numbers they can create around certain topics will lead them to trend when they’re not really top of mind until they’re trending. 

Also, lots of bots are malicious – but not all of them, and probably not even most of them. But Musk has said the malicious bot element has made Twitter into kind of a nasty place, and I think he’s right about that. 

So, I understand the concern and think it’s legitimate – but with an edge of trolling, which is something that Elon Musk often does. 

Why is the Elon Musk Twitter saga newsworthy … or is it even worthy of our attention? 

This was in the news before there was even an actual agreement to sell; why was that? Did Elon Musk even know what he was talking about when he was talking about bots and free speech on Twitter? 

It does raise a question about whether we should focus on what’s being done instead of what’s being said. But if that happened, Musk would lose some of the cache that he has. 

Beyond Musk, there are lots of people on Twitter who have pretty big followings and who say a lot of wild things. If we decided what these people say isn’t news, we wouldn’t amplify it so much, but this debate is a conversation that’s predated the Musk/Twitter deal. 

Should we decide if what someone says is newsworthy rather than what they actually do? And in the Elon Musk context, I know this is ironic because we are talking about it.