It is unusual to see Elon Musk go on the backfoot. The richest man in the world (at the time of writing, he was worth $245 billion) is usually in control of everything all the time, even when his major businesses such as the electric vehicle maker Tesla, or the rocket launching and space exploration company SpaceX stumble, miss deadlines or fail to meet expectations. In such situations, his businesses and, indeed, he himself, always seem to bounce back and prove their critics wrong. Last week was different, however. Musk seemed to have shot himself in the foot and put at risk his newest business, the social networking site, X, known as Twitter before he acquired it last year.
In a wide-ranging interview at a New York Times event last week, Musk burst out against a number of major advertisers who are temporarily boycotting X following Musk’s apparent endorsement of some anti-Semitic posts as well as his policy to relax moderation or filtration of what people post on the site. Musk repeatedly used the “f word” against advertisers and said that he refused to be blackmailed by them.
After Musk paid a staggering $44 billion for Twitter, he sacked 80% of the company’s staff, renamed it X, and lost more than half its advertising revenues. Now, after his most recent expletive-laden retort against the boycott, more advertisers may desert X, whose business model is highly dependent on advertising for revenues.
Yet, this doesn’t seem to faze Musk who is probably the world’s single most powerful and influential private individual. Musk is the founder, CEO, and chief engineer of SpaceX, the co-founder, CEO, and product architect of Tesla, the founder of The Boring Company, the co-founder of Neuralink, and besides being the co-founder and initial co-chairman of OpenAI, this year he founded his own artificial intelligence company. xAI, which has debuted its own AI chatbot, Grok.
His businesses, particularly the electric vehicle maker Tesla and rocket builder and launcher SpaceX have impressive heft. Tesla, which began commercial operations in 2008, already has a 20% market share of the global electric vehicle market (last year it produced 1.4 million cars); and more than 50% of the US EV market. SpaceX has launched more payloads than any country or company in the world, all put together. Most of these payloads were its own Starlink satellites (more on that later). Neuralink, his venture that aims at implanting a chip in the human brain so that people can communicate with electronic devices and computers simply by thinking, is already beginning human trials. And, the Boring Company has embarked upon low-cost multi-level tunnel passages to offer cost-effective transportation in the US.
Musk’s businesses and ambitions are grand. His aim is to make humans a multiplanetary species beginning with a project to colonise Mars. In his Optimus project, he has been developing humanoid robots that are able to self-calibrate their arms and legs and have superior visual sensing abilities. And Tesla is developing driverless cars that Musk hopes will minimise road-related fatalities drastically. He is driven and inspired by thoughts that seem to be straight out of futuristic science fiction.
Besides his businesses, what distinguishes the 52-year-old South African origin entrepreneur’s growth is the power and influence that he wields in the world. Musk’s influence on the world and geopolitics is hard to measure, but it is undeniable that he has a significant impact on various fields and industries, such as space exploration, electric vehicles, renewable energy, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and cryptocurrency. However, his influence also comes with challenges and controversies, as he sometimes acts in ways that are unpredictable, risky, or controversial.
One instance of his influence and controversy is the use of Starlink satellites in Ukraine. Starlink, which operates a large constellation of satellites in low-earth orbit, has been used by Ukrainian civilians, government, and the military to maintain internet connectivity and communication during the war with Russia, which started in 2022. Starlink has been used for humanitarian purposes, as well as defence and attacks on Russian positions.
Last year, however, SpaceX disapproved the use of Starlink for offensive warfare and declined to extend its availability outside of the country’sUkraine’s borders, including in Russian-occupied territories like Crimea. This stance was criticised by Ukraine as it prevented them from carrying out military operations in those areas. SpaceX also reportedly turned off Starlink service near the Crimean coast last year to disrupt a Ukrainian sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet, fearing that Russia would respond with nuclear weapons. This decision was believed to be driven by Musk’s conversations with senior Russian officials.
If that is true, the significance of it is crucial: here is one private individual, Musk, who is, in effect, able to decide the course of action in an ongoing conflict between two nations by controlling how one of them communicates and uses satellite infrastructure that he provides.
Many have questioned whether Musk has the right to decide who can use his technology and how, and whose interest is he acting on behalf of.
The US government has also leaned heavily on Musk’s support. The Pentagon has contracted with SpaceX to provide Starlink service to Ukraine, as well as to its own military forces. The use of Starlink in the Russo-Ukrainian War is a complex and evolving issue that reflects Musk’s influence and controversy in the world.
In space exploration, while SpaceX has become the biggest player in the world, surpassing countries such as Russia and China, it has become the US space authority, NASA’s main destination for outsourcing activities such as launches, exploration and much of its space missions. It is like the execution and operational arm for America’s space mission. And, for the record, SpaceX is a private company of which Musk owns 42% and has 79% of the voting power.
In geopolitics, Musk’s influence has been growing, fuelled by his heft in business and technology. Last year in October, he was alleged to have had a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he proposed a peace plan (Musk himself has denied that it happened but he is believed to be in touch with senior Russian officials). Last month he met Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and toured sites of the October 7 Hamas attacks with him. He is also believed to have discussed AI aspects of security.
Musk, who has significant interests in China where Tesla has a big operation, also enjoys a rapport with China’s supreme leader Xi Jingping as well as with other world leaders, including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This summer after Musk met Modi in New York, he said he was a fan of Modi and that he intended to bring Tesla and Starlink to India as soon as possible.
Musk’s power and influence are likely to grow in the future, as he continues to pursue his ambitious goals and projects, such as colonising Mars, making humans a multiplanetary species, and achieving the technological singularity.
For now, his acquisition of Twitter may seem like a misadventure but that could be a momentary phenomenon. Musk has plans to transform the platform into a financial services network that combines social networking and financial transactions. He has also hinted that he wants to enter other areas such as politics, education, and media. The debate about whether he is a good or evil force continues but undoubtedly his influence and impact on the world is undeniable and unique.